The cowfish is probably one of the most comical-looking creatures on the reef, with its boxy appearance and four long horns. Its fins are small compared to its body, making it look more like a blimp moving through the water than a fish. Cowfish, as with other boxfish, uncover their meals of crabs and shrimps by blowing jets of water into the sand with their mouths.
This photo subject is commonly known as a Long-Horned Cowfish. Because they are such slow swimmers cowfish are easily caught by hand, making a grunting noise when captured. Their bodies are very stiff, since their scales are fused together to form a solid shell which covers almost the entire body. This one was photographed in about 20 feet of water on a night dive.
Cowfish are at least as unique as they appear-- they are so different from most fish, they belong to their own order of spiny-finned saltwater fishes called Tetraodontiformes. "Tetradonts" as members of this order of fishes are called, are thought to have broken off in their evolutionary path from other fishes over 40 million years ago. Other members of this order include triggerfish, puffers, filefish and the ocean sunfish. One distinction from other fish is the lack of a gill cover in the tetradonts, replaced by a small slit or hole. Another is the ability to not only "cough" as many fish can do, but to expel water in a stream, to "blow"; and in the case of pufferfish, modifying this reflex further to "inflate" themselves as a means of defense. For more complete information, see the essay "When Fish Bite" from Research in Review, featuring the work of Dr. Peter Wainwright, written by Frank Stephenson of Florida State University.
For more information on the internet, there is an aquarist web site titled "Cowfish, Puffers, and More" for discussion of "Tetraodontiformes, especially cowfish, boxfish, porcupinefish, puffers, filefish, and triggers. Beginners to advanced aquarists welcome."
Identification: Lactoria cornuta
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