The Sea Robin (genus Prionotus)
Richard Gilder Graduate School, American Museum of Natural History, New York, U.S.A.
This month, while counting horseshoe crabs as part of the event, Monitoring Horseshoe Crab Breeding with NYC Audubon, the MSNH spotted a distinctive fish abandoned by fisherman along the shore - the sea robin (genus Prionotus). Part of the family Triglidae, sea robins are scorpaeniforms (scorpion fishes) that feed along the sea floor, and are quite common on the East Coast of the United States.
Part of the sea robin’s odd appearance is due to its little ‘legs’ – these are modified pectoral (chest) fin rays. Though it appears to walk on these spines, they are actually utilized for chemoreception, allowing the sea robin to ‘smell’ food hidden in the sand. The rest of the pectoral fin is probably how the sea robin got its common name – it fans out to make a beautiful ‘wing,’ visible in the photos that accompany this post. The sea robin can also produce a deep thumping sound, by using its swim bladder (a gas-filled internal sac) to amplify vibrations.
Most common sea robins (P. carolinus) only reach about a foot in length, though some have been noted at 16 inches. They are found near shore much more frequently in the summertime. In winter, they head for deeper waters. They are indiscriminate predators, consuming a remarkably wide range of invertebrates, as well as small fishes and algae.
Here in New York, sea robins are often sold as a fairly inexpensive fillet. Although the sea robin found by the MSNH had been rejected by some local fisherman, however, far from being ‘trash fish’ they are favored worldwide for traditional dishes like bouillabaisse (French fish soup). A simple sea robin recipe can be found at the On The Water article, Praise for Sea Robins. They’re a species of Least Concern (i.e. fairly abundant) and harmless to humans, so picking up a sea robin at the farmers market (or better yet, catching one yourself!) is a good way to sample our local New York City seafood.