Top 8 marine ambush predators
Survival of the fittest, or the most patient? Here are the underwater world's top ambush predators. Now you see them…
The most commonly encountered ambush predators are the scorpionfishes (order Scorpaeniformes). They number more than 1,300 species, are found worldwide in tropical and temperate waters, and, except for the 20 species of active predatory hunters of the lionfish family Pteroinae, are almost wholly ambush predators. In the Indo-Pacific, the Scorpaeniformes are all bottom-dwellers, to all appearances immobile booby traps for unwary fish.
Diver favourites, the frogfishes number between 40 and 50 species, which can be as small as a thumbnail or as large as a football. They are found worldwide and have a predilection for mimicking sponges and encrusted rocks. In addition to camouflage, frogfish additionally use a built-in fishing rod and lure – the illicium and the esca (a modified fin ray and a fleshy appendage) – that mimic floundering small prey for unsophisticated, greedy little fish.
The crocodile flathead or crocodilefish (Cymbacephalus beauforti) is one of 60 species of flathead and is among the largest of ambush predators, reaching up to 90cm in length. The crocodilefish is so named due to its resemblance and similar hunting strategy to the saltwater crocodile. It lies in wait, motionless, until prey comes within striking distance, then – look out! Its jaws open wide and clamp shut as if powered by taut springs.
4 Wobbegong sharks
The 11 species of wobbegong shark (Orectolobidae) are a cunning group of carpet sharks that lie motionless on the bottom. They are patterned with disruptive blotches and spots and decorated with appendages to blend in with rocks and algal growth. They especially prefer shadowy areas, such as under ledges or jetties, and wait in the shadows for an unlucky fish or crustacean to pass by its large and ample mouth.
Lizardfishes are members of the Synodontidae family, comprising some 65 species, some of which reach a length of 60cm, and have a speckled pattern that blends in well with reef or rubble. They rest immobile, watching intently for any sign of weakness or inattentiveness, then show themselves to be small, fast torpedoes. Equipped with needle-sharp teeth, they spring like a bear trap on unsuspecting or slow damselfish, pufferfish or gobies, which are plucked from the water column with unerring precision.
6 Snake eels
There are 250 species of snake eel (Ophichthidae). Although they are active predators of small fish and shrimps at night, by day they burrow into the sand with only their heads remaining above to ambush any passing prey.
7 Mantis shrimp
There are 400 species of mantis shrimp (not actually shrimps at all, but crustaceans known as stomatopods) and all fashion elaborate burrows in rubble, sand or mud to provide protection from predators and to create an ambush point. Mantis shrimp can be as small as 2cm or, like those of the genus Lysiosquilla, up to 30cm long.
8 Bobbit worms
The notorious Bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois), is a nocturnal, sand-dwelling, carnivorous marine polychaete worm. The Bobbit worm has a truly frightening set of jaws composed of a pair of enormous mandibles that outstretch like a pair of scythes and six pairs of maxilla. Its ribbed, phallic body has an iridescent sheen of rainbow colours when kissed with the light of a night diver’s torch. This worm, the diameter of a human thumb, may be a fully grown adult, reaching an astonishing 3m in length.
To find out more about ambush predators, see Water Column in the July 2011 issue of DIVE magazine