We had a great week last week. Twelve students from St. Mary’s school engaged in a week of Marine Science. Field trips combined with science lessons and art activities in the Ocean Science Discovery Lab made for a busy, fun-filled week with lots of learning and discovery. It was the best time for such an endeavor as plankton nets and tide pools were teeming with new life. While I am familiar with many of the animals students bring to my attention and ask about, there was one fascinating little fish that I could not say much about. The students found it clinging to some seaweed at Trident Basin and called it “Saffron” for its amazing yellow color.

I have since done some research.

First, Saffron is a spice that is derived from the stigma of the Saffron crocus, which by the way has a purple flower. The unprocessed Saffron stigma is red, not yellow, though Spanish Saffron can include yellow saffron styles. Pure Saffron is the most expensive spice by weight, but not much is needed to flavor a dish. If the spice powder is yellow like the fish the students found, it is cut with Tumeric, a yellow spice with little flavor but amazing color. So the little yellow fish was named after a red spice which only looks yellow when mixed with Tumeric.

Saffron the fish was about two inches in size and had the looks of a tadpole. Its skin was soft and a little slimy and it was very attached to a piece of seaweed. Literally attached that is, for Saffron sported a little suction cup on its underside.

The suction cup puts it into one of several fish families in the order of the scorpionfishes which include among others sculpins, lumpsuckers, clingfishes and snailfishes.

Unfortunately, Saffron is not available for a close investigation of his suction cup, which would allow me to determine beyond doubt what species to call him, because he decided to disappear between the many inhabitants of the tank in which he was to await his identification. However, from pictures and descriptions I deduced that Saffron was a juvenile kelp snailfish. As such, he may yet change his color as he grows up and assume a more brownish and even reddish color.

Snailfishes can be found from the tidepools to deep ocean trenches, mostly in colder ocean waters. They share the suction disc which is made of their modified pelvic fins, and have often large pelvic fins and a smooth skin (with some prickly exceptions). Their big heads take up more than half of their body size. Many of the deep-water species appear pink and look like they need a rest after each time they move. With large pectoral fins and a rather inefficient dorsal fin, their nature is that of a homebody, not a big traveler. The suction cup takes this lifestyle to an extreme and allows the fish to hold on, no matter what storm might blow through.

Next to the snailfishes: The lumpsuckers and clingfishes also possess suction cups to stay put. The detailed structure of their suction cups gives away family affiliation; lumpsuckers have little pelvic fins and a suction cup, while the snailfishes formed the suction cup out of modified pelvic fins. Lumpsuckers usually also have a deeper body, sometimes even resembling a spiky little ball. Their adorable appearance has inspired many toys. Despite some really cute family members, however, many of the names people gave these fishes sound rather like insults. How would you like to be called a slimy snailfish, chubby clingfish or a pimpled lumpsucker?

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