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Shore fish face many dangers. When the tide is out they may be preyed upon by birds. When the tide comes back in they are at risk of being smashed against the rocks or washed away from the shore. These fish exhibit a number of characteristics to cope with this way of life. Many are small and slippery enabling them to hide in crevices away from predators and the direct force of the waves, while others are cleverly camouflaged against the seaweed and rocks where they live. Some fish, such as the shore clingfish, are able to cope with the battering of the waves by developing powerful suckers. The eggs of shore fish are also at risk from predation and being washed into unsuitable habitats or into deeper water. Therefore, shore fish, unlike open sea fish, often take great care of their eggs. Nests are built and eggs are protected and aerated.

Worm Pipefish and Greater Pipefish Nerophis lumbriformis (Jenyns) and Syngnathus acus (Linnaeus)

Pipefish are related to seahorses and like seahorses the male pipefish are remarkable in the extent to which they care for their young. After courtship the male entwines his body around the female and she passes her eggs into a special pouch in his belly. In the pouch the eggs develop and hatch. The young of the greater pipefish leave the pouch a few weeks after hatching, but, for the first few days, they will return to the safety of the males pouch if danger threatens. The young of the worm pipefish are relatively undeveloped when they are released into the water and spend several weeks developing in the plankton.

Pipefish feed on small shrimps and fish larvae. They do not have teeth and break up their prey by the force of sucking their food up their long snouts.

The worm pipefish is particularly well camouflaged in seaweed. Its stem-like body can change colour depending on the colour of the seaweed in which it lives while it moves in a gentle swaying motion like seaweed being washed side to side in the tide.

The worm pipefish is most frequently found on the south and west coasts of Britain. Both pipefish, however have become rarer since the eel-grass decline, in the 1930’s.

  • Habitat

    • The worm pipefish is common on the shore. The greater pipefish is occasionally found on the lower shore but is more common in shallow water.

  • Key Identification Features

    • Long tubular body and head with long snout.

    • Stiff appearance.

    • No anal or pelvic fins (Greater pipefish). No fins apart from a small dorsal fin (Worm pipefish).

    • Hump on head behind eyes (Greater pipefish). Snout upturned (Worm pipefish).

    • Brown with alternating light and dark bands (Greater pipefish). Very dark brown or green (Worm pipefish).

    • Up to 47 cm in length (Greater pipefish). Up to 30 cm (Worm pipefish).

Sand goby and Common goby Pomatoschisus minutus (Pallas) and Pomatoschistus microps (Kroyer)

Gobies are common fish of rock pools. They can be distinguished from blennies by their dorsal fin, which is characteristically split into two. The common and sand goby are often seen darting around in shallow sandy pools. These two gobies are very difficult to tell apart from their appearance, but they are normally found in different habitats. The common goby differs from the sand goby in its tolerance of low salinities and is frequently found in estuaries and high shore rock pools. The sand goby frequents sandy bays of North Devon and Cornwall, while the common goby is more abundant in the estuaries on the south coast.

In spring and summer the sand and common goby lay their pear-shaped eggs in empty bivalve shells. Like most shore fish, the male gobies guard and fan the eggs until they hatch. The larvae then float mid-water, settling on the seabed when the fish are about 1.5 cm in length.

Both gobies feed mainly on small shrimps. In the winter, both gobies migrate into deeper water. Most sand and common gobies only live for a year.

  • Habitat

    • Found in pools and creeks in estuaries and high shore pools on sandy beaches (Common goby). Found in sandy pools on the middle and lower shore (Sand goby).

  • Key Identification Features

    • Dorsal fin split into two.

    • Pelvic fins form a ‘sucker’.

    • Grey or sandy colour.

    • Triangular mark in front of the tail.

    • Dark mark on the pectoral fin (Common goby).

    • Up to 6.5 cm in length. (Common goby). Up to 11 cm in length (Sand goby).

Shanny or common blenny Lipophrys pholis (Linnaeus)

The shanny is probably the most common rock pool fish. The shanny is able to change colour to match its background. Dark brown individuals are found amongst brown seaweeds whilst olive green fish are found amongst green seaweeds. When breeding the males darken to almost black and their lips are a contrasting white. After spawning in spring and summer, female fish attach their eggs to the underside of rocks or in crevices. The males watch over the eggs constantly for up to two months, fanning the eggs with their fins.

