The whitemargin stargazer is all of us right now
Who among us hasn’t made this exact face at some point during the pandemic? That look of utter exasperation as many of us resign ourselves to That Lockdown Life. If only we could retreat to the calm nothingness of the seafloor like this delightfully ugly fish until this whole mess was over.
Meet the whitemargin stargazer (Uranoscopus sulphureus), a large ambush hunter that is both venomous and electric and uses a tongue-like appendage as a lure.
Found in relatively shallow waters in the Indo-Pacific region, including around Indonesia, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, the whitemargin stargazer has also been spotted off the coast of Queensland.
A member of the stargazer family (Uranoscopidae), named for having eyes on the top of their head, this fish also has a large, upwards-facing mouth, which allows it to bury itself in the sand and lie in wait for unsuspecting prey.
The easy way to do this is to simply submerge itself and wait for a snack to swim close enough to grab. The whitemargin stargazer can lunge at its prey so fast – a matter of milliseconds – it creates a vacuum in the water that helps suck the fish, crab or other small creature towards its gaping maw.
Another tactic is poisoning its victims. The whitemargin stargazer has a venomous spine running along each shoulder blade that can inflict a deadly wound on its prey or help to defend it against larger predators.
Humans often tread on venomous stargazers, and while the wound is usually painful but not serious, there have been reports that encounters with the Atlantic stargazer (Uranoscopus saber) has resulted in a handful of deaths.
Not only do whitemargin stargazers pack a good amount of venom, they can also inflict an electric shock. These fish have modified muscle cells called electroplaques that can produce a 50-volt shock, just like an electric eel.
This isn’t quite enough to stun the stargazer’s prey into submission, but scientists think it might dissuade would-be predators from pursuing it (if its nightmarish face didn’t already send them packing):
And if electric shocks and venomous spines weren’t enough, whitemargin stargazers also have a built-in lure – a tongue-like organ attached to the inside of their mouth that they can waggle around to attract prey.
You can see it here, it looks just like a long, furry tongue:
No wonder William Leo Smith, an ichthyologist at the University of Kansas once called stargazers “the meanest things in creation”.
Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be. This collection of stories focuses on Australia and the local region, which is home to some pe…