By Andrew Pressly, Education and Engagement Coordinator at the Florida Maritime Museum
One of the most recognizable and sought after fish surrounding Florida is the Hogfish (Lachnolaimus maximus). Hogfish, a large unique species of wrasse, are found along the western Atlantic from North Carolina, south into the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and along the northern coast of South America. This wrasse can grow to be 3 feet in length and when compared to other wrasses, hogfish have a more compressed body form and the first few spines on their dorsal fin are thickened and extend beyond the fin. Hogfish get their name from their elongated pig-like snout and their use of a protractible mouth to root around the sand for food.
Hogfish are predators, meaning they hunt other animals for food. The primary source of food for hogfish comes from mollusks such as clams and snails, however, they are also known to feed on hermit crabs and sea urchins. The challenge of hunting these animals is that they will often bury themselves in the sand for protection, making it difficult for predators to find them. The hogfish has been observed utilizing an extremely effective feeding strategy to find their hidden prey. This strategy involves the hogfish shoving its snout into the sand where it will begin to root around in search of food. This rooting behavior, very similar to that of pigs, helps to give the hogfish its name. When a mollusk or crab is found, the hogfish will use its strong teeth and jaw to crush the shell, gaining access to the meat. While hogfish are successful predators they can also be prey to several other species, most notably sharks. To defend against these predators hogfish use camouflage.
Camouflage is seen in countless animals and it is one of the most successful strategies there is for avoiding predation, and hogfish are masters of it. These reef fish are able to change the color of their skin in a literal blink of an eye. They can change from reddish to a pearly white, to mottled brown in order to blend in to shifting colors of the sandy ocean floor. Changing the color of their body to match their surroundings allows hogfish to evade predators as well as ambush prey. Hogfish are also able to display bright, contrasting patterns. This is most often seen when a hogfish feels threatened or during a mating ritual.
The life cycle of hogfish is rather unique. When first born, all individuals are female and they will stay female until growing to a certain size, usually around 14 inches. At this point the hogfish may undergo several biological changes turning it into a male. This process is known as protogynous hermaphroditism and it is seen in several other species of fish. In part, due to this characteristic of hogfish, schools are made up of groups of females that are dominated by one larger male. The primary job of this male is to mate/spawn exclusively with the females in his group and to guard the females from other wandering solitary males.
Like many species of fish, hogfish are vulnerable to overfishing. There are some areas where increased fishing pressure has reduced the population of hogfish to low levels. However, there has been no formal stock assessment for the hogfish and annual recreational catches seem to fluctuate with no visible trends. In an effort to reduce the fishing pressure on natural populations there have been several successful attempts at raising hogfish in captivity using aquaculture techniques.
Cover photo © fllaudgirl - stock.adobe.com
Bester, Cathleen. “Lachnolaimus maximus.” Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/lachnolaimus-maximus/
“Hogfish.” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, https://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/hogfish/
Froese, R. and D. Pauly. “Lachnolaimus maximus.” Fishbase, https://www.fishbase.se/summary/1071
Smith, Robin. “How the color changing hogfish ‘sees’ with its skin.” PHYSORG, Duke University, https://phys.org/news/2018-03-color-changing-hogfish-skin.html