Shannies feed mainly on small crabs and other crustaceans but may also eat seaweed. Young fish sometimes nip off the legs of feeding barnacles. They may live to ten or more years.

  • Habitat

    • Found in rock pools on the middle and low shore and in shallow water. In the winter the shanny often moves offshore into deeper water.

  • Key Identification Features

    • Mottled dull brown or olive-green.

    • Single long dorsal fin divided into 2 by a slight depression.

    • Dark spot on the front of the dorsal fin.

    • No tentacles on the head.

    • Body without scales.

    • Up to 16 cm in length.

Rock goby Gobius paganellus (Linnaeus)

The rock goby is found only on the western and southern coasts of Britain where it is abundant on rocky shores.

Eggs are laid in spring and summer on the underside of rocks. Young fish of about 0.5 cm in length hatch out after two to three weeks. The rock goby may live for up to ten years.

The goby has a varied diet feeding on shrimps, molluscs, young fish and seaweed.

The weak sucker formed by the pelvic fins of the rock goby, and other gobies, is unlikely to provide much resistance from the force of wave action but it may help the goby to maintain its position.

  • Habitat

    • Abundant under stones and in rock pools on the middle and lower shore.

  • Key Identification Features

    • Dorsal fin split into two.

    • Pelvic fins form a ‘sucker’.

    • Mottled blackish-brown in colour.

    • Pale yellow or orange band at the top of the first dorsal fin.

    • Minute branched tentacle in front of the eye.

    • Up to 13 cm in length

Corkwing wrasse Crenilabrus melops (Linnaeus

In spring, the brightly coloured male corkwing wrasse may be seen building an elaborate nest from seaweed. The male aggressively guards his nest, chasing off other fish. Mature females, however, are enticed into his nest to lay eggs. Interestingly, counterfeit males, that look like females, have also been observed. These impostors trick the nest-building male into allowing them into his nest, where instead of laying eggs they fertilise eggs recently laid by females. The nest-owner takes great care of the eggs in his nest. He covers the eggs with seaweed and aerates them by using his tail as a fan. After hatching the larvae float freely in the plankton, drifting back inshore in late summer to settle on the seabed. It is believed corkwings may live up to nine years.

Corkwing feed mainly on small crustaceans, worms and molluscs. They have also been observed to pick parasites of other fish.

  • Habitat

    • Both young and adults are commonly found in rock pools on the lower shore.

  • Key Identification Features

    • Thick lips.

    • Long dorsal fin.

    • Males are normally reddish brown with bluish lines on the lower part of the head. Females are pale brown with dark brown lines on the head. Young corkwing are usually olive-green or blue-green.

    • Dark spot just in front of the tail fin.

    • Up to 15 cm in length.

Ballan wrasse Labrus bergylta (Ascanius

The ballan wrasse has a very peculiar life-history. In summer, eggs are laid in nests built of fine seaweed. After a few weeks small larval fish hatch out and are dispersed in the currents before finally settling in shallow water. The fish then take at least six years before they are mature. All these fish are female. Several seasons later some of these females change sex and become males.

The young of the ballan wrasse are frequently found in rock pools. Their green colouration provides good camouflage amongst the rock pool seaweeds.

The wrasse feed on mussels and on crustaceans, including crabs and barnacles. For this purpose they have crushing teeth in their throats in addition to their normal teeth. The lower set of throat teeth are in the form of a cross and these teeth used to be carried by fishermen as a charm against drowning.

  • Habitat

    • Young fish are common in rock pools where there is plenty of seaweed cover. Larger fish are found down to 30 m.

  • Key Identification Features

    • Thick lips.

    • Single dorsal fin.

    • Colour variable, often mottled green, brown or red. Young fish are often bright green.

    • Up to 50 cm in length.

