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Episode 2: The Plainfin Midshipman (Porichthys notatus)

Ilana teaches Elizabeth and Hannah about the discovery, appearance, ecology and queerness of the plainfin midshipman (Porichthys notatus), a fluorescent fish found along the west coast of North America. Hint: for a little foreshadowing, their other common name is the California singing fish! For more information, take a look at our sources in the episode transcript on our website. Please take a minute and rate our show! It will make a world of difference in getting our show out there for more people to know about. Thanks so much for listening! Timestamps Species introduction: 1:29 Description of the fish’s looks: 5:24 Plainfin midshipman ecology: 12:37 Queerness of the California singing fish: 23:08, 25:42 General discussion: 24:42, 35:49 Content warnings: discussion of reproduction and reproductive organs (26:02-26:52), foul language (33:15-33:17)


Ilana (I): Hi everyone, and welcome to today's episode of Queerly Natural, where we talk about queerness in the natural world. We discuss different traits and qualities of animals, plants, fungi, and more and how they relate to queer identities in humans. Some may argue our identities are not natural and we are here to say, they queerly are! We are your hosts:

I’m Ilana,

Hannah (H): I’m Hannah,

Elizabeth (E): And I’m Elizabeth.

H: Before we begin, I want to say thank you for all the support for our first episode. A special thank you goes out to our new patrons, Beans, Sam, and Kelsey, and our Legacy Tree patron, Clare. If you want to support our show in other ways, please subscribe to our show and tell your friends. Doing so helps so much to spread our audience. In addition, the content warnings for this episode can be found in the episode description with timestamps so you can skip around as needed.

E: And now, we are so excited for y’all to hear this episode on the Plainfin Midshipman, also known as the California Singing Fish. Ilana brings some really great science and some quality sound effects to the episode this week, which I had a lot of fun with and I suspect you will too. Please enjoy Queerly Natural episode 2: the Plainfin Midshipman.


I: This week we are going to be talking about Porichthys notatus, otherwise known as the plainfin midshipman. It is a species of fish that was first described to science- of course western science- in 1854. It was part of a larger book by Charles Gerrard. So, a little bit about Charles Gerard: he lived from 1822 to 1895 [1]. He's from France, studied in Switzerland, and ended up in the United States in 1850 to assist Spencer Fullerton Baird, who worked at the Smithsonian Institute. A lot of his [Charles Gerard’s] works were on herpetology and ichthyology but he was a not a great guy. He eventually accepted a commission from the Confederacy supplying drugs and medicine [1].

H: Like the Confederate States of America?

I: Yes.

H: Like the [American] Civil War.

I: Yes.

H: Wait, I’m sorry, when did you say he was alive?

I: 1860 was when he accepted the position.

E: Okay, pretty classic biology.

I: He eventually left for Paris, returning once to the Southern states. But he ended up staying in Paris and ended up practicing medicine, which is quite a varied career, you know [1].

E: Huh.

I: Are you okay Hannah?

H: It's just like, a guy supporting f*cking slavery should not be a doctor!

I: Yeah…

E: There were lots of them.

H: Just a concept out there. I mean I know historically a lot of them were doctors, but like…

I: But imagine being a herpetologist, so you study like amphibians-

E: And snakes!

I: And snakes…

E: And other reptiles.

I: -and an ichthyologist, studying fish. Yes. So, we've got herpetology: snakes, reptiles, amphibians, ichthyology: fish, and then also medicine: humans.

H: Clearly knowing about frogs means you'll be a good doctor.

I: I mean, isn't that what high school biology teaches us?

E: I mean… Okay, as someone who's working on a herpetology grad school project, don't trust me to be any kind of doctor. It's like, I've never taken an anatomy class. I don't know anything about people! That makes me nervous.

H: Those tortoises don't give you an M.D.? What?

E: You know, it's really shocking, but you know we just don't really talk about antibiotics or any other kind of human medical treatment when I'm working with turtles. Doesn't come up much for some reason.

I: Did they- I don't think they had antibiotics yet?

E: Oh! I don't know, penicillin was... early 1900s.

H: Yeah all right, yeah good point. That was what, 1920s?

I: Yeah, that was the World Wars.

E: Well, that's concerning on a lot of levels. All right, all right. Okay. Suddenly it's making sense how more people died of disease than fighting in the [US] Civil War. Yeah.

I: All right. Well, after that dive into the history of the guy who gave this fish their name-

H: Charles Gerard-

I: Yes.

E: Oh, side note on the fish name! I feel like it says something about the popularity of a species how long the common name is, because you know what, I already forgot the common name, Ilana. It was too long! But you know if it's got a really long common name…

I: Oh it's plainfin midshipman.

E: Clang… what?

I: It's the plainfin midshipman; that's one of its names and it's actually due, they believe, to bioluminescent spots resembling buttons on a navy uniform that the fish has [2].

H: Oh! That is so cute!

E: Okay, you could come up with a way cooler name for a fish with glow-in-the-dark buttons, or spots that look like buttons.

