2001-02 Stargazers

by denise nielsen tackett and larry tackett

Unusual creatures live in the sand, and the Stargazer is one of them. Although I had seen photos of Stargazers, I was still surprised when I saw my first one in the flesh. I was swimming across the sand in the dead of night. My face inches from the bottom, I began intently scanning for small crustaceans, when this ghastly maw appeared out of nowhere. The fearsome frown and penetrating black eyeballs took my breath away. After overcoming my initial shock and realizing what it was, I began shooting like mad. To my surprise, it seemed unthreatened by my flashing bulbs and allowed me to shoot to my heart’s content.

What makes this fish so startling is that the eyes and mouth are on the top of the head, thus the common name, Stargazer. The rest of the body lies buried in the sand—a scary sight at night. Stargazers are well-adapted for life in the sand. The frowning mouth is covered with overlapping skin flaps that keep sand out, and the eyes have expandable covers to reduce the openings to thin U-shaped lines for protection. The drab skin color camouflages its presence.

Stargazers are ambush predators of reef fishes and prefer to attract prey rather than actively search for it. Inside the lower lip is a fleshy “lure” that resembles a worm. The Stargazer ex-tends the lure, wiggles it a bit and waits for a fish to approach. When a fish is within striking distance, the Stargazer bursts out of the sand and swallows up the would-be predator. Just as quickly as it has nabbed its dinner, it reburies itself to begin the process again.