Extreme Fishes


In every body of water, you’ll find fish with fascinating adaptations. Adaptations refer to the unique behaviors and/or body parts that animals develop to survive in their habitats. This may involve body shapes, colors, hunting strategies, defense tactics, and/or parental care. In our Extreme Fishes gallery you’ll be fascinated by fish swimming upside down, skipping on land, and eating with two pairs of jaws!

Cryptic Camouflage

A common way for animals to hide from predators is to blend into their surroundings. By mimicking colors, textures, and movements of their environments, some animals can hide from predators. This is especially common in coral reefs, which provide many hiding places. Covert creatures in the Extreme Fishes exhibit include: 

  • Lionfish
  • Shrimpfish
  • Stonefish
  • Polka-dot batfish
  • Alligator pipefish and banded pipefish
  • Warty anglerfish

Dynamic Defenses

In addition to camouflage, animals may also protect themselves with adaptations that scare or harm their predators. Stonefish use camouflage to hide, and then use pain-inflicting venom to keep predators away.

The red orbicular burrfish and the striped burrfish are spiny fish that inflate like a balloon when they see a predator. Their swift transition into a large spiky ball keeps them safely off the menu from potential predators. The spines on a burrfish stand up at all times, not just when they are inflated unlike their cousin the porcupinefish, whose spines lay flat when uninflated.

Radical Respiration

The African mudskipper lives in the intertidal zone where water levels are constantly changing. While most fish just stay deep enough to stay underwater at all times, the African mudskipper thrive out of the water, too. As long as their skin remains moist, they are able to breathe through the surface of their skin and lining of their mouth. They also have deep gills that enable them to trap more air and water to promote respiration outside of the water. They’ve further adapted to life on land by using their fins to “skip” on land (hence their name)!

Another extreme breathing fish is our African lungfish. Found in swamps and rivers in western and southern Africa, the African lungfish uses a primitive pair of lungs to gulp air at the surface. During droughts, it secretes a mucus that hardens around its body to form a cocoon, enabling it to live outside the water for up to two years! 

Amazing All Their Own

Some adaptations don’t really belong to a group because they’re one-of-a-kind. For example, the blind cavefish earned its name from losing its eyes through evolution. Since caves are dark and they don’t rely on vision to find what scarce food exists in a cave, the cavefish has evolved to live with no eyes. By foregoing vision, scientists believe this cave-dweller saves energy it gets from its food, and saving energy is extremely important when there is limited food available.

Another fish that’s unlike any other is the moray eel. The Extreme Fishes gallery features a honeycomb moray while our Polynesian Reef exhibit is home to two green moray eels. Morays are special because they can’t swallow their food, so instead they have two sets of jaws: one that grabs food and another that comes from its throat and delivers the food to the stomach!

Fun Facts

  • The stonefish is the most venomous fish in the world.
  • Like the horseshoe crab, the African lungfish is often called a “living fossil” because it has not changed in the past 400 million years of its existence.
  • Male pipefish carry and give birth to offspring, just like seahorses.


Written by Alyssa Rodriguez, February 2019.