H: Midshipman, wow! I am charmed. He has a job, he has a job and he's wearing a uniform for it!

E: Yeah, plainfin midshipman... that's just sad.

H: That is pretty sad, but like he doesn't really live in capitalism so…

E: Super cute.

I: Yes well this fish does have a few other common names, but I want to hold off addressing those common names for a little bit and you'll see why.

E: Okay.

I: But before we get into all of its different names (because of course it has a bazillion because that's common names for you)…

H: Of course.

E: True.

I: Let's do some describing. As I said, Charles Gerard described this fish to science originally. Let's see how you guys do.

H: Oh, we get to look at the pictures.

I: Click the link that I sent you.

E: Okay.

H: I can't wait, after hearing about the buttons I’m very excited. Oh my gosh, he is so spiffy! This fish is so spiffy. He's got like a silver little tum-tum and then down his little tail is just a line of buttons! I doubted the button thing but they really look like buttons.

E: What? Okay, I admit I’m not a fish person in the least, but this first picture, if you asked me what it was first, starting off the bat I would say a dead bird so…

I: Um. Elizabeth, the first image is a dead bird.


H: Oh my god!

I: It's in the mouth.


E: All right, I feel better about my biology skills, a little bit. I'm concerned but also relieved.

H: (laughter) I’m still looking at this dead bird.

E: I’m a professional biologist guys. (laughter)

I: Yeah scroll down a bit more because some of those are really babies.

H: Oooh.

E: Aww, he's so cute! Okay. I finally found a picture of the fish guys. I got it. I’m so on top of this…

I: But yeah, what are some key features besides the beautiful descriptions Hannah has given us?

E: Hmm, I’m gonna sound fancy to make up for my dead bird. They're very laterally compressed. They're flat.

H: Ooh. Flat in which way?

E: So they're wider across than top bottom. So they kind of look like a tapeworm, kind of look like a snail, kind of skinny and thick across. Yeah.

H: Yeah, like the wide part’s to the ground.

E: Yeah, yep.

H: And then like on his back, he's also got a little pattern going on color wise. He's like pretty cream-colored and then he's got these brown little stripeys on his back.

E: Yeah, are you seeing these teeth Hannah? I admit I flipped a little further and these guys have some pretty strong scary looking teeth, right in the front. I'm betting this guy eats meat, because those look like tearing fangs to me.

H: Oh, wow. Yeah no. His mouth is pretty scary.

E: He's kind of got vampire teeth, just the two big fangs on the top.

H: He's got like two big fangs on the top and then a bunch of little ones on the bottom. Yeah.

E: So he either eats meat, or uses those to latch onto a host, or both.

H: Yeah because they're kind of also angled in toward his mouth, which kind of makes me think about your second point for like latching.

E: Yeah.

H: Because they're angled. Like they would kind of keep him in whatever he's latching on to. But.

E: Yeah. If you guys know lampreys…

H: Similar concept. But around his eyes he's got these like blue spots and stripes kind of…

E: Hmm.

H: Do you see do you see what I’m talking about?

E: Ooh, I see what you mean.

I: Are you looking at the phytophores?

H: Ooh, is that what those blue spots are called?

E: Yes, enlighten us Ilana.

I: If you're looking at what I’m looking at. I don't know if I’d call them blue but… Would you guys like me to take over from here? None of us are fish people.

E: Okay.

H: Yes please.

E: But also, last thing I’m going to throw out there is like basic body shape. The head is wider than most of the body. It's kind of triangular like, um, like venomous snakeheads are, and it's got fins- it's got lateral fins below the base of the head. And then like a very long thinner body that just tapers off and has like, finlets, along it…? I don't know if that's the right word.

H: Finlets… Baby fins.

E: Not a fish person!

H: None of us study fish.

E: It's got little wavy bits that attach to most of its body all the way down. I'm, I'm going with it. Ahem. Dorsal, dorsal fin, thing. Yes. All right, now that I’ve embarrassed myself, go ahead Ilana.

I: All right. So, without getting into too many different, uh, fancy fish terms, you guys did catch some of the key characteristics. They're considered, first of all, to have flat heads- as you pointed out. Their eyes are more towards the top of their head [3].

E: True.

I: They've got a broad front mouth with a deep cleft, so their lower jaw actually is slightly more outwards than their top, creating a little gape. Their teeth are actually considered pretty small in the front, except for of course those two big pointy bois [3].

E: Yeah the other ones are small. Top teeth are SCARY!

I: The second dorsal fin’s pretty long as you pointed out [3].

H: Are the dorsal fins the ones on the back?

I: Mm-hm [yes].

H: Okay, what are the main fins, like the ones that would be arms?

I: Pectoral fins.

H: Pectoral fins. Ah.

I: So you've got the dorsal on the back, the pectoral on the side, you've got pelvic spines kind of right below and then you've got the anal fin and the caudle fin which is the tail.

H: Oh.

E: What's the name for the tail? Can you say that again?

I: Caudal fin.

E: Caudal fin. Okay. All right, learning all sorts of fish things today.

