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Triggerfish Teeth and Other Interesting Facts about These Animals

When I started this article, I hesitated whether to title it ‘The Teeth of the Triggerfish’ or ‘Triggerfish, the Fearless Fish.’ In the end, I opted for the conservative title because, moreover, it is a topic that interests many people surfing the web. – I’ll tell you why later. –

But I am a diver, and what truly captivates me about this fish is that they fear nothing. Not humans, not their belongings, not even fishermen, let alone divers.

Fishermen share a fascinating story about triggerfish. They say that every time they caught one, other members of their species would emerge from the water to bid farewell. They raise their heads to gaze at the intruder who took one of their own, with those cross-eyed eyes that seem to dance to their own melody.

Fishermen say that these wandering eyes give them extraordinary vision, allowing them to see the world differently, and that’s why they have no fear of humans. We are just one more species among the many that threaten them.

I still remember the first time I saw a queen triggerfish. I was diving in Cozumel and saw the queen triggerfish confronting a much larger grouper that had come too close to its nest. There it was, that brightly colored fish, barely 40 cm in size, pushing with its snout and taking bites at that huge fish, saying, ‘Back off, this is my home!’

However, we are fearless divers too, and we stayed. Of course, we approached with great respect to learn many more interesting facts about the triggerfish.

1. What Is a Reef Triggerfish?

Let’s dive into the world of triggerfish. But don’t worry, you won’t need a shield or bulletproof vest to face all these fun facts about triggerfish, just your scuba gear.

Triggerfish belong to the family Balistidae and the order Tetraodontiformes, just like the filefish, which we recently talked about.

There are around 40 species of triggerfish worldwide, but in this article, we will only talk about our diving companions from the Caribbean.


2. The Triggerfish Teeth and Other Curiosities of Their Anatomy

The largest recorded triggerfish was a stone triggerfish (Pseudobalistes naufragium). This species reaches 100cm/39 in in length. But normally they are small, ranging between 20 and 50 cm/8 and 20 in.

A common characteristic of all species in this group is their oval-shaped body, and yes, most of them are very colorful. In addition, their skin is exceptionally thick and tough, forming a robust armor that protects the organism. It is covered with large and rough scales, arranged without overlapping, which enhances its defense effectiveness.

However, what sets triggerfish apart from other similar fish is their ability to raise and lock their two dorsal fins. This allows them to achieve two things:

  1. If a predator were to open its mouth wide enough to eat them, it wouldn’t be able to swallow them.
  2. If, on the other hand, during their escape, they manage to hide in a crevice, the predator wouldn’t be able to pull them out from there.

Moreover, reef triggerfish can lock and unlock this defense system, making them appear more threatening. They use a small spine or “trigger,” hence the name “triggerfish” in English.

It is said that triggerfish teeth are similar to those of humans, but that’s not entirely true. Triggerfish have large heads that narrow down to small mouths armed with eight powerful and sharp teeth: four on the upper jaw and four on the lower jaw. While it is true that some species have an additional set of six plate-like teeth on the upper jaw.

Their eyes move independently, each on its side, just like their pectoral fins, which, although small, are also their main means of propulsion. They undulate them slowly, moving from side to side. But when threatened, the triggerfish spreads its caudal fin like a fan, extending it up to 2.5 times its width. With this, it generates powerful propulsive thrusts, allowing it to escape quickly and with great force.

sargassum triggerfish pictures- pez ballesta 2
Sargassum triggerfish

3. Distribution and Habitat of the Reef Triggerfish

Only a few species of triggerfish are pelagic (spending most of their time in open waters). The vast majority prefer shallow tropical and subtropical waters, preferably with a nearby reef, such as in the Caribbean.

Here, they can find sections of the reef to take shelter in and sandy areas to build their nests. But beware if you dare to approach them!


4. What do triggerfish eat, and who eats them?

These triggerfish utilize their powerful jaws to feed on various hard things, such as crustaceans and mollusks. They also enjoy feasting on sea urchins and other echinoderms. Some species eat small fish, and there are even vegetarian species that primarily feed on algae or plankton.

On the other hand, despite their dorsal spines, groupers, tunas, and jacks find them delicious. The same goes for blacktip reef sharks and other sharks, which also consider them good prey.


5. Reproduction of Reef Triggerfish

This is the story of triggerfish and their reproductive strategies.

It all starts with a bold male that decides to head to his favorite breeding ground.

“I’ve had enough of being alone!” he says. “It’s time to have offspring again.”

So, once in the chosen location, he gets to work and diligently constructs his nest. (He does this by squirting jets of water with his mouth and clearing the sediment he stirs up with his fins.) Some males of other species build intricate underground tunnels because defending their territory is a serious matter! Triggerfish don’t allow intruders in their domain and are willing to fight tooth and nail to protect it—just like our protagonist.

