Vertebrate fauna of SE Asia


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Text and photos by Nick Baker, unless credited to others.
Copyright ゥ Ecology Asia 2024








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Order : Perciformes
Species : 88 species, in 6 genera (as of 2019)
Maximum Length : 60 cm

Goatfishes (or 'red mullets') occur in tropical waters throughout Southeast Asia, and the range of many species extends into the Indian and Pacific oceans. Some species also occur in the Atlantic ocean. As of 2019, Fishbase lists 88 species in 6 genera.

The Yellowstripe Goatfish Mulloidichthys flavolineatus, featured here, occurs widely in Southeast Asia waters: it typically reaches up to 25 cm, but has been recorded up to 43 cm. The largest species of goatfish reach up to 60 cm.

All goatfishes have relatively slender bodies, deeply forked tails and a sloping forehead. They exhibit a variety of colours and patterning, and many species have lateral stripes. They are able to vary their colouration depending on their activity or on the characteristics of their habitat. For example, some appear pale in colour when swimming in direct sunlight (see Figure 2) but become darker and mottled when sheltering beneath coral (see Figure 3).

All members of the group possess a pair of highly sensitive chin barbels which are used to probe for prey items within the substrate (see Figures 1 and 2). When not feeding on the seabed, these barbels are held close to the underside of the head, and are consequently difficult to see in photographs. The barbels are also used by males during courtship.

Prey items comprise benthic invertebrates, such as molluscs, shrimps, crabs and worms, and occasionally small fish.

Their feeding behaviour gives them a role as 'ecosystem engineers': whilst foraging for food they disturb fine-grained sediments that may become suspended in the water column and drift to other locations if there are currents (Uiblein, 2007).

Goatfishes often form small groups sheltering on the seabed, but they may also occur in large shoals. Most species occur in shallow seas, but others are known from waters hundreds of metres deep. Fertlised eggs of goatfishes are buoyant, and are easily dispersed by surface currents, as are their larval forms.

In some places, for example the Hawaiian Islands and the Mediterranean Sea, goatfishes are widely consumed by local people.

Figs 1 and 2 : Yellowstripe Goatfish Mulloidichthys flavolineatus on coral sand substrate, with barbels extended. Note how the fish is pale in colour, to make it less visible against the pale sand.

Fig 3 : Small shoal of Yellowstripe Goatfish sheltering beneath a piece of coral rubble: note how the fish immediately beneath the coral rubble is darker than the others, and the fish in full sunlight (top right) is the palest.

Fig 4 : Small group sheltering in the shade of a mangrove tree.

All images from Bora Bora, French Polynesia.

References : F3

Uiblein, F. (2007). Goatfishes (Mullidae) as indicators in tropical and temperate coastal habitat monitoring and management. Marine Biology Research, 3(5), 275-288.

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