H: I feel like I knew that in the deep, deep recesses of my mind.

E: (laughter) Entirely possible like, like I learned it in kindergarten and then forgot.

E: I’m pretty sure I taught the different names of fish fins at some point.

I: Intro bio fish dissections. Kindergarten, intro bio... Same difference.

H: Five years ago honestly feels like 17 years ago so… Time isn't real.

I: True. So one of my sources actually called them grotesque in appearance [3].

H: Excuse me.

E: How judgmental.

I: With a color of dirty brown or green, though some people consider it more of a bluish purple color [3]-

E: Purple.

I: -on the top, and then of course more of a silvery belly as you pointed out, which I think was more apparent on the younger ones that you saw [3].

H: Yeah.

E: Yes.

I: Their size can be up to about 13 and a half inches, or 34.3 centimeters [3].

H: Wow.

E: Okay. Pretty big.

I: They're scaleless, and as you mentioned, they have several lines of phytophores [3]. So those are some of the key characteristics.

H: Oh wait, were all the stripes phytophores?

I: So not the thick stripes, but if you saw there were little like light colored dots.

E: On the underbelly or above as well?

H: Oh, just the ones like around their face and stuff?

I: All around its body and underneath them.

E: Okay both, got it.

I: Yes. So, those are some descriptions. Of course as everyone knows, we will definitely share pictures on our socials so you can see what this fish looks like. I think they're pretty cool-looking.

E: Not the dead bird photo. I'm gonna hide that from everybody so you can't judge me.


I: I will not, no. I'm not gonna share the dead bird photo. We will share probably a photo or two of the young one and then the older ones, where you can see their nice pointy teeth. But moving on from probably the hardest part of this podcast for everyone involved, let's talk a little bit about where you could find these fish. So, these fish are found on the Pacific coast of North America from Alaska down to the south end of California. Around the southern edge of its range it actually transitions into another fish of the same genus [3]. But their habitat includes, they can be found in the intertidal zones and up to depths of 145 fathoms [3].

H: Oooh.

E: Very cool.

I: Now if you're like me and you cannot fathom what a fathom is... yes I've been holding on to the pun.

E: I love it.

I: 145 fathoms is about 870 feet or 265 meters. So, they can get pretty deep.

E: That is deep. Wow.

H: Wow.

I: They spend most of their year in these deeper areas [3].

H: Wait I had one question Ilana. What is the intertidal zone?

I: So the intertidal zone is where you'll have the tides going up and back on the beach. So you know, areas where you see those pools filling up and you'll find like different creatures there. They'll be around those areas.

H: Like pools left when the water recedes?

I: Yeah. So they can actually survive in wet sand up to a few hours. Ideally they want to stay wet but they can do it.

H: That's like a big range.

I: Yep.

H: So, like wet sand to you said like 100 meters down or something.

I: Yes. I mean ideally, they don't want to be in wet sand.

H: Yeah.

I: But they can survive. Most of the year they do spend in the deeper parts of the ocean and the deeper parts of their range [3]. However in the spring and early summer, you can find them in these shallower areas because this is where they breed [3].

H: Ah.

E: Mating time.

I: They are nocturnal fish [4]. So, we will find them most often active at nighttime. Their diet… So, you guys mentioned they have their [sharp] teeth: they do not eat plants. From different studies the most common thing eaten is actually their own embryos; both the eggs, the eggshells, and the embryos. So there have been multiple studies on cannibalism [5].

E: Oh, that's metal.

H: That's very metal.

I: Along with mollusks, nematodes, crustaceans, and the occasional insect [5].

H: Wow.

E: All right, all right.

I: But they don't eat fish. Fish are friends not food for these guys.

E: Nice.

H: Except for their own (laugh), except for their own babies.

I: Yes, oh yeah, yep.

E: Very interesting, except themselves.

H: Can I ask like what motivates that; did you find why they're cannibals?

I: So the majority of these embryos have been found in the digestive tract of the males [5]. I’ll be going into a little bit more about reproduction in this species [later], but males are actually the ones to stay and guard the nest. The female lays her eggs and leaves and returns to the deeper part of the ocean. Some of the males will stay and guard the nests and they don't really leave [5]. And it was thought for this period they were starving but it was found that they will eat a few of their own young [5]. Sometimes this is found in females but more often in these guys. Out of a hundred and one males guarding nests, about 69% had offspring in their digestive tract: an average of eight [consumed] but it varied from one to a hundred and six [5]. Their nest, though, can consist up to like almost a thousand eggs [5].

H: Wow.

E: Okay. Uh, you know, loss of a few for the good of the many.

H: Just a little snacky. Just a little tiny snack.

I: You know. So going in to a little more specific[ity] about the other things they eat, they eat shrimp juveniles, assassin bugs, gastropods, shore crabs, juvenile clams, hermit crabs... Nematodes were one of the most common aside from their own embryos [5]…

E: Oh wow.

H: Tiny and easily overcome and ubiquitous [prey].

I: And a few different parasites, which is debated if they're food or not. Yeah so they got those teeth but they're not really uh, using them to catch other fish or big big guys. I mean they're not the biggest themselves. So, their eggs actually resemble salmon eggs: they're round, about six millimeters and orange [3]. The young stay in the eggs for about 16 to 20 days and then will actually spend their first month after hatching surviving off the yolk [3]. So the female lays the eggs and sticks them to the top of a rock cave that the male has excavated, and the young will exist up there in their eggs, eventually hatching, and exist off that yolk for about a month before leaving [3]. The babies look kind of like little tadpoles when they first hatch, and eventually start to look more like their parents [3].

H: Aww.

E: Cute. I wonder if evolution is moving them towards a quicker hatching time because that would reduce the amount of parental predation.

I; Yeah so there's some interesting things here. The parents… I'll go a little more into what the father does in a bit; there's a reason I’m kind of waiting on that topic because it relies on some more discussion.

E: Alright.

I: But once these guys hatch, they eat crustacean larvae and zooplankton at night and eventually do move to deeper waters from the intertidal zone [3].

E: Gotcha. As a note about the eggs, I found some pictures of them on this lovely source Ilana has provided us and they… If you guys drink boba, you know you can get the flavored boba? And it looks kind of like the mango ones. They're nice and orange, a little translucent! Just a snacky snack.


H: They look delicious.

E: They do! I can't really judge the dads you know, those look tasty.

H: Yeah.

E: Just saying.

H: They look mango flavored, yeah.

E: I like mango.

H: Have you had caviar? Does it taste like mango? I don't even know.

E: I would think not. I don't know. I haven't eaten it.

I: So, I have a question for you guys..

E: Uh-huh.

H: Yeah.

I: What sound does a fish make?

E: Oooh, this is harder than what sound a fox makes! Um.

H: I bet it's really cute. I'm just like, bwoap (attempted fish sound) bwoap.

E: I don't know, do fish make a lot of noise? Can you hear it underwater? Is this like if a tree falls in a forest and no one's around? Hhmm, fish noises.

H: Or maybe they're just like little chirps, like yip ip. I imagine a fish would sound like that.

E: It could be... okay I’m gonna go completely out of what I expect. So I’m gonna say these fish sound like koalas and they go like rrwaaaa (koala sound imitation). Koalas sound very mean y'all, if you didn't know. (laughter)

H: Really?

I: There's a lot of things that sound very mean, but fish normally are not considered ones for being very talkative. This fish’s other name that I mentioned is the California singing fish, or the canary bird fish [2].


E: Aw that's such a cute name! Please tell me. I have high expectations of the singing now.

H: Yeah.

E: I want to hear, like, carols.

I: So there's two different main sounds this fish makes. What was originally written down as the reason for this name is actually likely not the correct reason that they received this name [3,4].

E: Okay...

I: I'm going to do my best to make this sound for you guys, which is the first sound that they make. Which is an Onk, Onk [3]!


E: Oh my gosh.

I: Probably not correct. But basically, many fish have air bladders, so it's an organ that will fill with air which helps them with their buoyancy, and these guys are actually able to contract that to grunt [3].


I: One scientist reported hearing this grunt up to 40 feet away [3].

E: Wow!

I: And it is used to kind of intimidate and be like ‘hey get away from me’. More often used by males defending their nests.

H: So, when he says 40 feet away, was that like the fish was in a tank and he was in a room, or was that like the fish was in the ocean and he was like on the sand?

E: Or scuba-ing?

I: So this study they were looking at nesting fish, so I’m assuming it was out in the inner tidal zone. But there are other studies where the fish were in an aquarium, and if you put your face too close to the aquarium of a nesting canary fish, it will Onk at you to tell you to go away [3].

E: Aah! Now I’m just picturing dads having nesting caves like a little too close for each other's happiness, and so they just kind of like ‘Onk onk’ at each other when they get annoyed.

H: This is such a cute sound!

I: But actually, that's not the sound these guys are known for. So, the male who's defending his house will actually, to attract a female, emit a hum. This hum can last anywhere from a few seconds to over 60 minutes [4].

E: What?

H: Over 60 minutes!

E: What dedication! Humming for an hour to find your love. That's so cute.

H: Aww!

I: Yeah, and so you'll often hear one will start and the others will join in and it'll become a huge cacophony of this hum of them all trying to attract mates [4].

H: A chorus!

E: Oh my god it is a chorus!

H: A choir of fish...

I: Studies have found that it's not the amplitude necessarily that attracts the female but actually the hertz, the frequency. So, most are between 98 and 108 hertz [4].

E & H: Ooh.

I: And it's most commonly heard at night and early morning. So, it most commonly was recorded between 3 and 5 a.m [4]. These are a nocturnal species so it could be heard any time after 1900 hours (which is 7 p.m) and 8 a.m, and it happened at night regardless of light conditions, when they moved them into a tank [4].

E&H: Ooh.

E: Interesting.

H: That is really interesting.

E: Okay so their sense of time isn't just based on light levels, that's cool.

