The Eyes Have It. Mudskippers up close.


Face to face with the fearsome-looking mudskipper at low tide, Koh Chang, Thailand

Face to face with the fearsome-looking mudskipper at low tide, Koh Chang, Thailand

Mudskippers are as bizarre-looking as their behaviour is comical.

They crawl as a dismembered amphibian and then defy this apparent disability by darting off to fight a duel with an intruder. The dorsal fin fans out in a vicious display of long spines as they wiggle forward at a rate of knots. They are utterly fearless. Considering they are easy to malign for what we’d consider odd-looking I admired their forthright behaviour. I imagine they’d make a fantastic animated character, even a cuddly toy.

Mudskippers eye-off one another in the defence of their territory.

I’ve seen them on TV, read about them in books, now I had discovered my own mob of mudskippers, scrapping, dodging and disappearing down their burrows as far as the eye could see on the coastal strait between the Thai mainland and the large island of Koh Chang.

Camouflaged mud-brown with iridescent blue freckles resembling the small pebbles and shell fragments littering the sand, up close they are very striking. I stood precariously on an old log to avoid sinking up to my knees in the soft estuarine sand to watch the residents of this thriving colony. I could only manage a distance of one-and-a-half metres in this instance for my own safety but I’ll make a second trip there soon with more preparation. Long boots, waterproof mat and plenty of time.

Some were feeding on small crabs and weed on the low tide, propelled by their remarkable pectoral fins. It’s all the more disconcerting when you see these ‘legs’ in action and then realise they only have a fish tail for rear propulsion.

Other ‘skippers’ peeped out from the rim of their water-filled burrows, their bulbous, spherical eyes enjoying a fisheye view of the world. Predators include water snakes, sea birds and the occasional human.

The dorsal fin repertoire of the mudskipper reminded me of moloch horridus – the Australian Thorny Devil – when it’s throaty flap of skin fans out making it look three times original size. When threatened or wanting to make a big impression, the mudskipper employs a similar technique. Very impressive defence indeed even if only used for show.

The fearsome spines of the Thai mudskipper.

So, how do these ‘fish’ live and breathe out of water. To save you searching here is an extract:

*’Mudskippers are able to extract oxygen from different parts of their body. Recent research has found mudskippers don’t use their gills for oxygen exchange, but use their skin for a large part of their oxygen processing. They use their gill filaments to exchange ammonia. Mudskippers must always keep their mouths and skin moist, since the oxygen needs to diffuse with water before they can absorb it. They are completely amphibious fish, uniquely adapted to inter-tidal habitats, unlike most fish in such habitats, which survive the retreat of the tide by hiding under wet seaweed or in tidal pools. Mudskippers are quite active when out of water, feeding and interacting with one another, for example to defend their territories.’

Pier, Koh Chang at low tide. Mudskipper territory.

The images you see here required an hour of squatting supporting a 3.5kg lens – a familiar exercise for me here in Thailand (see link below) with many creatures active under the glaring midday sun (dragonflies etc.). Fast shutter speeds are no problem in this light so the main concern is envisioning the composition (in this case a frontal view of the mudskipper) and waiting for the shot. The mudskippers eventually ‘crawled’ close enough to fill the frame, comically flipping themselves over in the sea pools, wiggling off the excess water and then continuing on.

They wouldn’t look out of place holding a speckled umbrella in one fin and a bowler hat in the other (my version of the animated character).




Taken on OLYMPUS E-System Cameras and Zuiko lenses.
© Warren Field 2012/2014


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