Creole fish swimmingIt’s Mardi Gras! Laissez les bon temps rouler!

We’re going to get the good times rolling at Shedd by introducing you to the creole-fish.

Creole is an apt name for a fish whose native reefs are in the heart of the French, Spanish and Portuguese New World as well as off equatorial Africa—areas reflected in the Creole culture that developed in the melting pot of New Orleans.

The creole-fish is found in Louisiana’s waters, and all along the Gulf Coast, throughout the Caribbean and along the Brazilian coast as far south as Sao Paolo, where Mardi Gras is called Carnaval. Across the Atlantic, the creole-fish inhabits the waters around tiny Ascension Island and is also found near several small volcanic islands in the Gulf of Guinea, on Africa’s western coast.

At Shedd, with some patience, you’ll find one in the kaleidoscopic swirl of fishes in the 90,000-gallon Caribbean Reef habitat. But the best view of this tangerine ombre beauty is in the Oceans gallery, in the first exhibit on the right-hand side.

“The creole-fish is one of my favorites. I love its color,” says Ernie Sawyer, senior aquarist in charge of the Oceans gallery. He notes that in some individuals, the upper body is a dusky purple, not unlike the traditional Mardi Gras sangria that’s served with spicy Creole food.

Ernie’s experience with this species includes an encounter with a school of 12- to 16-inch creole-fish while diving in about 90 feet of water in the Bahamas. Their usual depth range is from 30 to 200 feet, and they tend to feed midwater on shrimps, shrimp larvae, copepods and other zooplankton—kind of a natural shrimp Creole. The fish currently in his gallery was about 2 inches long when it was acquired on a Shedd collecting trip in the Bahamas about five years ago.

This creole-fish lives among several other orange fishes: the glowing scarlet clarion angelfish, the burnt orange bigeye catalufa and the little orange-and-white plaid longnose hawkfish—all natives of the tropical eastern Pacific.

"There are two species of creole-fish,” Ernie says, “Paranthias furcifer from the tropical waters of both the eastern and western Atlantic, and P. colonus, which ranges from the Gulf of California to Peru, and even out to the Galapagos. But some scientists consider them to be one species in two oceans.”

This fun fact is noted at the exhibit. A range map for P. colonus shows heavy concentrations in Mexico’s Gulf of California and along the Pacific coast of Central America—the land bridge between North and South America, and the barrier between the Caribbean and the Pacific, that geological activity at the Isthmus of Panama completed only 3 million years ago.

Ernie adds that while many fish groups, including angelfishes, butterflyfishes, damsels, grunts and moray eels have “twin species” in the Caribbean and Gulf of California, none are as visually similar as the two creole-fishes.

So, like Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnaval in Panama City (which boasts the largest pre-Lent party in the world), the Atlantic and Pacific creole-fishes could be regional translations of the same theme. 

Happy Mardi Gras!

Karen Furnweger, web editor