I: Yeah, also it attracts the females as I said. Juveniles do not seem to have any response to that sound, nor do other males or females that have already mated [4]. It's really attuned to just females that are waiting to mate [4].

E: Oh.

H: Wow.

E: So, now instead of picturing like a love ballad of humming, I’m imagining like a chorus of ‘Hey wanna hook up?’

H: ‘Heeey girl’ but like a hundred of them at once.

I: Yep, and this sound is created by muscles and the swim bladder working together. There's also some evidence that there's specific neurons that are involved in this [4].

H: Ah.

E: Interesting, very cool.

I: So if someone asks you what a fish says, you can say ‘Well, I know one that goes ‘Onk’ and also ‘hummm.’’


H: I love the Onk, so cute.

E: Oh, that's my new favorite fish sound! Not that I had any before… but now it is.

I: It's probably not quite what it sounds like, but that is how it was written, so that is what I’m going with.

E: We're going with it.

I: All right. So that's a ton of info I just threw at you, but I want to take this info now and look at it through the lens of Queerly Natural.

H: Why is it queer? Yes! Make it gay.

E: Yay! Okay. Yes. Why is it queer? Hit us.

I: And you'll find out why I had to kept saying I have to tell you this later because I need you to understand. So this fish is proposed to actually have three different genders [2]. This was proposed by Joan Roughgarden in Evolution's Rainbow. Most literature- you'll find when they discuss this- they actually call it alternative mating strategies. And it's based on differences in courtship, number of mates, relationships with both same-sex and different sex individuals, lifespan, preferred real estate, parental care, and a lot more.

H: Preferred real estate.

I: Yes.

H: How's the fish real estate market going right now?

E: Alright, I’m intrigued on a number of levels now. And what's the name of this?

I: So, the book is Evolution’s Rainbow.

E: Okay, okay.

I: But there's a variety of studies that have shown differences here.

E: Cool.

I: And it's most often talked about in fish and lizards when you have species with multiple genders or alternative mating strategies based on their tendency to rely on visual cues, even though this fish relies a lot more on vocal cues [2].

E: So cool. Oh my gosh.

I: But interestingly enough, the differences in their vocalization actually is not just in sound, but a lot of how their body is [morphologically] and also how they interact.

H: Aah.

E: Okay, alright.

I: I love quotes. So, I wanted to share a quote by Bass about this because we're getting into this realm of giving gender to species.

E: Yeah…

I: And there's some important distinctions here that we'll go into a little bit more, but just as an intro, here is what was said by one researcher: “Brains and types of behavior among sexually mature vertebrates are portrayed as having two phenotypic states: male and female. However, mating systems and the behavioral tactics employed by the two sexes are far more diverse than conveyed by the simple intersexual dichotomy. For example, many species’ sexually mature males may practice one of two alternative mating tactics,” there's your keyword [2]. And in this group of fish, the morphological differences between the genders or alternative mating strategies are accompanied by differences in physiology and reproductive behavior as well. And now I can explain specifics within this species.

E: Yay.

I: So as I said this species is considered to have three genders, or two different alternative mating types.

H: Two alternative mating types but three genders?

I: So the alternative mating type, it's because there's the female and male would be no alternatives so if you have the other one, it's the third male [2,6].

H: Ah so you mean because there are two different options for mating type for males, there are considered to be two alternative mating types, even though there are three genders. I think I get it though I think it would make more sense to just say three mating types. But whatever.

E: Ohh, gotcha.

I: Yeah, it's technically one alternative mating type but there's two, it gets you two. Yes. There are two different types of males; Type One and Type Two is just the terms used for this fish. Type One is considered “normal” in air quotes, which is the courting male, and Type Two is the non-courting male. In this species about ten percent of the males are non-courting, and they have some pretty big distinctions [6].

E: Okay.

I: So for Type One, it is actually larger than Type Two. So, Type One is about 70 grams on average; Type Two is nine grams. So that's quite a large difference in size [6].

E: Oh, a seventh of the body size. One seventh.

I: Just about.

E: Wow and they're not juveniles? They're fully grown?

I: Um hum [sound of agreement].

H: Huh.

E: Interesting.

I: The Type One males have greater muscle components of their sonic motor system. So this is 6 to 25 times more muscle mass depending on how you're accounting for body weight, and a three to five time increase in the actual fibers of the muscle, in its diameter [6, 7].

H: So beefy bois.

I: Yeah, this is specifically the muscles used to create that hum because this is part of their courtship behavior.

E: Interesting!

Content warning 26:05 (discussion of reproduction and reproductive organs)

I: Whereas the Type Two does not produce the hum [6, 7]. I believe it can still occasionally grunt. But its testes size is several fold greater than the courting males: 8.3% of the body weight versus 1.2% [6]. It's about twenty times that of the female for gonad-to-body-weight ratio and nine times that of the male [Type One] [7].

E: Wow...

I: So the method that this fish is using is called satellite spawning and sneak spawning, where basically it's focusing more on producing competent sperm to put out as it swims quickly past. It's sneaking in, fertilizing those eggs, and leaving.

