REEF Surveyor Notes a Rare Find

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A mystery fish, captured on film by REEF surveyor Rob McCall.
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The mystery fish turned out to be the rarely seen Pugjaw Wormfish.
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The swimming motion was sinuous, much like an eel.
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The wormfish shared a burrow with a yellowhead jawfish.

REEF TWA Advanced Assessment Team member, Rob McCall, has over 625 surveys under his belt and 281 fish species on his lifelist. But earlier this summer, during a dive in the Florida Keys, he found something that surprised him - the extremely rare Pugjaw Wormfish (Cerdale floridana). Here is his story -- Last June, while diving at Rock Key off Key West, I noticed a very slender (about the diameter of thin drinking straw) white fish about 6 cm long. I could see the fish had a rounded head but could not see dorsal or tail fins. The fish swam with a sinuous movement, much like an eel or worm, and dove into a burrow when it saw me. It did not immediately reappear and I soon swam off in search of other fish. That night I attempted to identify the mystery fish in my reference books, but was unable to get even a rough idea of what it might be.

Subsequent to the first sighting, I saw a similar fish on two other occasions at Rock Key. All sightings were within an area about 8 x 4 meters, with sand bottom bordered by high profile reef. On the second sighting, the fish dove into a burrow and did not reappear. On the third sighting, the fish immediately dove into a Yellowhead Jawfish burrow (the normal occupant was a male Yellowhead Jawfish who happened to be mouth-brooding eggs at the time; the jawfish was hovering above the burrow and did not seem particularly upset that the mystery fish “borrowed” his home.) The mystery fish did not reappear during the ten minutes or so I spent photographing the jawfish.

I stopped by REEF Headquarters in early August and asked Lad Akins, REEF Director of Special Projects, if he had any ideas to help me identify the fish. Based on my hazy description, Lad thought it might be a type of worm-eel. But when I researched online, it did not seem to be a good fit.

On August 22, while diving at Nine Foot Stake off Key West (and armed with my camera set up for macro) I came across one of the mystery fish – truly a case of me being in the right place at the right time. The fish was out in the open but dove into a nearby burrow – I don’t know if it was his or a “borrowed” one – when he saw me. I decided to wait a couple of minutes to see if it would reappear, and within a minute or two, it stuck its head back out. Over the next ten minutes it made several darting forays from the burrow, getting a little more used to me, or perhaps a little more desperate to get home. This fish seemed longer than the one(s) at Rock Key – perhaps 8 cm or so.

The four sightings shared some common features. All were at 20-24 ft. depth with sand bottom. Three of the four burrows were within 5-10 cm of small coral heads or rubble clumps. Dorsal and tail fins are visible in the photos; the fish is not actually as slender as it appears to the naked eye.

I was pretty well stumped over identifying what the fish was, even with photos, until one night I was re-reading Ned DeLoach and Paul Humman’s Reef Fish Behavior and under the article on Yellowhead Jawfish, I noticed a reference to Pugjaw Wormfish sharing a burrow with the jawfish. The next morning I researched it online and found a photo which appeared to be a very good match for my mystery fish.

We don’t know how rare the Pugjaw Wormfish might be, but according to the REEF database, they have been reported only five other times: one in Florida, one in Cuba and three in Bonaire. Convinced there are more Pugjaw’s waiting to make an appearance here in Key West, I’ve got the other instructors on our dive boat keeping their eyes open in the hopes that one of us will once again be in the right place at the right time.

Rob McCall is a scuba instructor in Key West and has been a REEF member and surveyor since 2000.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub