“What is that?” “Oh, is that a snake?” “Nooo, it looks like an eel…” These are some of the regular conversations we over hear in our galleries about May’s Staff Pick of the Month – the penpoint gunnel (Apodichthys flavidus).
And the answer is – it’s neither. It’s not a snake, nor is it a true eel. A gunnel is actually a type of perch (Perciformes) with an eel-like body, but it’s easy to mistake it for a snake or an eel.
As staff nominator, interpretation specialist Lauren Hartling says, “They move in a snake-like way because of their long slender bodies.”
Conversations and questions like those above get Lauren excited. She loves getting the chance to talk true eels versus other eel-like fishes.
She’s also thrilled when visitors actually see the gunnels, because it means they’re really looking into an exhibit. The gunnel, after all, is secretive and well-camouflaged. It needs to be since it’s on so many other animals’ menu, including larger fishes, herons and river otters.
“I love how sneaky they are. Most of the time they’re right in front of you with just their face peeking out of their kelpy hiding spot.”
According to Lauren, these local fish come in all the colours of the rainbow, just like Skittles. Some are stunningly green while others are flame orange or scarlet.
Penpoint gunnels actually come in shades of seaweed and eelgrass – green, red and brown. A study conducted in 1966, suggests that their diet when very young might determine their adult colour.
You’ll see them lurking in tide pools along the rocky shores of British Columbia. Search under rocks at low tide and you might find a male coiled around and guarding eggs. They can actually breathe air when out of water – these fish are fascinating. No wonder Lauren loves them.
“Sharing my love of gunnels is part of why I love my job so much.”