The Cleverly Camouflaged Red Irish Lord

In honor of St. Patrick’s day this month, we’re celebrating the colorful ‘Irish’ lords that roam off our coast – specifically the ‘Red Irish Lord’ (Hemilepidotus hemilepidotus). Red Irish Lords belong to a group of fish called sculpins, and are members of the ‘Cottidae’ family which include at least 275 species worldwide (1). Their scientific name comes from a combination of Greek words for ‘half’ and ‘scaled’ – referring to the large and distinct scales arranged in two bands along its back.

Seen In Our Hook-and-Line Surveys

Red Irish Lord
Photo: Anne Beaudreau

Red Irish Lord are most commonly found between Northern California and Alaska, from the intertidal zone out to water depths of 90m. In our marine reserve hook-and-line surveys over the years we’ve encountered 27 Red Irish Lord. Most of these were observed at our northernmost survey sites, at the Cape Falcon Marine Reserve and associated comparison areas, in water depths between 18-30m (60-100ft). Red Irish Lord have a maximum recorded size of 51cm (20in), but the largest individual the ODFW Marine Reserves Program has sampled was 40cm (15.7in). We routinely encounter three other sculpin species during our surveys: Brown Irish Lord (a close relative to Red Irish Lord), Buffalo Sculpin, and Cabezon.

Interesting Characteristics

Red Irish Lord
Photo: Sara Thiebaud

Sculpin species are commonly caught by recreational and commercial fishers, in nearshore and deeper waters, here in Oregon. Red Irish Lord are a ‘demersal species’ meaning that most of their life is spent on the seafloor – primarily in rock and gravel habitats. Their stocky, armored heads, are equipped with sharp spines to help fend off would-be predators. The distinct mottled patterns along their body help them blend into their surroundings as they lie in wait for unsuspecting prey. Their clever camouflage enables it to save energy and wait for their dinner to come to them. Red Irish Lord consume a variety of scrumptious prey ranging from crabs, snails, brittlestars and other small invertebrates, to small fish and octopus (1).

What’s Not To Like?

Red Irish Lord
Photo: Ryan Fields

Despite such vibrant colors, not everyone appreciates catching sculpins, and in some places these fish are considered a nuisance and have earned nicknames like ‘bullhead’ and ‘double ugly’. To be fair, the spines can be prickly and there isn’t always much to eat on a sculpin. The ODFW Marine Reserves Program staff happen to think that the bright and variable shades of red, pink, white, and brown help Red Irish Lord stand out as something special in Oregon’s marine reserves and stand worthy of commemoration in this month’s newsletter.

Learn More About Sculpins

Red Irish Lord

Check out this blog post by UW researcher Dr. Anne Beaudreau to learn more about how special Sculpins really are.

(1) Love, M. 2011. Certainly More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast – A Postmodern Experience. Really Big Press, Santa Barbara, California.