As I walked down the hill and along the waterfront, my eye caught sight of orange flags in little rows flecking the rocky coast. A woman in gumboots smiled up at me and I asked her if she was marking the tidelines. “Yes, and today is going to be one of the lowest tides of the year–at -1.1 feet–so we’re waiting around to see what will be revealed…We’ll probably see some crabs, eel grass, sculpins, midshipman fish. Midshipman females lay their eggs in the sand–”
“No, they don’t, they lay their eggs on the underside of rocks,” her white-haired male colleague interrupted her.
“He should be the one telling you the story, he’s the expert,” she said smiling. “Tell her what they sound like…”
“They hum. They sound like…a barbershop quartet.”
I found this hard to believe so when I got home, I researched the midshipman fish, and discovered that they have been known to sing loudly enough to awaken people sleeping on houseboats. The males sing, the females grunt. The singing male releases a hormone in the female that induces her to lay her eggs in the singing male’s rock nest. Even more fascinating, there are three genders of midshipman fish each with their own reproductive behavior. Type I males sing using muscles in their swimming bladder to woo females, whereas Type II males are blessed with larger reproductive organs. Type II males, however, look more like females so they are able to sneak incognito into the female’s nests and fertilize the eggs, in a behavior defined as cuckoldry or, my favorite, satellite-spawning. Type II males and females don’t call for very long whereas Type I fish can serenade on and on.
Listen to them hum on NPR here.