BlenniidaeCombtooth blennies


The family Blenniidae is the largest family in its suborder, consisting of six tribes with 53 genera and 345 species. A slender, elongate body and cryptic coloring assist many blennies in their secretive lifestyle in crevices and holes on the bottom of inshore waters. Blennies are known for their distinctive teeth, which are close-set in a single row on each jaw, and some blennies have a huge canine on each lower jaw, hence the descriptors “comb-toothed” and “saber-toothed." Blennies possess interesting traits ranging from mimicry and hopping over terrestrial rocks to adopting separate colors for courtship. Most blennies feed on algae and small invertebrates, but some attack other fish to steal bites of fin, scales, or skin. (Allen and Robertson, 1994; Böhlke and Chaplin, 1994; Dr. Foster and Dr. Smith, 2000; Froese, et al., 2003; Harmelin-Vivien, 2002; Helfman, et al., 1997; Hoese and Moore, 1998; Moyle and Cech, 2000; Nelson, 1994; Springer, 1994; Thresher, 1984; Wheeler, 1985)

Geographic Range

Blennies can be found in the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans, in tropical, subtropical, and temperate waters throughout the world. (Böhlke and Chaplin, 1994; Dr. Foster and Dr. Smith, 2000; Froese, et al., 2003; Helfman, et al., 1997; Nelson, 1994; Böhlke and Chaplin, 1994; Dr. Foster and Dr. Smith, 2000; Froese, et al., 2003; Helfman, et al., 1997; Nelson, 1994; Böhlke and Chaplin, 1994; Dr. Foster and Dr. Smith, 2000; Froese, et al., 2003; Helfman, et al., 1997; Nelson, 1994)


While blennies are primarily marine fishes, some members of the family occur in estuaries or in fresh water, for example, in lakes in Italy. They inhabit shallow, inshore, often intertidal, waters. Blennies are generally benthic, occupying grass beds, tide pools, or areas near rocks, shells, or corals. The saber-toothed blennies, Aspidontus and Meiacanthus, are free swimming. (Böhlke and Chaplin, 1994; Helfman, et al., 1997; Moyle and Cech, 2000; Nelson, 1994; Springer, 1994; Wheeler, 1985)

Systematic and Taxonomic History

The Blenniidae family consists of six tribes: Salariini with 26 genera, Parablenniini with about 12 genera, Blenniini with two genera, Omobranchini with seven genera, Phenablenniini with one species, and Neomophini (saber-toothed blennies) with five genera (Smith-Vaniz 1976). (Nelson, 1994; Nelson, 1994)

Blennies are one of several recently derived families (Acanthuridae, Monacanthidae, Pomacentridae, Scaridae, Siganidae) capable of exploiting reef algae and small colonial invertebrates. Reef herbivory was primarily restricted to post-Cretaceous perciformes until these families underwent rapid evolution during the early Tertiary, 50 to 30 million years ago. (Harmelin-Vivien, 2002)

Physical Description

Blennies have scaleless, elongated bodies, and comb-like, slender, close-set teeth, which can be either fixed or movable. A pair of giant canines give the saber-toothed blennies their name, and in the poison-fanged blennies (Meiacanthus) these teeth are hollow and contain an injectable toxin. In blennies the palatines are toothless, and the mouth not protractile. The head is often blunt and typically adorned with tentacles or cirri. Blennies are usually small, but a few can reach 55 cm. The dorsal fin has more rays than spines, and the anal fin has two spines. Blennies exhibit a wide variety of uniform colors as well as spots, stripes, or bands, and some species exhibit two or three color patterns. Cryptic coloring is widespread. (Click here to see a fish diagram). (Allen and Robertson, 1994; Böhlke and Chaplin, 1994; Dr. Foster and Dr. Smith, 2000; Froese, et al., 2003; Helfman, et al., 1997; Moyle and Cech, 2000; Nelson, 1994; Springer, 1994; Wheeler, 1985)

Sexual dimorphism is common to many of the blennies. In general males are larger than females and in some species have a larger head. The cirri on the head can take distinct forms in males and females, as can the anal spines. Males of some species have fleshy swellings near the dorsal or anal fins that become larger during spawning season. Many blennies assume spawning colors, most frequently the male, but sometimes the female as well. Males tend to develop brighter coloration during spawning, especially under the jaw, and in one species males take on a third color pattern while egg-tending. (Böhlke and Chaplin, 1994; Thresher, 1984)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • sexes shaped differently
  • ornamentation


