- Sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus) is a distinct fish species, widely known for its unique jaw structure and human-like teeth.
- It belongs to the genus Archosargus of family Sparidae and is only found on the west coast of the North Atlantic ocean.
The Sparidae family of fishes is an odd bunch. With a compressed body and numerous pointy dorsal spines, the Sheepshead fish is not like other common fish species.
But it’s not the outer appearance that makes the species so distinctive.
Most members of this family are hermaphrodite or display hermaphroditism in which an organism can be both male and female. They can change their sex from male to female (protandry) or female to male (protogyny).
One particular species of the Sparidae family can have a hallucinogenic effect on your body when consumed. Selema porgy, more commonly known as the dreamfish, was most likely used in Europe during the Roman Empire as a recreational psychedelic. Its effects could remain for as much as three days.
According to a toxicology report by two researchers from Hôpital Salvator in Marseille, a 90-year-old individual started having nightmares and hallucinations of birds screaming after consuming the dreamfish. It lasted for more than 48 hours.
Another man suffering from ichthyosarcotoxism (poisoning by fish ingestion) reportedly hallucinated about screaming animals and life-threatening spiders.
The creepiest thing about Sheepshead fish (Archosargus probatocephalus), however, is its human-like frontal teeth. Below, we have laid out some of the most interesting facts about the species, including its unique teeth structure.
Table of Contents
Sheepshead’s Appearance and Anatomy
Sheepshead | Image Courtesy: Jim Franks
An average sheepshead can reach up to 50 cm in length and 1.8 kg in weight. The largest specimen caught to date measures about 71 cm in length and weighed more than 7 kg.
The sheepshead fish has a smaller head compared to its body, a highly elevated back, and a compact overall structure. Though they have a silvery appearance in general, multiple vertical black strips (about five or seven) running down their bodies give them a distinctive look. Due to their appearance, the species is often called the ‘convict fish’ (don’t confuse it with convict cichlid).
The species can be confused with others that have similar vertical stripes, such as the small black drum fish. Sheepshead, however, can be easily distinguished by their pointy spines, fins, and of course, the unique teeth.
For those who are wondering, the California sheepshead (Semicossyphus pulcher), native to the Gulf of California, is an entirely different species. The California sheepshead is slightly larger and heavier, and have colorful markings on its body.
The Sheepshead fish is found in a region stretching from the coast of Nova Scotia (Canada) to Brazil in the western Atlantic Ocean. However, the largest concentration of the fish is located near Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.
Do you know, the Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, New York, is named after the fish species, even though their number in the area is meager.
Sheepshead can survive and prosper in a wide variety of habitats, including backwaters, canals, bays and bayous, and even in freshwaters. They are usually found near and around mangroves, oyster reefs, rock pillars, reefs, and jetties.
Diet and Fishing
The sheepshead diet includes a wide variety of crustacean and plant species. They usually feed on clams, mollusks, oysters, shrimps, and fiddler crabs.
Their diet is influenced by seasonal changes and the availability of prey. While they consume shrimps and other crustaceans year-round, sheepshead can survive on plants during the summer.
Due to their preferred habitat, sheepsheads are easy to locate by anglers but are quite tricky to catch. They have a notorious habit of stealing fishing baits, such as shrimps and small crabs. Fishers often require smaller hooks and quick reaction to capture them.
The species is a popular target for recreational fishing and is also commercially valuable.
Life Cycle and Reproduction
The sheepshead is a migratory species. They tend to move inshore waters during the summers while relocating to offshore breeding grounds during the late winters. In some cases, however, adults remain in their offshore habitats year-round. On average, a female sheepshead lay about 87,000 eggs per spawn.
As juvenile sheepshead enters adulthood, their fins change colors (it’s usually darker). The black strips on their bodies also become more apparent.
Exponential growth in a sheepshead individual is observed between the first three to five years. They usually reach about 80% of their total size by age five. Both males and females have almost identical growth rates, though few studies suggest that males grow slower than their female counterparts. Their size and rate-of-growth also depend on location.
Like other fish, the sheepshead too has a parasite problem. Microcotyle archosargi, a monogenean parasite, is known to infest its gills.
Though the species is not listed as endangered, overfishing of sheepshead is a matter of concern.
Sheepshead’s Human-like Teeth
Sheepshead mouth | Image Courtesy: Virginia Institute of Marine Science
Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the sheepshead fish is its human-like teeth. An adult sheepshead has sharp incisors in front and sturdy molars in the backside of both upper and lower jaws. They play an essential role in crushing hard shells of their prey.
The unusual structure of their teeth (for a fish) allows them to consume and process a wide variety of sustenance, including vertebrates, invertebrates, and plants.
When young, sheepsheads consume mostly soft-bodied marine organisms. As they reach adulthood, however, their now well-formed and specialized molars allow them to consume armored prey, including crabs, barnacles, and oysters.
Extensive studies of their jaw muscle structure have shown that an adult sheepshead is more likely to muster greater jaw strength and crushing power than that of a young one. It is also evident that the jaw muscle strength or crushing force of the sheepshead fish plays a vital role in determining the composition of their diet.
Though it is not clear why the species in named sheepshead, it’s a popular belief that the name refers to the structure of its jaws that resembles that of a sheep.