Zebra frogfish portent of warming seas?
By Dr Floor Anthoni, Seafriends Marine Education Centre, Leigh

During periods of warm and strong northerly currents, tropical fish from remote Kermadec Islands, Norfolk Island and further away, may succeed in drifting to New Zealand as small larvae. They may also arrive in ships' ballast water. The zebra frogfish (Phrynelox zebrinus; Antennarius striatus) found in the Whangaroa Harbour recently, has so far managed to grow here to its adult size of about 20 cm.

Dr Floor Anthoni, director of the Seafriends Marine Education Centre in Leigh, describes his encounter with this weird fish as follows: "A large head, propelled by a frantically fluttering tail, swam towards me to observe me better. As it swam, a large john dory sized it up for prey but gave up disdainfully. The frogfish settled on the bottom and crawled around on its two froglike webbed paws. These give it stability and allow it to jump up to catch a fish, attracted by the fleshy lure at the end of its first - almost invisible -  back spine. Its back fins are fused into crests. For a moment it resembled a kitten with its puggish face, frontal eyes, little paws and almost furry skin. It was the weirdest creature I've seen so far in almost 2000 dives!"

The frogfish belongs with a number of other weird ones such as the flat-bellied goosefish, the toadfish and the batfish to the family of Antennariidae (antenna bearers) in the order of  Lophiiformes (crestfishes), to which the deepsea anglerfishes also belong.
Often bizarre in form, anglerfishes are also characterised by small gill openings and by limblike pectoral and in some species pelvic fins. The sargassum fish (Histrio histrio) is patterned very much like the sargassum weed in which it lives. It clings to the branches of algae with its prehensile (clutching) pectoral fins as it hunts for prey, which is sucked into the mouth with its powerful jaws and expandable cheeks.

Frogfishes and toadfishes are very rarely encountered by divers although fishermen do catch them from trawls to 100m depth. Damian Mitchell, fisherman, recounts that in 30 years of fishing he had not seen one before but in November 1998 two such fish were caught in a trawl out from Rakitu (Arid) Island. One was hopelessly 'puffed up' by its expanded swim bladder and although being put overboard, would probably not have survived its ordeal. The other was frozen for scientific research.

The striped anglerfish (also striated anglerfish) as it is known in Australia, occurs reasonably commonly in estuaries and coastal bays of New South Wales, usually in areas of reef and sponge. Its basic colour is extremely variable, including orange, yellow, white, brown and black. Maximum length is 25 cm.

Like other species of anglerfish, the zebra frogfish has moved its breast fins (like our arms) backward, almost centrally underneath its body. At the same time, its pelvic fins (belly fins, like our legs) have moved forward. Both have developed little hands and are able to grasp objects. Using all fours, it can clumsily walk around. Frogfishes have lost their scales, and have grown fluffy or prickly skin protrusions instead, which make the resemble their surroundings. The zebra frogfish has fine hairs all over its body.

For more information and photos of the world's frogfishes, visit Teresa Zubi's (Zuberbuehler) page http://www.starfish.ch/frogfish/.

Zebra Frogfish swimming
Zebra frogfish,
Zebra Frogfish
It crawls around on webbed paws
Its back fins form a crest.
Zebra Frofish and lure
Above its pug face, 
it waves a lure on 
an antenna to 
attract prey

The article that appeared in the NZ Herald of 21 April 1999 after an interview with Floor Anthoni and Chris Paulin:

Rare fish found in harbour - weirdest animal, says diver
By Philip English

A rare fish has been discovered in Northland's Whangaroa Harbour. The zebra frogfish prefers tropical Pacific seas, but every so often, usually after a warm summer, a few juveniles drift south to New Zealand and grow into adults.
The zebra frogfish is as strange as its name. It has two frog-like webbed paws which can grasp, an antenna to lure prey, a puggish face with forward-staring eyes, fins fused into crests and a fur-like skin. The specimen was photographed by marine conservationist Dr Floor Anthoni during a dive at the entrance to the Whangaroa Harbour. He says the fish was crawling on the bottom and was the weirdest animal he had seen in nearly 2000 dives. He said: "The whole group of frogfish, goosefish and batfish - all antenna bearers - are a side-step of nature. They are ... on their own. They have developed characteristics that are totally unlike other fish. some even have four legs. Nature has branched off somewhere with a very primitive organism that has no stamina. They have badly developed gills so they sit still. Then they have developed hands. They have developed advanced things that no other fish have, yet they are probably more primitive than any other fish."

Dr Anthoni, director of the Seafriends Marine Education Centre based near the Goat Island marine reserve at Leigh, said the Whangaroa Harbour turned up many weird creatures. "The Whangaroa Harbour is one of the most special harbours - I think the most special harbour we have. It has very rich plankton, very deep channels and very high currents. Although it is very polluted at the moment, the currents are able to cleanse the waters and the species there hold on to life. The life on its steep volcanic slopes is beyond belief."

Chris Paulin, fish section collection manager at the Museum of New Zealand in Wellington, said zebra frogfish were quite rare. Only two or three had been seen off the northern coast over the summer. "But because they are so well camouflaged, they could be here in more numbers than we can see."

The Listener placed this story in its issue of May 8-14 1999:

No doubt about it, the rare ZEBRA FROGFISH is the deserving winner of fish of the month. Look at this bloke. He or she is as mad as a bicycle. The absurd head. The markings on its face like big boo-hoo tears. The fins fused into crests. The specimen was photographed by marine conservationist Floor Anthoni - winner of the best name for a marine conservationist this month - who discovered the underwater weirdo during a dive at the entrance to the Whangaroa Harbour.