Creature Feature: Pacific spiny lumpsucker

It is really hard to pick one Salish Sea creature to feature when the sea is teeming with awesome species! I had to narrow it down, though, and this month’s creature is none other than everyone’s favorite fish, the Pacific spiny lumpsucker! If it is not yet your favorite fish, I will have to assume that is because you have yet to meet one. Allow me to introduce you!

Male Pacific spiny lumpsucker, resting attached to blade of kelp.

Male Pacific spiny lumpsucker, resting attached to blade of kelp.

Just when you thought the ocean couldn’t show us a more unusual or adorable fish, we take a shallow dive into an eelgrass meadow or kelp forest and find this globiform (globe-shaped), little golf ball with fins stuck to a blade of eelgrass or kelp. It accomplishes this gravity-defying trick with suction; its pelvic fins are modified into a suction disc.

They only grow to between 3-7 cm (1-3 in) and they have amazing camouflage, thanks to little, spiny growths called tubercles that come in many colors. These little bumps and being so little makes them hard for us to spot until they move. And when they do, just try to keep a straight face! They flutter their stubby pectoral fins and buzz this way and that, like an underwater bumble bee. Whether at rest or swimming hard, the gaping mouth is always opening and closing like the wee chap is huffing and puffing.

Perhaps being so slow is why they need excellent camouflage and the ability to fit into tiny hidey holes to escape fast predators, like Pacific code and other larger fish.

Female Pacific spiny lumpsucker. Notice lots of tubercles and great camouflage colors for hiding in eelgrass and seaweed.

Female Pacific spiny lumpsucker. Notice lots of tubercles and great camouflage colors for hiding in eelgrass and seaweed.

Where it all begins

Pacific spiny lumpsucker males make their way to the nearshore ahead of females in July-October to prepare to attract a potential mate. When the females arrive, they lay sticky eggs in a crevice of a rock where the male fertilizes then guards and aerates them full time until they hatch. Meanwhile the mom swims off to go about her own business, a well-deserved break after carrying her 200 or so eggs all the way to the spawning site. Luckily, lumpsucker bodies have low density (are lightweight), thanks to skeletons made of cartilage instead of bone and deposits of a low-density jelly substance beneath their skin.

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Hatch, munch, hide

Pacific spiny lumpsucker larvae hatch hungry and are able to hunt down little mollusks, worms, and crustaceans (crabs, shrimp, copepods) after only a couple of days. Their eyes can rotate up, down, and all around, looking out for prey and predators. They may have a befuddled expression on their little faces, but they are alert and wary.

Salish Sea Heroes

If you are lucky enough to see a Pacific spiny lumpsucker, try to observe what it does, how it swims, what it grabs to eat, and what it likes to cling to. Then consider: is this lumpsucker’s habitat, such as kelp or eelgrass, safe and healthy? If not, what can I do? Pacific spiny lumpsuckers and their wild neighbors can always use another Salish Sea Hero!

Pacific spiny lumpsucker hanging out on an eelgrass blade. Photo by Bruce Kerwin 2017.

Pacific spiny lumpsucker hanging out on an eelgrass blade. Photo by Bruce Kerwin 2017.

Mira Lutz