Hanging around several professional cave divers during my early years in diving, I picked up some skills not taught in recreational diving. One of those skills was finning such that one could back out of underwater environments rather than turn around, a critical skill to possess in tight places.
No one backed up faster than I did on the day I saw my first Lizardfish. Such a small, almost primitive but beautiful fish with so many teeth, and we were both under the same overhang on a sandy bottom about 50 feet down. After reasoning that a nine-inch fish that seemed quite sedentary could not inflict much damage, I went back in to get a better look at his beautiful, turquoise patched body.
A suborder of the Aulopioformes, fish with both primitive and modern characteristics commonly called “grinners” due to their large smiling mouths, Synodontidae or Lizardfish inhabit tropical and subtropical waters around the world. Their more primitive characteristics include pelvic fins far back on their bodies as well as fleshy adipose fins behind the dorsal fins.
To date, 67 species of Lizardfish have been identified. While there are deep water Lizardfish found at depths up to 1,300 feet, most species are found around rocks and reefs on sandy or muddy bottoms no more than 40-80 feet in depth and it is these shallow water species that most divers and snorkelers see.
If one sees a Lizardfish, it generally holds true that there will be others in the vicinity. While diving off the north side of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, I frequently visited a rocky area where it was common to find five or more clearly-visible Lizardfish in close proximity while additional Lizardfish were distinguished by no more than a patch of disturbed sand and protruding eyes.
The majority of Lizardfish species are about 8 to 14 inches long; however, the largest species can reach lengths of 24 inches. The species gained its common name, Lizardfish, due to the lizard-like appearance of their heads.
As with all reef fish, the Lizardfish’s coloration is determined by habitat, which gives them the advantage of camouflage since they are ambush predators. Most are intricately patterned with colors ranging from dull brownish gray to reds, golden orange, blues, turquoise and greens. Many have a chameleon-like ability to change coloration when the need arises, changing from bright to dull sandy gray.
All those rows of small needle-like teeth, including teeth on their tongues, are put to work catching small fish, squid, and shrimp. The Lizardfish lie in wait, moving about very little; sometimes buried in the sand with only their eyes exposed but often perched on their pectoral fins under a rock or coral head. When prey comes along, the Lizardfish launch themselves with mouths open and hook the prey with all those formidable looking teeth.
Unlike other species within the Aulopioforme order, most of which reproduce bisexually, Lizardfish are dioecious meaning there are distinct males and females. Lizardfish do not build nests nor do they guard their young. Instead, Lizardfish spawn with the females depositing their eggs along the reefs as the males follow behind fertilizing the eggs. Once hatched, the larvae are on their own, their transparent bodies floating freely in the water columns.
Found in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, the Bahamas, Bermuda, south to Brazil, and along the eastern seaboard from North Carolina to Florida, the Sand Diver Lizardfish, Synodus intermedius, is the species most familiar to All At Sea readers.
Like all Lizardfish species, the Sand Diver has a cylindrical, almost cigar shaped body with a large, lizard-like mouth and a scaly head. Sand Divers can reach lengths of 14 inches when fully grown. They are brilliantly patterned with six to eight dark, rusty brown bands between which are turquoise and light gray patches.
Fortunately, for the Sand Diver, fishermen do not target Lizardfish; however, they face the same threats from pollution and reef destruction as all other marine life. Unfortunately, for the Sand Divers and other Lizardfish species, they are becoming popular aquarium specimens.
Becky Bauer became a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean after 30 years as a wild and domestic animal rescuer, rehabber, and educator in the states. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.