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Creature Feature: Long-Spined Porcupinefish

November 18, 2016

By Caroline Wang, Teen Newsroom producer, and currently a junior at Enloe High School.

Long-Spined Porcupinefish

The Museum’s long-spined porcupinefish”smiles” for the camera! Photo by Kathryn Rende

Droplets splash on the surface of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ 10,000-gallon aquarium as a scuba suit-adorned Mary Cols steps into the shallow water. Sharks and bony fishes alike scramble to surround their caretaker as one “smiley” porcupinefish hovers happily in the background, floating leisurely up to Mary’s shoulder to seemingly wave a fin in greeting. Awed visitors stare open-mouthed as the cheerful-looking little fish turns around and “smiles” back at them, almost as if posing for the camera. With a charismatic wave of his fin, he “grins” and turns at the perfect angles for a visitor selfie, as if he is patiently waiting for each visitor to get in his or her pictures.

If you happen to stroll towards the shark tank (officially named “Our Changing Ocean”) in the Nature Research Center of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, you’ll notice that this unusual scene is one of common occurrence. Day after day, excited visitors of all ages and kinds are amazed by the charm of the tank’s popular star, the porcupinefish.  Avid Instagramers crowd the tank to get a perfect picture with the surprisingly extroverted fish as he floats at the edge of the glass and follows excited fingers tracing the tank from the outside. Needless to say, this little fellow has become one of the stars of the exhibit.

Native to the warm waters of Florida and other tropical and subtropical seas, the aptly nicknamed “Balloon Fish” is often set on display in museums, and regularly lands popular movie roles in kid-friendly aquatic movies, creating an overwhelming affection from people all over the world.   In the long-spined porcupinefish’s natural habitat, such acting comes naturally — when shocked or scared, it uses its notoriously famous ability to “blow up” or expand as a defense mechanism. With predators like tiger sharks lurking in the ocean, the long-spined porcupinefish also employs unique camouflage techniques with its brown-spotted scales.

When not starring in your daily dose of “Finding Nemo,” the Museum’s long-spined porcupinefish consumes a variety of foods, including shrimp, herring, and vegetables like cucumbers. Staff members like Mary Cols have found that its hardy nature and ability to adapt to live with different fish species gives it an undeniable charm to not only the visitors, but also the staff.

Yet, while hundreds of eager visitors clamor to find this amiable porcupinefish’s name on the information boards nearby, the Museum staff have chosen to leave it nameless. “We want visitors to remember the species, not identify the fish as a name like “Puffy,” explained Mary Cols, the Museum’s Assistant Curator of Fish and Invertebrates. She illustrates the unique charm that draws so many in with her own personal stories, like the time when “he floated near my shoulder to say hello and accidentally came out of the tank on my shoulder with me,” or the time when “he was thrown into the tank, but was still calm, smiley, and gentle as always.”

Our Florida-born porcupinefish continues to draw in thousands, helping not only to bring out the cuteness in fish, but also educating visitor after visitor about his notable species.

Creature Feature is your closer look at the interesting animals around us in North Carolina. See the facts on these cool critters and more at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences!

Check out the pictures below to get a glimpse of the porcupinefish superstar:

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