Learn Your Birthfish

Western culture is full of quirky superstitions and traditions. Many of them are leftover bits of former religious practice, retained long after the traditions and beliefs that gave them meaning fell away, while others are more recent inventions designed to convince people to spend money or part of quasi-religious traditions still gaining ground. I have one (las doce uvas de la suerte) I maintain for cultural reasons. Humans are peculiar creatures, and derive much benefit from activities whose instrumental utility is opaque or absent.

Perhaps the best-known such traditions are horoscopes and birthstones. Both of these connect the date of one’s birth to something in nature (a constellation and a gemstone, respectively), and have been used to generate loads of money for people who convince others that the association has magical or predictive significance. Horoscopes in particular get treated with bizarrely outsized seriousness in some circles, but for many of us, they’re a cute little game.

And why should folks interested in gems and stars have all the cute little games?

So here’s a new one: Your Birthfish. You’re now symbolically linked to this kind of fish, and obligated by the same rules that make people obsess over Gemini and Taurus to tell everyone that you’re now a Chinese high-fin banded loach or pumpkinseed sunfish. May this amusing bit of fake superstition entertain and confuse your friends and family, and lead to some seafood-themed birthday dinners and greater appreciation for the beauty of fish.


Dolly Varden, Salvenius malma

A Dolly Varden in a blue stream wih a gravel bottom, showing the red and orange spots on its blue-gray sides.
From Wikipedia.

A beautiful trout from northern North America and Asia, the Dolly Varden lives in deep lakes and emerges into rivers to spawn. Its bright, cheerful colors contrast with those of many better-known salmonids, adding splashes of floral beauty to a stark, sometimes desolate landscape. Once regarded as a pest reducing the populations of more desirable fish, Dolly Vardens are now known as tasty, natural, and somewhat rare parts of their boreal ecosystems.

So, too, are you colorful, serene, and rare.


Mahi-mahi, Coryphaena hippurus

A mahi-mahi in a sport fisherman's arms.
From YouTube

An unusual sport and food fish that ranges worldwide, the mahi-mahi is known for many things. As marine food fish go, it is exceptionally colorful, featuring a bold pattern of green and gold with spots of many other colors. Its body shape is likewise unusual, with a bulbous head and front-loaded dorsal fin. The mahi-mahi is increasingly sought after for the human table, given its firm, flavorful flesh and long-time occurrence as tuna bycatch. While alive, it provides an impressive, agile fight on rod and reel, flashing its colorful flanks. Mahi-mahi are known by many names other than the name given to them by Polynesians, including dorado (Spanish), dolphin (people who need to be slapped), and lampuka (Maltese).

So, too, are you recognized, talented, and known by many names.


Atlantic herring, Clupea harengus

A silvery Atlantic herring against a measuring tape.
From marinespecies.org

The Atlantic herring is perhaps the most fishy-looking fish there has ever been, and there is a reason for this. For centuries, the herring was Europe’s designated commercial fish, and much of early fisheries science, and many early innovations in fish preservation and cooking, were built with the herring in mind. Nowadays, the sheer diversity of fish available to the consumer, and the greater ease of moving fresh fish between markets, has made fish like herring into food for older generations of immigrants, with salmon, tilapia, and other farmed fish more common elsewhere. But no other fish duplicates the intense flavor and convenience of herring, nor do other fish come with the herring’s storied past, making this quotidian creature an experience to be savored. The herring is a fish whose flavor is loudly, unabashedly fishy, because the herring is not ashamed to be what it is and proud of what it has always been.

So too are you, underappreciated, important, and unashamed.


Silver arowana, Osteoglossus bicirrhosum

A large, golden-tinged arowana, showing its chin barbels and large mouth.
From Wikipedia. This specimen is afflicted with “drop-eye,” which causes arowanas’ eyes to twist downward.

One of the most famously weird fish of South America, the arowana has a mouth like a drawbridge and scales like mirrors. Its exotic appearance combines with its size—over a meter in length—to make it an imposing sight. Like many Amazonian fish, the arowana has the ability to breathe air, allowing it to survive in oxygen-poor environments and befitting its preference for the water’s surface. The arowana is most famous for its status as the “monkey fish,” able to leap multiple meters out of the water to capture food climbing or flying above it. Large arowanas can add small monkeys to their diet this way, exploding out of the water to seize them in their enormous, lid-like mouths and swallowing them as they drown. No “monster-fish” collector’s menagerie is complete without this imposing, beautiful species or its slightly smaller sibling O. ferreirai, kept alongside other large predators.

So too are you, strange, formidable, and iridescent.


Pumpkinseed sunfish, Lepomis gibbosus

A pumpkinseed sunfish facing left on a white background, taken in a photo tank.
From NANFA.org

Best known as a sport fish for hobbyists not committed enough to go after larger beasts like pike and walleye, Lepomis sunfish put up short but energetic fights on the line and reward their captors with distinctive, deep silhouettes and unexpected beauty. Sunfish bear dramatic, intense patterns on their bodies, especially during their breeding season, and the pumpkinseed is the most impressive of these. Thoroughly reticulated with deep orange and fluorescent blue-green webbing overlaid on a series of darker and lighter green bands, the pumpkinseed rivals Indo-Pacific reef fish in the intensity and complexity of its colors, and it is found in streams and lakes all over North America and is invasive in Europe. It should come as no surprise that, of North America’s native fish, sunfish are among the most popular in aquaria, particularly in Europe where they’re still at least somewhat “exotic.” What might be more surprising is that sunfish rank high among the “panfish,” fish small enough to cook whole in a frying pan, for flavor and texture. I prefer mine lightly battered and deep-fried in one piece…or glaring at each other over territory in a forever home.

So, too, are you, versatile, lovely, and underestimated.


Lionfish, Pterois volitans

A P. volitans lionfish on a blue background.
From Wikipedia

The lionfish resembles a bouquet of orchids, if most of the orchids were envenomed needles and one of them was a maw sufficient to eat creatures up to its own, nearly-one-meter size. The lionfish bears fin spines that are mostly separated into a feathery wave and most of those spines bear venom comparable to a bee sting. The lionfish drifts quietly through reefs, disappearing within its complex pattern and dazzling prey with its floral display before consuming it whole and in vast numbers. Most of its potential predators won’t bother trying to eat a creature that goes down like a wasp’s nest if literally anything else is available, and many aquarists are unprepared for the lionfish’s size and appetite, so they have become invasive in the Caribbean and other places far from their Indo-Pacific native haunts. But humans are ever inventive, and lionfish are now on the menus of many Floridian restaurants, in the hope that our unsustainable appetites will keep this beautiful monster’s numbers down. Until then, these deadly horned beauties float like envenomed hatpins through balmy seas, making us smile and warning us to stay away.

So too are you, magnificent, deadly, and insatiable.


Goliath tigerfish, Hydrocynus goliath

A sport fisherman holding a goliath tigerfish in his arms, showing its toothy maw.
From Animal Planet

One of Africa’s most formidable freshwater predators, the goliath tigerfish is distant kin to the piranha, but has a totally different hunting strategy. Piranhas travel in schools and scissor through prey, swarming around the neatly sliced bits that result, but goliath tigerfish latch onto prey fish with bear-trap-like jaws and jerk it into their throats as-is. Their teeth slide into grooves in their jaws rather than fitting between each other, showing continuously in a perpetual snarl. Congolese mythology regards the tigerfish as a vessel for evil spirits due to its ferocious but rare attacks on humans. They run down prey via sudden bursts of acceleration, similar to cats, and provide terrifying fights to the few sportfishing enthusiasts who dare target 1.5-meter, 50-kilogram behemoths with crocodilian maws for fun and glory.

So too are you, fierce, patient, and not to be trifled with.


Chinese high-fin banded loach, Myxocyprinus asiaticus

A Chinese high-fin banded loach resting on a light gravel substrate.
From Blue Ridge Koi.

Of ancient and peculiar pedigree, the Chinese high-fin banded loach is part of a family whose other members are all found in North America. This puts this fish, sometimes called the high-fin banded shark, in the elite company of the alligator and paddlefish, as members of lineages that span the Pacific and were most likely split during the last Ice Age. It is unusual within its family for the bold colors shown by young individuals, with intense black and white stripes emphasizing its sail-like dorsal fin. Carp-like in texture and flavor, it is widely farmed for food in its native China, which is helping preserve the species despite severe, dam- and pollution-related declines in the wild. It rapidly exceeds aquarium-safe sizes, so most people who keep Chinese sharks as pets keep them in ponds alongside koi.

So too are you, striking, resourceful, and far from home.


Paddlefish, Polyodon spathula

A nearly-head-on view of a paddlefish, showing the wide, flat, long rostrum.
From Wikipedia

Kin to the sturgeons that dominate “largest fish” lists, the North American paddlefish is a cavalcade of piscine weirdness. Approaching two meters in length at its largest, the paddlefish has a gigantic paddle-shaped rostrum that can approach a third of the animal’s total length. This organ, as well as about half of the animal’s skin, is covered in electroreceptors, allowing the paddlefish to navigate by electric field instead of by its weak sight. Mostly scaleless and without prominent dentition, the paddlefish strikes an odd profile, gaping its large mouth to run water across filtration surfaces that capture tiny crustaceans and other zooplankton. Like its sturgeon brethren, its skeleton is cartilaginous and begins to ossify only in very old specimens. Also like its sturgeon brethren, paddlefish are sought for food but, more often, for caviar, leading to farming and poaching operations throughout their range and in China, where breeding and farming operations operate on an industrial scale. These farms have helped restock parts of the paddlefish’s native range in the Mississippi and St. Lawrence watersheds, providing hope that these ancient, peculiar creatures will continue to surprise and delight generations to come.