E: Oh! Okay, drive-by reproduction.

I: Yeah, alright. Okay.

H: Oh right because fish don't copulate.

E: Doing their own thing.

H: Yeah. Nice minimal interaction. I can see the appeal. End of content warning 26: 52


I: [The] Type Two male also matures at a younger age [2].

E: Interesting.

I: And the sonic muscles and fibers of this fish are actually comparable to that of females and juveniles [6, 7].

H: Aah.

I: Originally, literature mostly confused the Type Two fish as either a female or a juvenile, but they are fully mature. There's no evidence that the Type Two fish eventually becomes the Type One fish [7].

H: I love it.

E: Aah! Okay, alright. I just have to take a moment to be really excited here. So not only are there physiological differences, but behavioral differences, based completely on the way that this fish has become itself. And I just want to say, stick that in your pipe and smoke it transphobes! Just saying.

H: You mentioned that there's some difficulty with calling this a third gender. Did you, could we elaborate on that Ilana?

I: Yeah we'll get back to that. I wanted to share a little bit more about what makes these two guys different because it doesn't end there.

E: Oh good.

H: I trust you. I trust you to captain this ship.

I: First of all, so that's morphological differences. Let's talk about behavioral differences. So [when] reproduction occurs, the male Type One fish goes to the inner tidal zone first, during mating season [3]. It will build and establish a nest by clearing out underneath a rock and creating a cavity [3, 6]. Once it has done so, it'll start humming to attract a female [6]. It will also act aggressively towards other Type One males in the area, defending its territory. And it also has aggressive defense against the Type Two male to try and prevent it from spawning once it does find a female [3].

H: How does a fish be aggressive?

I: They will attack each other. But first they will grunt at each other.

H: Big grunt, and then, and then do they just attack with teeth?

I: They grunt saying ‘get away’ [3, 6].

H: Onk.

I: Yes, they're very violent.

H: I was just like, they can't throw hands.


I: They will literally tear the competing fish to shreds, if it will not back away [3].

H: Onk!

I: Experiments done in an aquarium: one fish sadly ends up with its intestines ripped out and in the jaws [of its attacker], and the fish will not let go unless you hit it with a rod [3].

E: Battle to the death! Alright, alright. That's intense.

H: Wow.

I: So, before that happens normally, the female is attracted.

E: Good.

I: There is a little bit of fun with the phytophores in some instances; not all of them fluoresce. It depends on the population [4].

H: Oh! So, it's like unique fluorescent markings depending on…?

I: So I think they all have it, but their fluorescence is gained by what they eat so it just depends on what the population is eating [4].

H: Wow!

E: That's really cool.

H: That is so cool.

E: Kind of like how flamingos get their color from their diet. That's neat.

I: So females, as I said, deposit their eggs on the cavity of the roof which protects them from the waves and she leaves. She's out [3]. She's back to the depths: ‘I'm done [3]. I'm out of here.’

E: Nice. Easy parenting. Cool.

I: The Type One male fertilizes the eggs, trying to protect them from the Type Two who will just come in and try and fertilize as many as they can and leave [6]. Males are also polygamous and will have multiple females lay eggs in their nest [3]. Studies have found over 700- and I believe some cited up to about 1,000- eggs in a single nest in some cases [3].

E: Wow, okay. Do you know about how many the female usually lays?

I: The female will lay a few hundred, so it does depend on how many females are in there [3]. But she lays a lot of eggs.

E: Okay. Gotcha, very cool.

I: The male during the time of protecting is not just there to guard it from other fish; he will also make sure to keep the eggs moist [3]. So, if the tide goes down and it starts to dry out, he will actually splash water onto the eggs [3].

H: Aww.

I: He will clean the eggs.

E: Oh, super cute.

I: So, over time bacteria, algae, debris [etc.] will get on the eggs and if a male is not there it'll actually get to a point where it can start to decay the eggs. But if a male is present he will clean it and keep eggs nice and neat [3].

H: Give ’em a little polish.

E: Neat. A+ caretaking, except for the nibbles.

H: Yeah. Except when he takes a little bite, just a little taste.

I: He will act aggressively and in some cases kill competitors who try and approach. As I mentioned, the Type Two will either sneak spawn, where it releases large amounts of sperm from a distance off an egg-laying pair, or satellite spawn, where it swims by rapidly releasing milt full of sperm [6].

E: I can't get drive-by reproduction out of my head, that's excellent.

I: And as we mentioned they are reproductively active, though they look like juveniles. They don't seem to switch to Type One but they're there; they fertilize and they're out just like the females [6, 7]. It's the Type One males who remain.

H: So, they just don't put the effort into courtship they just kind of, like try to steal the eggs the other males put the effort into getting. Right?

I: Yep, yep. They don't try to court.

E: Pretty cool.

H: Those b*st*rds.

I: So, you've got the morphological differences, you've got the behavioral differences, there's even differences in the hormones of these two male types.

E: Yes! This is my jam. I'm very excited.