Blennies generally pass through a pelagic, postlarval stage after a short planktonic stage. The young pelagic fishes look different enough from their adult form that they were classified at one time as a separate subfamily. Transformation into the adult form occurs at some time after the postlarvae enter a littoral habitat. (Böhlke and Chaplin, 1994; Moyle and Cech, 2000; Wheeler, 1985)


Blennies attract mates near the holes or crevices in which spawning occurs. The females will often initiate courtship, some assuming new coloration for spawning. When the female enters the area the male engages in courtship behavior that can include changing into spawning colors, bobbing the head up and down at the mouth of the cave, and leading the female to the nest by swimming with an undulating motion. One the male may mate with several females. Males of some species apparently move toward an olfactory cue released by other males during spawning. (Thresher, 1984)

It is probable that blennies spawn throughout the year, probably during the day. Some groups only spawn during warmer times of the year, and one species spawns every three to four days. Spawning usually occurs in the male’s territory in a cave, crevice, or other shelter. The male entices the female into the cave with various courtship behaviors (see Reproduction: Mating Systems), at which point she begins to lay eggs on the surfaces of the shelter. Spawning may take only a few minutes, or may last more than a day; eggs may be deposited all at once, or on several trips into the nest. Depending on the size of the cave, the male may enter with the female, or may make intermittent trips into the hole to fertilize the eggs. The male is generally active during spawning, deterring predators, and afterwards guarding the eggs until hatching. Females may occasionally guard the nest as well. One male may mate with several females, brooding all the eggs in the same nest. (Allen and Robertson, 1994; Springer, 1994; Thresher, 1984; Wheeler, 1985)

Blennies deposit their eggs in clumps on the hidden surfaces of crevices or holes. The male, and sometimes the female, guards the eggs until they hatch, at which point the larvae are left to fend for themselves. During hatching some males energetically fan the eggs. (Froese, et al., 2003; Springer, 1994; Thresher, 1984; Wheeler, 1985)


There was no information found regarding the lifespan of blenniids.


Blennies tend to be secretive, remaining near the bottom and hiding their eggs in crevices. Some hide in holes and dart out at their prey. Blennies may eat invertebrates or algae, or survive by nipping the skin, scales, or fins of other fish. Some blennies, known as “rock-hoppers,” are able to leap out of the water to cross the rocks between pools. A number of blenniids engage in mimicry. One saber-toothed blenny, Aspidontus taeniatus, mimics the cleaner wrasse Labroides dimidiatus. The blenny is able to approach and take a nip out of large fish that are accustomed to being cleaned by the nearly identical-looking wrasse. Several genera of blennies (Ecsenius and Plagiotremus — also known as Runula) gain protection from their resemblance to poison fanged blennies (Meiacanthus), who use venom defensively (see Predation). (Allen and Robertson, 1994; Böhlke and Chaplin, 1994; Helfman, et al., 1997; Moyle and Cech, 2000; Springer, 1994)

Communication and Perception

Other than descriptions of visual and olfactory communication during mating (see Reproduction: Mating Systems), no specific information was found concerning communication methods used by this group.

  • Other Communication Modes
  • mimicry

Food Habits

Primarily bottom-dwellers, blennies tend to feed on other benthic organisms, both algae and invertebrates. Some are planktivores, some carnivores; others scrape algae off coral and rocks and in the process may be feeding on small organisms that live in association with the algae. Some blennies nip pieces of skin, scales, or fins from larger fish. (Dr. Foster and Dr. Smith, 2000; Froese, et al., 2003; Harmelin-Vivien, 2002; Helfman, et al., 1997; Moyle and Cech, 2000; Springer, 1994)


Most blennies depend on a secretive lifestyle to survive, having coloration that blends in with their surroundings and hiding on the bottom in shallow waters. Some can escape predators by hopping over rocks from pool to pool. Meiacanthus can inject venom from the base of a groove in its large canine teeth. Any predator that gulps Meiacanthus apparently receives a toxic bite on the inside of its mouth and Meiacanthus is able to swim away freely. Several genera of blennies (Ecsenius, Plagiotremus — also known as Runula) gain protection from mimicking the coloration of Meiacanthus. Other blenniids engage in mimicry as well; one saber-toothed blenny, Aspidontus taeniatus, mimics the cleaner wrasse Labroides dimidiatus in color and behavior. The blenny is able to approach and take a nip out of large fish that are accustomed to being cleaned by the nearly identical-looking wrasse. (Springer, 1994; Wheeler, 1985)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • mimic
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Blennies are largely herbivorous and as such play an important role in grazing reef algae, keeping it from smothering corals. Blennies are a predominant group in intertidal and inshore zones and are specialized to occupy holes and crevices. (Moyle and Cech, 2000; Wheeler, 1985)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Blenniids are not food fishes, but the genera Ecsenius, Salarias, and Meiacanthus are gathered for aquarium use. (Dr. Foster and Dr. Smith, 2000; Wheeler, 1985)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

No specific information was found concerning any negative impacts to humans.

