The Odd and Magnificent Prickly Sculpin

Cottus asper. (c)RiverWhy

Cottus asper. (c)RiverWhy

I stopped today at my favorite local reptile store to pick up various forms of live food for my ever growing zoo of fish and amphibians. I was asking for feeder fish, which are used to feed animals that refuse pellets or flakes. The man who was helping me asked what I was feeding. I replied “sculpins” — I have four of them living more or less peacefully in a community tank with two non-native green sunfish and some platys. At my reply, the man uttered, “hm”, and turned away to fetch my order. I figured he was not very interested in my fish, and somewhat gruff, like many of the folks who work there. Reptile people can be a lot like bartenders; the surliest ones are often those who tend to make the best drinks. I appreciate both reptile people and bartenders for this.

When the man brought my feeders back, he placed the bag on the counter and said something utterly unexpected. “When I was a boy in the UK”, he said with a big smile, “my favorite book was about a lobster whose only goal in life was to walk on land. His best friend was a grumpy sculpin. I’ve never forgotten that book, and every time I think of sculpins, it makes me a little choked up.” His gruffness was not gruffness at all. I told him I would bring a picture of my kids (the sculpins) back to show him, and he said that was all right, as long as I didn’t mind him getting teary-eyed if I did.

What is it about that love for something so common, yet so extraordinary, that stays with a man for his entire lifetime?

A great many people will never know what a sculpin is. My variety are called prickly sculpin, Cottus asper, and they are native to streams and lakes throughout the Pacific slope watersheds. They belong to the superfamily Cottoidea, encompassing over 750 distinct species all over the world. They are called prickly sculpin because of the rough texture of their skin when felt with a finger moving toward the head, similar to a cat’s tongue. Benthic fishes, they are skilled predators, striking lightning-fast after bugs and small fish on the stream bottom. And they stick to the bottom like glue; you’ll hardly ever see them in the mid to upper water columns. They are weird-looking, maybe even ugly; their faces make me think of a fat man behind the counter of a gas station in South Dakota with a stained T-shirt and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, leaned back in his chair and leering at you, trying to decide whether you’re going to try and steal that bag of Funyuns. They’re gruff and grumpy as the best San Francisco bartenders. But as odd-looking as they are, there’s something alluring about them.

Prickly sculpins, and their cousins riffle sculpins, are not tolerant of poor water quality, so they’re one of the fishes we lose in urbanized watersheds with high pollutant load, artificial stream features or poor aquatic habitat. As predators, they demand a fairly high level of habitat intactness that will produce enough smaller critters for them to consume. I never remember seeing them as a kid, though I spent a lot of time in the streams of the Bay Area. I first handled one only a few years ago, doing stream surveys in East Alameda County, and recall distinctly how magical it felt to meet this new creature.

Most people revere trout as the ultimate stream fish; the vision of a leaping steelhead, shining in the light before splashing down into a rocky stream, is their aesthetic ideal. But prickly sculpins are my favorite stream fish. I think they’re perfect; the combination of their beautiful mottled coloration and their grumpy faces is just right. I love that they are neither perfectly beautiful nor perfectly ugly, but an intriguing balance of the two. It’s nice to know the sculpin man at the reptile store loves them, too.

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