H: Ilana, so is it like two distinct... or are there any fish that are between the two? Is it like a spectrum, or is it like there are these tiny ones and then there's these big ones, and that kind of contributes to them being like a separate gender?

E: Good question.

I: So there is variation in size in each, but as far as I know they're pretty distinctive.

H: Wow.

E: Okay. So, the variations don't usually overlap, there's no real overlap between the two.

I: Not that I could find. I will say Type One males are probably the best studied because they do stay to guard those nests; it makes it very easy for observation and collection by scientists in the spring and summer.

E: Right, you can find them a little easier. Yeah, makes sense, makes sense.

I: Type Two males were often- especially for I’d say the first 100 years of knowing they exist- often likely confused for females and juveniles.

E: Yeah, dismissed.

I: But there's nothing to indicate that one ever transforms into the other. So, it's not like eventually Type Two grows up and becomes Type One. They stay distinct as far as we can tell.

E: Yes.

H: That's amazing.

E: Living their own lives. I like it, very cool.

I: So, as I mentioned this even relates to what hormones are in them. Type One has a hormone called 11-keto-testosterone which is its main androgen hormone, so it's gonna support its aggressive behavior and its courtship behavior which is found in other fish [6]. It also induces that muscle mass that we see and it's pretty unique to the group of fish it belongs in [6, 7]. The Type Two, however, has the predominant one being testosterone, which is actually common in the female too [6]. So, it's actually in similar concentrations in both the Type Two male and the female, and is believed to be important to the production of competent sperm, which is a trait of the Type Two males as we discussed [6].

H: So you said the Type Two have more testosterone than Type One, or the other way around?

I: The Type One has 11-keto-testosterone so it's a different type of testosterone as the main one of this type of [fish], while just plain testosterone is found in the Type Two along with the females [6].

H: Ah, so the testosterone of Type One is chemically different from the testosterone of Type Two and females.

I: Yes. So, now we'll kind of get into like some of the main points. I have a few more quotes I want to share with you guys about like whether or not this counts as different genders or just alternative mating strategies. And to start off I wanted to take some quotes from Evolution's Rainbow, which just clarifies a little bit about like, what is sex, what is gender, how does this all relate to science. And she starts off by saying: “It's helpful to distinguish between social categories and biological categories. Man and woman are social categories; we have the freedom to decide who counts as a man and who counts as a woman. Male and female are biological categories. The criteria for classifying an organism as male or female have to work with worms and whales, with red seaweed and redwood trees. When it comes to humans, the biological criteria for male and female don't coincide 100% with present day social criteria for men and women. To a biologist, male means making small gametes and female means making large gametes. That's it. It's used for plants and animals...” [2] There are a few rare cases where there are multiple gamete sizes, there's no known cases where it's a continuum. And then you know you've got the only one size which is used for defining mating types in fungi, algae and protozoans [2]. So in biology, it's the gamete size that matters, not a single other thing. You produce small gametes, you produce a large gamete, that's male/female. It's not really the term ‘sex,’ it's just what is defined as male and female [2]. It does not relate to how we define gender.

H: Which is not related to even how biology defines- like you were saying, male or female is not even how society would define what we call biological sex. In this like argument between biological sex and gender… So, what people are calling biological sex is not even accurate! Because that is so closely tied to genitalia, when in biology we don't even care about the genitalia. All that matters are the gametes, like the actual sex cells. Right?

E: Absolutely.

I: And if you look throughout the animal kingdom itself, like it varies sometimes, things that we might consider female have male genitalia and vice versa. Sometimes Y chromosomes don't always correspond to a male.

E: Check out hyenas.

I: Yeah, and I’m sure we'll cover a lot of these guys.

H: So like it's a common thing that people know that gender is a social construct, but biological sex is also a social construct. In conclusion, thank you. Thank you for coming.

E: Say it, yes!

I: That's beautiful and it relates to this quote I have which is: “The biggest error in biology today is uncritically assuming that the gamete-size binary implies a corresponding binary to body type, behavior, and life history…”

H: Hell yeah.

I: “Gender usually refers to the way a person expresses sexual identity in a cultural constant, which is usually considered unique to humans.” So, the reason this is a question- ‘does this count as gender and why you don't find much literature stating you know a three-gendered fish?’- is because we use these terms and say, ‘oh no, it's unique to humans.’ But if you define gender more broadly, as they do in Evolution's Rainbow... She uses the definition: “Gender is the appearance, behavior, and life history of a sexed body. A body becomes sexed when classified with respect to gamete size produced.”

E: Love it.

I: So, in her definition, does this mean that we have a three-gendered fish?

H: So does her definition necessarily, like line up with our human societal definition of gender?

E: Hmm, okay. So remind me what the main categories were. It was behavior, life history...

I: Appearance.

E: -and appearance. Okay, okay. So, that's an unequivocal yes for the three genders of the California singing fish. Does this line up with our social constructs for how we see human gender...?

H: I don't think it necessarily does. Like you don't need to appear or dress a certain way to be a certain gender.

E: Absolutely.

H: Feminists fought that, and it's true for trans people as well. Like trans men don't have to dress masculine, yeah.