With his little nest built, the brave male displays his charms to court the female.

“That one is perfect!” he thinks.

And he begins to dance around the female like crazy, changing colors and leading her to the nest. Once convinced, the two engage in a swirling dance around each other. Enchanting, isn’t it?

Amidst the frenzy, the female drops anywhere from 55,000 to 430,000 eggs into the nest, and he fertilizes them. While the eggs develop, the females remain vigilant as “supermoms,” guarding, cleaning, caring for, and oxygenating the eggs by squirting them with water.

The male isn’t far away, but his job is to scare away intruders and ensure no one approaches from the surface. He even takes bites. Fortunately for divers, the male’s aggressive behavior lasts only 24 to 48 hours, until the fry hatch. So, if a triggerfish gets angry at you for entering its territory while diving, move horizontally and back away. Be careful not to swim vertically away, as the water column is part of their territory!

Ocean triggerfish pictures- pez ballesta 2
Ocean Triggerfish

6. Caribbean Reef Triggerfish Facts

6.1. Queen Triggerfish

The body of the queen triggerfish is generally adorned with various shades of purple, blue, turquoise, and green. Its face has two distinctive bright blue stripes, while small lines radiate from around its eye. The lower part of the tail fin is yellow. Additionally, their coloration can pale or darken dramatically.

Juveniles of the queen triggerfish look quite different from adults. Their bodies are silver to gray with yellowish tints.

This species of fish can reach a length of up to 2 feet/0,6 m, although they typically measure around 1 foot0,3m. Queen triggerfish are also renowned for their high intelligence and curiosity.

queen triggerfish pictures - pez ballesta

6.2. Ocean Triggerfish

Canthidermis sufflamen, also known as the ocean triggerfish, is a species that exhibits a distinctive uniformly gray coloration. However, the tone can range from gray to grayish brown, often with a black blotch present at the base of the pectoral fin. Ocean triggerfish have the ability to undergo dramatic changes in coloration, becoming paler or darker.

The typical size range for ocean triggerfish is between 6 and 10 inches/15-25 cm, with a maximum length reaching up to 2 feet/ 0,6 m.

Ocean triggerfish pictures - pez ballesta

6.3. Gray Triggerfish Facts

The gray triggerfish has a compressed body covered in tough skin, varying in color from light gray to olive-gray to yellow-brown. It often exhibits white dots and lines on the lower body and fins and possesses a small mouth with sharp teeth.

One of the most notable characteristics of the gray triggerfish is the presence of blue spots and lines on its upper body and fins. Gray triggerfish are highly similar to oceanic triggerfish, with the distinction that the latter lacks the aforementioned blue markings.

This fish can reach a maximum length of 1 foot/0,3 m, but its typical size ranges from 6 and 10 inches/15-25 cm


grey triggerfish facts - pez ballesta

6.4. Rough Triggerfish

The rough triggerfish, also known as the spotted oceanic triggerfish or Canthidermis maculata, is characterized by its laterally compressed body covered with small, rough scales, from which it derives its name. This species exhibits a distinctive pattern of spots and lines across its body. The coloration of the rough triggerfish ranges from olive brown to brown, gray, or bluish. Its tail is rounded and lacks elongated tips.

Rough triggerfish typically measure between 6 and 10 inches/15-25 cm in length, but they can grow up to a maximum length of 13 inches/33 cm. Its diet primarily consists of small invertebrates, algae, and small fish.

rough triggerfish pictures - pez ballesta

6.5. Sargassum Triggerfish

Xanthichthys ringens, or the sargassum triggerfish, is a species known for its distinctive markings and colors. It features three dark lines on its cheek and a series of thin stripes on its body. Additionally, there is a white dot located just forward of the eye, accompanied by a white crescent bordering the upper eye. Notably, there is a dark line present at the base of both the dorsal and anal fins. The body color of this fish varies from bluish-gray to brownish-gray, with variations in intensity. The tail of the sargassum triggerfish displays red to orange borders.

sargassum triggerfish pictures - pez ballesta 3

Their typical size ranges from 5 to 8 inches, although some individuals can reach a maximum length of 10 inches/25 cm. They usually inhabit low-profile sections of outer reefs and offshore banks deeper than 80 feet/24m. However, in certain areas, they can also be found in shallower patch reefs. Young individuals often drift near the surface among sargassum, which is the reason behind their name.

In conclusion, triggerfish are fascinating inhabitants of the Caribbean reefs that captivate divers. These fish with their oval and colorful bodies, covered by a resilient armor of scales, are also capable of using their dorsal fins as a defense strategy. These facts about Caribbean triggerfish reveal their uniqueness in the underwater world. When are you coming to see them?