Tompot blenny Parablennius gattorugine (Linnaeus)

The tompot blenny is a very inquisitive fish. It often comes out of its hole and props itself up on two spines on its pelvic fins in order to have a better view of any activities. If threatened it may retreat back into its hole but it will very shortly reappear again, with its curiosity getting the better of it. In the spring, the female will lay her eggs in rocky crevices. However, as is common with many shore fish, it is the male that will look after the eggs, fanning them with his tail and guarding them.

The fish is found on the west and south coast of Britain but is most abundant around the south-west coast. The name ‘tompot’ originated in Cornwall, where children gave them this nickname after frequently finding them caught in crab pots.

The tompot blenny appears to feed mainly on small shrimps and crabs

  • Habitat

    • Occasionally found in rock pools on the lower shore. Common in deeper water.

  • Key Identification Features

    • Dark bars on sides of body.

    • Branched tentacles above each eye.

    • Long, regular dorsal fin.

    • Up to 30 cm in length.

Long-Spined sea scorpion Taurulus bubalis (Euphrasen)

This fish is an expert at camouflage. Amongst green algae the fish is bright green; amongst brown algae it is olive-brown, while on the red rocks of the South Devon coast brick-red animals have been found.

In early spring, the sea scorpion lays orange-coloured eggs amongst seaweed. It is not known whether the parents look after the eggs. However, after about six or seven weeks the eggs hatch and the larvae float mid-water to develop further before settling on the seabed.

Sea scorpions are voracious predators feeding on gobies, blennies, sand-hoppers, shrimps, prawns and crabs. They lie in wait amongst weeds and leap out on unsuspecting prey.

Despite their name and spiny appearance sea scorpions are not poisonous

  • Habitat

    • Commonly found amongst seaweed and rock pools on rocky shores.

  • Key Identification Features

    • Broad head and body.

    • Large pectoral fins.

    • Colour variable, greenish-brown to shades of red.

    • Long spine above the gill cover.

    • Up to 17 cm in length.

Shore clingfish or Cornish sucker Lepadogaster lepadogaster (Bonnaterre)

Shore clingfish are only found on the south and south-west coasts of Britain but are also found off the west coast of France and in the Mediterranean. In the summer sheets of yellow eggs are laid under stones by the fish. These eggs are guarded by one of the adults. Gradually the eggs turn from yellow to olive green. Larvae hatch out after about two weeks and are dispersed in the water.

The strong sucker formed from the pelvic fins prevents the small fish from being washed away in the tide. This fish is able to turn from a pale to a dark colour and vise versa to match its background.

  • Habitat

    • Common on boulder shores it is found clinging on the underside of rocks and seaweeds from middle shore down to lower shore.

  • Key Identification Features

    • Flattened triangular head.

    • Dorsal, tail and anal fins continuous.

    • Sucker.

    • No scales.

    • Pink-Red colour with a pair of blue spots behind the head.

    • Up to 6.5 cm.

Giant goby Gobius cobitus

This rare species is only found in the Isles of Scilly and along the south coasts of Devon and Cornwall, although, it is common in the Mediterranean. The fish was first reported in Britain in 1903 in rock pools at Portscatho between Falmouth and Fowey. The relatively high shore pools in which it is found are often quite bare except for green seaweed growths. The pools are normally quite brackish. The giant goby is the largest goby found in Europe. It feeds on green algae, sand hoppers and shore crabs.

  • Habitat

    • Found in rocky shores pools above the middle shore.

  • Key Identification Features

    • Dorsal fin split into two.

    • Pale brownish to olive colour with a lot of dark blotches.

    • Up to 27 cm in length.

Sea Horse Hippocampus hudsonius

Sea Horse, any of a number of small fishes of the same family as the pipefish. The name is derived from the resemblance of the head to that of a horse. It has long, tubular jaws much like a snout. The body is compressed, with an elongated tail, and the integument (external covering) is a series of large, rectangular bony plates, with a series of spines and projections along the lines of juncture. These spines, together with the divided, streamerlike fins of some species, give them a strong resemblance to the seaweeds among which they live. About 30 species are found in various warm and temperate seas. All keep near the shore, often developing in brackish water. Like the pipefishes, the males take charge of the eggs, which are placed in an abdominal pouch and remain there until they hatch. The common sea horse of the Atlantic coast is one of the largest species, reaching a length of more than 13 cm (more than 5 in).


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