By Paul Caiger.
Stargazers acquire their name from their upward-pointing eyes. This family of fishes, Uranoscopidae, is found worldwide, with around 50 species, however, the spotted stargazer (Genyagnus monopterygius) is endemic to New Zealand. It is found on the continental shelf to depths of 100m up to the shallows of bays and estuaries. They live mostly on soft sediments such as mud and sand, where they can bury themselves – though sometimes over rocky/pebbly bottoms – and if disturbed, will dart away several metres and quickly rebury themselves.
In addition to the top-mounted eyes, the spotted stargazer has an upward-pointing mouth, which, along with its habit of burying itself, ambushes passing prey. Furthermore, it uses a barbel on the chin and a filamentous appendage inside the lower jaw as wriggling lures to attract prey. Other aspects that aid in ambushing are a large head, a tapered and dorsally flattened body, and more luring filamentous cirri on the mouth (technically called ‘labial fimbriae’). Stargazers lie waiting patiently for movement above them, before lunging out to ensnare their victim. There are even divers’ reports of them reacting to twigs or other objects brushed closely above them.
Stargazers are commonly referred to as monkfish, and also ‘poor man’s lobster’ due to the rich, soft white flesh. In New Zealand, this mostly refers to the giant stargazer (Kathetostoma giganteum), which supports a small fishery; though undoubtedly the spotted stargazer is lumped under this moniker from time to time. New Zealand monkfish are not to be confused with the superficially similar European monkfish, which is a member of the anglerfish (Lophiidae) family.
The spotted stargazer is a peculiar-looking fish, with its worm-like lures and frilly mouth. More so, it is a fish that is unfamiliar to most of us. It can be found though, by looking carefully when diving on reef edges or in estuaries, or better yet, during a night dive, where your torch will pick up its telescopic eyes poking above the sediment!
Stargazers are named for their upward pointing eyes – often the only part of them to be seen.
Spend most of their lives buried and camouflaged in sand and mud.
One of five species of stargazers known from New Zealand.
Use their large, fan-like pectoral fins to excavate holes in which to bury themselves.
Use worm-shaped lures to attract prey.
Can be known colloquially as monkfish, or poor man’s lobster.
Diet mostly consists of crabs and small fishes.
Often found on the reef edge and in estuaries.