Snotty Tunnels of Love: Tidewater gobies deserve protected territory
Posted April 15, 2009
Sometimes the little critters we overlook are also some of the most amazing... This week NRDC renews a long-standing fight over a somewhat blah-looking little fish called the tidewater goby. Despite its drab appearance, the quirky swimmer exemplifies why the Endangered Species Act is essential for preserving our most fragile wildlife and ecosystems.
Admittedly, it would be easy to ignore tidewater gobies if it wasn't for their peculiar lifestyle. They are unremarkable looking: only 2 or 3 inches long, not colorful, not pretty... But their reversed gender roles are fascinating (at the very least to biologists, fish enthusiasts, and would be Young and the Restless fans) and make them almost completely unique amongst fishes (in fact, they are their own genus).
This isn't Sponge Bob Square Pants; the love lives of Tidewater gobies are as titillating as any TV drama.
Imagine this scene: the meek tidewater goby guy. Pale. Small. Not flashy. He's got a bit of a runny nose (in fact his skin leaks mucous)... Not to anthropomorphize too much, but I think he's kind of like the typical emo hipster... In the spring, when romance is in the air (or water?), he busies himself building a little love nest in the sand by excavating a chamber in the sand with his mouth and fins. While his runny skin might be uncomfortable in some social situations, the mucous comes in handy for cementing the walls of his bachelor pad.
While he plays it cool, female tidewater gobies get aggressive. They put on a bit of color and go out looking for their dream goby guy... Inevitably, the ladies happen upon those little love chambers in the sand and the fireworks begin as the lady fishes start dukeing it out for the opportunity to mate. The reverse sex roles of these gobies are even clearer once little fishies enter the equation. Momma fish drops hundreds of eggs before leaving the male homemaking goby to play the single dad while watching over the fertilized eggs for the better part of two weeks.
It may sound like "Desperate Houseguys" but this is every day life in the fragile brackish estuaries and lagoons that the gobies call home along California's coast. And only California's coast---this drama doesn't unfold anywhere else on Earth. Sadly, the brackish (salt and fresh water combined) estuaries, marshes and lagoons that serve as tidewater goby homes have been rapidly disappearing since the days of the gold rush, with probably less than a tenth left.
And that is the real drama for tidewater gobies.
As a result of NRDC's efforts, the fish stayed on the federal Endangered Species List in 2000 when the Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to jettison them; but we are going back into court for another fish fight on their behalf. Recently, the Service limited the gobies' protected habitat by removing any suitable areas where the fish cannot be found at the moment from their designated habitat (the actual locations that receive added legal protections). In the past, when drought or changing conditions killed off the tidewater goby populations in one area, gobies from a neighboring brackish habitat would re-colonize the area. This sort of shifting of populations is much harder today due to the disconnected, patchy nature of their habitat. Scientists are concerned that the mercurial changes to water level and quality that are typical of brackish ecosystems makes the goby's population fluxes very dangerous without the added habitat connectivity afforded by some of the currently unpopulated areas. The Service had noted that one way to protect the fish would be to do some of that re-colonizing artificially by releasing the fish into unoccupied areas of their historic range; though this would be unlikely now given the designations.
Protecting tidewater gobies is about protecting some of the state's most endangered coastal environments...not to mention one of its quirkiest mating rituals... Hopefully, this suit will address the needs of some of California's fragile ecosystems and inimitable species all at once!
Photo by Greg Goldsmith, courtesy of USF&W.