Featured Creature: Mummichog

What tiny fish is resistant to toxins, can breathe air when necessary, has more names than is easy to count, and was the first piscine space explorer?

The mummichog, of course!

We had the chance to interview a few of these amazing creatures; we found them to be unassuming, humble, and tough as nails when faced with adverse living conditions. They are hardy survivors!

Question: So how come you have so many names?

Answer: We don’t really know. We’re very popular. Linnaeus named us fundulus heteroclitus back in 1766. Our genus name comes from fundus, meaning “bottom” (where we feed), and our species name heteroclitus means “irregular” or “unusual” (which we certainly are)!

But we have so many names that they cannot be listed here. We have 26 Latinate names, picked up between 1766 and 1984, bestowed upon us by various scientists, and we’re also known by many common names including: mummichog (a Native American – Narragansett – name meaning “going in crowds” or “they go in great numbers” due to all our schooling behavior); mummies; Atlantic killifish; common killifish; killies; kelleys; chubs; brackish water chubs; gudgeons; salt water minnows; mud minnows; mud dabblers; and marsh minnows.

We do like playing in mud, though we’re not even actually in the minnow family (cyprinidae) at all!

Here’s a short informational video on us: Here!

Question: That’s a lot of names. So why are you so popular? Who are some of your friends?

Answer: Oh, we have lots of friends! First of all, fishermen love us, we think because we have such good and refined taste! But they also want us to help them catch fish, though we don’t too much like being treated just as a “bait object” by them. We also have lots of friends in academics who want our help with their research in embryological, physiological and toxicological studies. So we must be very smart to be able to provide them with so much scientific assistance!

But our most favorite friends are the astronauts who first took us up into space onto Skylab in 1973, as the first fish in orbit, just to see how we dealt with the absence of gravity! That was strange, but very interesting. It took us three weeks to adjust, though our hatchlings did fine right off!!! And they’ve even invited us back several times, just to see what we’d do. What fun we all had! And not being able to tell up from down was interesting.

Question: So why are all these people seeking your help? What’s so special about you?

Answer: (Laughter) Don’t we all think we’re special? We’re just who we are. Indeed, we’re really rather surprised at all the attention we get. First of all, we’re just tiny minnows, down here right near the very bottom of the salt marsh food chain. We can eat tiny worms, insect larvae (Yum! Lots of you appreciate that!), small minnows and molluscs, fish eggs (even our own), and grass as well. Indeed, we are omnivorous, while everyone else tries to eat us! So we have to breed up to eight times a summer, laying our eggs on big spring tides so they stick to blades of grass in the north, while our Southern cousins hide them in empty mussel shells and other safe spots.

But we stick together, which is why our original name was mummichog (“going in crowds”); we learned we were safer that way, in a strong community setting. We’re all very gregarious!

Question: But you didn’t address my question. You just told me you weren’t so special!

Answer: You caught us dodging the issue. I guess we’re a bit embarrassed by all the attention we get from these people. They all do think that we’re pretty special. Fisherman like us a lot, though we’re not so sure of their motives. Scientists seek us out for all sorts of reasons! We’re all quite temperature resistant and seem more resilient to pollution, so they all want to cozy up close to us so they can divine our secrets, though we think you should just stop polluting! Even reducing dissolved oxygen doesn’t faze us so badly, unlike other species of fish; we can even breathe air when we must, or wiggle across dry mud to reach water when we get caught by the ebbing tide. We can even live in fresh water, though we like our salt marshes best. So I guess we are unique!

You’re invited to take a look at where we swim around: Here!

Question: Tell us more about your resilience! Maybe we can learn something from you!

Answer: Well, you’re an Old Dog, but you do need to learn some new tricks. But we meant what we said about how you should just stop polluting our waters, since they are your waters too. It baffles us as to why you’re soiling the nest in which we all live. We’ve learned to adapt to all the abuses you’re throwing about, but we don’t like it so much. Why don’t you all just stop?

Question: I’m asking the questions here. I’ve got no answers for you. Tell us about your resilience!

Answer: OK. It’s just that we don’t like the stress you’re creating. It raises so many questions for which we’d like better answers from you, or at least a bit more relief. But you’re not changing your ways quickly enough for us. So we had to adapt to all the insults you humans were tossing around, and into our own nice homes.

When you suck the oxygen out of our waters, we had to learn how to breathe thin air, and to put up with all your stink. Contaminants spewed into these marshes. Ugh! We were forced to develop our resistance to methyl mercury, kepone, dioxins, creosote, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). But all these poisons slow us down and make us so sluggish it’s hard to keep going. We miss clean water. You humans are polluting our only home!

Author’s Note of Apology: Unfortunately, the mummichogs got so upset with this interview and the frustrations that they felt toward us humans, they got together and swam off in a school. Although they are learning to live with our poisons, they are increasingly impatient with us…

We might follow their lead, and learn from them to become more considerate of fellow species.