Pacific Staghorn Sculpin, Leptocottus armatus
The Pacific Staghorn Sculpin, Leptocottus armatus, whose common Spanish name is charrasco de astas, is a member of the Sculpin or Cottidae Family, which are known collectively as charrascos espinosos in Mexico. Globally, there are two species in the genus Leptocottus, one of which being found in Mexican waters, the species described herein found in Mexican waters of the Pacific.
The Pacific Staghorn Sculpins have wide, large, depressed, and very flattened heads and their bodies taper to the tail. They are grayish-olive with a few yellow tinges dorsally that transition to creamy yellow ventrally. They have the ability to change colors to match their habitat. Their anal and pelvic fins are pale and their caudal fin is dusky with one or two pale bars. Their two dorsal fins are continuous with the first dorsal fin having black spots near the tips of the last three spines and a white band below it, and the second dorsal fin being dusky with several oblique white to yellowish bands. Their pectoral fins are yellow with 5 or 6 dark green bars. They have a pair of large eyes on top of their head and a large broad mouth equipped with numerous small teeth. Their gill cover has a large spine that ends in three or four sharp, upturned, and curved spinules. Their anal fin has 14 to 20 rays, their caudal fin is rounded, and their dorsal fin is continuous with the first portion having 6 to 8 spines and the second having 15 to 20 rays. They have 10 to 13 gill rakers and their lateral line is straight. They have no scales.
The Pacific Staghorn Sculpins are found year-round in shallow subtidal waters including in tidal pools, bays, and estuaries at depths up to 1,100 feet. They reach a maximum length of 48 cm (19 inches) but are common at lengths of 25 cm (10 inches). They are typically found burrowed in sandy and muddy bottoms in bays and estuaries with only their head and eyes exposed. They are known to enter freshwater streams. They feed on amphipods, crabs, shrimp, worms, and small fish. In turn they are preyed upon by guitarfish, sharks, various sea mammals, and shore birds. They have the ability to breathe air when out of water and can produce a low-pitched humming sound when stressed. Reproduction is oviparous with spawning in shallow coastal waters being an annual event. Each female lays 2,000 to 10,000 eggs. After spawning adults quickly depart for deeper waters. The eggs hatch in ten days and the larvae swim to the surface becoming planktonic and moving into freshwater for up to three months before returning to estuaries in the summer. Juveniles remain in shallow inshore waters. They have a lifespan of up to ten years.
In Mexican waters, the Pacific Staghorn Sculpins are found from San Quintin Bay, Baja California, northward along the northwest coast of Baja.
The Pacific Staghorn Sculpin is straightforward to identify and cannot be confused with any other species due to its body profile and coloration.
The Pacific Staghorn Sculpins are caught regularly by pier fishermen and can fairly quickly become a nuisance. Commercially they are caught as trawler by-catch and sold as live bait for Striped Bass in the San Francisco Delta. They should be handled with caution due to their sharp head spines. They were an important food source for Native Americans. From a conservation perspective they are considered of Least Concern with stable populations. They date to the Pliocene period, 5.3 to 2.6 million years ago.
Pacific Staghorn Sculpin, Leptocottus armatus. Fish caught off a pier in Crescent City, California, August 2009. Length: 10.0 cm (3.9 inches).
Pacific Staghorn Sculpin, Leptocottus armatus. Fish caught from coastal waters off Ensenada, Baja California, December 2015. Length: 25 cm (10 inches). Catch, photo and identification courtesy of Chris Wheaton, Loreto, Baja California Sur.