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Welcome to a little known club of old wives found only in southern Australian waters. These strikingly colourful fish go by the name of Enoplosus armatus.  Their common name comes from the grinding noise the fish makes with its teeth when stressed – especially after being caught … apparently, it sounds like a cross woman! Try telling that to a woman, cross or otherwise – especially if they are armed and have just been dragged out of their home. The ‘armatus’ in their name is from the Latin and means that they are ‘armed’.  Enoplosus is from the Greek word ‘enoplos’ and means weapon, or with weapons.

(David Donnelly Image) - Old Wife

These ‘armed’ old wives can grow to 30 cm in size. They have two distinctive, completely separated dorsal fins that have bony, sharp spines. The spines are believed to be poisonous, although there is no obvious venom groove nor gland. Poisonous or not, the spines can inflict a painful wound, and so the fish should be handled very carefully. Anecdotally, if wounded by one of the spines, you should immerse the puncture wound in hot (not scalding) water to denature or ‘cook’ the proteins in the venom. But maybe that’s just an old wive’s tale …

Although tropical-looking, these stunning fish are found only in southern temperate waters. They prefer sheltered areas such as seagrass beds or amongst jetty pylons. They can gather in quite large schools; but are also seen as pairs and others have been observed as large, solitary creatures on southern, coastal reefs.  (Just like happy, old wives in the human world.)

Old Wives produce pelagic eggs that drift in the water column. The lucky juveniles that survive such a haphazard method of reproduction usually live in estuaries. They have a more elongated body than their parents. They also have a distinctive white-rimmed spot on their dorsal fin and far less stylish colouration; it’s more blotchy than the six to eight black bands of variable width on the silvery-white background of the adults.

One more thing about the old wives is that they are thought to be a ‘cleaner’ fish, meaning that they remove parasites from other fish; truly, it seems that a woman’s work is never done.

Happy Mothers’ Day to all our friends and supporters, cross or otherwise.

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