Blennies aren't the prettiest of nature's creatures. About as long as a roll of quarters, with big eyes and a gaping mouth, the fish are loved by scientists for their ecology more than their beauty. With over 800 species across the oceans, they are one of the world's most diverse fish families. By studying differences in blenny color, shape, size, location and diet, scientists can theorize how and why each member of the species branched off from the rest of the group.
With so many fish in the sea, keeping track of all this information can be tricky. To help, scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute developed interactive tools to map diversity in all fishes. Their first Web-based information system, created late last year, lists the nearly 1,300 species of fish of the isolated Tropical Eastern Pacific ocean range, which extends from the coasts of Southern California to Northern Peru and as far west as the Galapagos.
"The area acts as a laboratory to study evolutionary change that we know happened, , approximately 2.8 million years ago," says Smithsonian scientist D. Ross Robertson, who co-created the research tool with Gerald Allen of Conservation International.
Robertson and Allen, who in 1992 first described the twin-spot triplefin blenny, (pictured above), are now diving in the waters around the Caribbean to collect and photograph local fish for their next Website. "Photographs of live or freshly collected fishes are important aids for identification," Robertson says. "And systems such as this can incorporate far more than a book can."
Although the website is designed to help scientists identify fish species, spot patterns of diversity and plan conservation efforts, anyone can enjoy the ‘Random Images' tab, which cycles through the over 2,800 pictures of tropical fish found on the site. If a flounder or eel catches your eye, more general reader information can be found at the Encyclopedia of Life or Wikipedia.