Conservation Status

Currently, there is no known conservation threat to any member of this family. (The World Conservation Union, 2002)

  • IUCN Red List [Link]
    Not Evaluated

Other Comments

The first fossil records of blenniids date from the upper Tertiary and upper Miocene periods. (Berg, 1958)


Monica Weinheimer (author), Animal Diversity Web.

R. Jamil Jonna (author), Animal Diversity Web.


Arctic Ocean

the body of water between Europe, Asia, and North America which occurs mostly north of the Arctic circle.

Atlantic Ocean

the body of water between Africa, Europe, the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), and the western hemisphere. It is the second largest ocean in the world after the Pacific Ocean.

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Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

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living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

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living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

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Pacific Ocean

body of water between the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), Australia, Asia, and the western hemisphere. This is the world's largest ocean, covering about 28% of the world's surface.

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Referring to an animal that lives on or near the bottom of a body of water. Also an aquatic biome consisting of the ocean bottom below the pelagic and coastal zones. Bottom habitats in the very deepest oceans (below 9000 m) are sometimes referred to as the abyssal zone. see also oceanic vent.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

brackish water

areas with salty water, usually in coastal marshes and estuaries.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature


an area where a freshwater river meets the ocean and tidal influences result in fluctuations in salinity.

external fertilization

fertilization takes place outside the female's body

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


union of egg and spermatozoan


mainly lives in water that is not salty.


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

intertidal or littoral

the area of shoreline influenced mainly by the tides, between the highest and lowest reaches of the tide. An aquatic habitat.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males


imitates a communication signal or appearance of another kind of organism


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oceanic islands

islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

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reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


an organism that obtains nutrients from other organisms in a harmful way that doesn't cause immediate death

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.


an animal that mainly eats plankton


an animal which has a substance capable of killing, injuring, or impairing other animals through its chemical action (for example, the skin of poison dart frogs).


having more than one female as a mate at one time


structure produced by the calcium carbonate skeletons of coral polyps (Class Anthozoa). Coral reefs are found in warm, shallow oceans with low nutrient availability. They form the basis for rich communities of other invertebrates, plants, fish, and protists. The polyps live only on the reef surface. Because they depend on symbiotic photosynthetic algae, zooxanthellae, they cannot live where light does not penetrate.

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

sexual ornamentation

one of the sexes (usually males) has special physical structures used in courting the other sex or fighting the same sex. For example: antlers, elongated tails, special spurs.


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


an animal which has an organ capable of injecting a poisonous substance into a wound (for example, scorpions, jellyfish, and rattlesnakes).


uses sight to communicate

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year


Allen, G., D. Robertson. 1994. Fishes of the Tropical Eastern Pacific. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

Berg, L. 1958. System Der Rezenten und Fossilen Fischartigen und Fische. Berlin: VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften.

Böhlke, J., C. Chaplin. 1994. Fishes of the Bahamas and Adjacent Tropical Waters. Wynnewood, Pa: Published for the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia by Livingston.

Dr. Foster, , Dr. Smith. 2000. "PetEducation.Com" (On-line). Drs. Foster and Smith's source for expert pet information. Accessed July 28, 2003 at

Froese, R., D. Pauly, D. Woodland. 2003. "Fish Base" (On-line). FishBase World Wide Web electronic publication. Accessed July 28, 2003 at

Harmelin-Vivien, M. 2002. Energetics and Fish Diversity on Coral Reefs. Pp. 269 in P Sale, ed. Coral Reef Fishes: Dynamics and Diversity in a Complex Ecosystem. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Helfman, G., B. Collete, D. Facey. 1997. The Diversity of Fishes. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Hoese, D., R. Moore. 1998. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters – second edition. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.

Moyle, P., J. Cech. 2000. Fishes: An Introduction to Ichthyology – fourth edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Nelson, J. 1994. Fishes of the World – third edition. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons.

Springer, V. 1994. Blennies. Pp. 214-217 in W Eschmeyer, J Paxton, eds. Encyclopedia of Fishes – second edition. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

The World Conservation Union, 2002. "IUCN 2002" (On-line). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed July 28, 2003 at

Thresher, R. 1984. Reproduction in Reef Fishes. Neptune City, NJ: T.F.H. Publications.

Wheeler, A. 1985. The World Encyclopedia of Fishes. London: Macdonald.