Wouldn’t you love to be a fish – gorgeously coloured and interestingly shaped, spending your life jumping from one coral to another…just like a hawkfish?
With a wonderfully apt name, these patient stalkers of prey behave like hawks. They rest and wait for that opportune moment when they can dash out to grab their meal. On spotting something good to eat, they quickly dart from their resting spot, capture their food and retreat to hiding place. A variety of animals fall victim to the hawkfish, from small crustaceans to other fish.
Hawkfishes patrol their homes, while usually stopping on a piece of coral, a tree-like sea fan, or anemone. They need a solid surface to rest on because, unlike other fishes, they lack a swim bladder (an organ that allows fishes to stay afloat in the water column). This means that they truly swim or sink! Their chubby bodies, curious eyes and unique colouring attract the attention of every human diver. But the long and sharp spines on the top of their fins keep large predatory fishes away.
The best part is that every individual hawkfish gets to experience being male as well as female in its lifetime. This phenomenon is called sequential hermaphroditism — starting life as one sex and turning later into the other. Hawkfish start out as females and turn into males as they get older.
Male hawkfish guard specific areas on the reef and the only fish welcome in a male’s territory are female hawkfish. The search for a partner begins prior to sunset, with the females visiting the territories of males. The male then checks out all females, and tries to attract as many as possible, one after another. After few days the female releases her eggs into the water column. The eggs develop into larvae, which float in the water for weeks. As babies (also called ‘fry’), they live inside coral crevices and finally grow up to become guards of the reefs.
Having an almost perfect luxurious lifestyle, these fish live a life that anyone would wish. If you get a chance to visit a coral reef, do observe the curious behaviour of a hawkfish so that you can marvel and rejoice at their odd behaviour and their luminous beauty.
Picture: A hawkfish waiting to attack its prey. Credit: Vardhan Patankar