So, too, are you, peaceful, alien, and with the weight of ages behind you.


Sarcastic fringehead, Neoclinus blanchardi

Perpetually grumpy, the brilliantly-named sarcastic fringehead lives in crevices and burrows off the coast of California. Their complex finnage allows them to change directions easily, and they routinely back into their burrows to make sure they are always on alert. Their enormous heads hide a neat trick. When faced with a visitor to their territory that isn’t dissuaded by more ordinary threat displays, such as head-bobbing and mock bites, they unfold their lips into sheets of brightly-colored skin akin to a cobra’s hood, with their sharp teeth at the center. To determine which fringehead shall have the best hole, two fringeheads of similar size will shove each other with their hoods open, each trying to appear, or be, larger and stronger than the other. Sarcastic fringeheads have been known to damage wetsuits and put puncture wounds in anglers that accidentally catch them, so intense is their aggression.

So too are you, committed, courageous, and passionate.


African butterflyfish, Pantodon bucholzi

An African butterflyfish from above, showing the pectoral windows, pelvic filaments, and overall shape.
From Wikipedia

Like big moths skating across the surface, these brown fish do not look like much, but provide the dedicated observer with marvel after marvel. Their pelvic fins are separated rays like spotted tails, and their pectoral fins bear transparent windows in their centers. Their heads are laid out like arowana heads, up to and including the impressive, predatory teeth, but the fish themselves are a handful of centimeters long, well within aquarium limits. They refuse to go far from the surface or from surface cover, and provide fascinating views both from above and from the side. Their diet and skittishness make them a challenge to keep in captivity…but you already knew all of that, because I’ve waxed obsessive about this species on several previous occasions.

So too are you, cautious, effective, and beautiful.


Panther grouper, Cromileptes altivelis

A large panther grouper, showing its white background, black spots, and upward-tilted head.
Few beasts the panther grouper’s size bear colors like this beast’s, white with black polka dots overlaid on beige blotches. It is no surprise that juveniles of this one-meter behemoth are common sights in pet stores and common inhabitants of the tanks of aquarists who don’t know better. These slow-moving predators swim head-down and attack anything small enough to fit in their mouths, swallowing it whole and rapidly wearing out their welcome in aquaria not designed with them in mind. In the wild, they occur in shallow water in the Indo-Pacific region, often very close to shore, and tolerate the variable salinity of coastal lagoons. Wild populations are small and closely monitored, and demand for aquarium and culinary examples is mostly served by captive breeding operations. They have the firm, flavorful flesh of other predatory fish, comparable in particular to the Caribbean’s Nassau grouper.

So too are you, ethereal, mysterious, and powerful.


What’s your birthfish? Let’s get a market going for merchandise depicting these twelve fish in particular and really confuse the world.

Learn Your Birthfish

6 thoughts on “Learn Your Birthfish

    1. 1.1

      Then we need to change it so all the birthfish can be bought at your local fishmonger (yes, that’s a word – Good Eats used it s few times) and slapped on the grill. Better yet, make them sustainable species so we won’t promote over fishing. Seriously, I can see this as part of a campaign to encourage people to eat more fish. You just have to spin it responsibly. 🙂

  1. 2

    Love these! Some great choices, but (being totally objective here, ofc) would have to put in a vote for Gnathonemus petersii. Because everyone needs an electric fish in their life!

    1. 2.1

      The agony of choice! Clearly, years need more months. Am I sensing an opportunity for both a bad “Carpe Diem” pun and a daily ichthyological post?

  2. 3

    How nice. My birth-anything usually sucks (or at least the depictions are boring). Except for Chinese, there I’m a horse (though I prefer donkeys.) And why isn’t my birth-animal a hippo? They rock! I’m so much like a hippo and in all areas where I’m not they’re what I aspire to be.

  3. 4

    Great article – thanks. 🙂

    By strange co-incidence, the Goliath Tigerfish just featured on tonight’s replay of the excellent RiverMonsters TV series here in Oz which includes the image of fisherman-scientist host Jeremy Wade. Definitely an amazing & impressive animal.

    Also, your February fish, Mahi-mahi, Coryphaena hippurus aka Dorado has a constellation named after it (kinda) which includes part of the Large Magellanic Cloud See : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorado

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