E: Yeah, or anybody who's genderfluid, or non-gender-binary basically. And so- I think especially in our society today- we're starting to open up our viewpoints on what it means to be cis, what it means to be het, and people are starting to realize that they can express themselves outside of these binary views. And you know, live the freedom of their lives being expressed the way they want them to. And so I think our definition of gender is changing even now, and I think that's a really beautiful thing that we have this freedom to explore who we want to be. And, you know, find what feels right for ourselves. That's really the important part, right? You don't need a label. Nobody should be able to stick you with the label; it's not important. You just need to be who you feel that you are. And I love that people are starting to feel like they can open themselves up to that.

H: Hello future Hannah again! I wanted to clarify that Elizabeth’s comment about our society recently accepting the existence of more than two genders was based entirely on the society that we, your hosts, live in and that is [mainstream North] American society. Many human societies across the globe recognize the existence of genders outside of the male-female binary and have done so for a very long time. For example, all societies in North America acknowledged the existence of at least three genders at the time of European contact. In the Dine language, there are six genders. So, while our personal experience is of a recent acknowledgement of non-binary genders, that is not true for everyone. Back to the show!

I: So, do you guys think that we can classify genders to other species?

H: It's kind of sticky because I feel like it's the exact same issues that we had last time with sexuality. Like in people, so much of it is self-defined; so much of gender comes from introspection and your own understanding of yourself. And a big aspect of it is how we communicate that to the culture around us. And we can't necessarily like talk to a fish and be like, ‘hey how do you feel? Like do you feel like a man?’ So I don't, I don't know. I don't necessarily think it's the same, because humans can talk to each other and be like ‘this is how I feel on the inside,’ but we can't necessarily ask a fish that. But, I do think that the definition that you gave from the book, Ilana, is maybe the closest we can get to like allowing these animals the freedom of having more than two genders. Or at least the freedom of having more than two genders represented in the research, because of course they would have the number of genders they have whether we put names to all of them or not.

E: Yeah. I really liked that. I liked that quote Ilana, that's a really good quote. Like kind of this biological viewpoint on gender, again for introspection into other species. And I really felt that was a good, a good way to sum up as close as we can get without being able to ask them. You put it really well, Hannah.

I: And I don't think there's necessarily one definition of gender either. I think the gender used for these species when we can't have this discussion with them is a great way of looking at it to break down these species. Because if you don't, we're kind of approaching species assuming two sides, and that's not correct and I think it deletes a lot of the amazingness that is biology.

E: Yeah, absolutely.

H: We lose a lot of the descriptiveness being prescriptive.

E: Well said.

I: And there's a difference between using it biologically and using it in society. And I think that's one thing this book tried to really push, is there is a difference. And, society, we get to decide what these are. And I think that's really important for us to acknowledge, like we're not solely defined by what biology dictates, and I think that's what we're learning with gender too.

E: Yeah, we get to break down the binary.

H: Biology doesn't really dictate anything because it's so diverse.

I: It's just telling us how wild and crazy and queer we all really are.

H: This makes me so happy, you guys! I'm really glad we're talking about this.

I: Thank you for joining us for this week's episode of Queerly Natural!

E: Hope you had fun, we certainly did! I have a special place in my heart now for the California singing's fish Onk sounds. I will remember that forever.

I: We all have a special place in our hearts for the Onk sound. Maybe I’ll use it next time someone annoys me.

E: Yes let's make this a new trend guys.

H: The midshipman.


I: Onk!


H: Queerly Natural was created by Ilana Zeitzer, Elizabeth Fuhrman, and Hannah Roden, with music by Migfus_20. Thank you, Migfus, for putting your music in the creative commons. You are very talented. Visual design for the show is done by Ilana Zeitzer. To get updates about the podcast, follow us @Queerlynatural on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We also upload all of our sources and episode transcripts to our website, Above all else, if you liked what you heard today, tell your friends! Thank you so much for listening, and keep an eye out for our next episode coming September 17. Until next time! Stay queer, and remember: queerly, it’s natural.



  2. Roughgarden J. 2013. Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, gender, and sexuality in nature and people. University of Calofronia Press, CA.

    1. Chapters 2 & 6

  3. Arora HL. (1948). Observations on the Habits and Early Life History fo the Batrachoid Fish, Porichthys notatus Girard. Copeia, 1948 (2): 89-93.

  4. David L.G. Noakes et al. (eds.), Predators and prey in fishes. ISBN 90 6193 922 8. © 1983, Dr W. Junk Publishers, The Hague. Printed in the Netherlands.

    1. Ibara RM, Penny LT, Ebeling AW, van Dykhuizen G, Cailliet G. (1982). The mating call of the plainfin midshipman fish, Porichthys notatus. 205-212

  5. Cogliati KM, Danukarjanto C, Pereira AC Lau MJ, Hassan A, Mistakidis AF, Bolker BM, Neff BD, Bakshine S. (2015). Diet and cannibalism in plainfin midshipman Porichthys notatus. Journal of Fish Biology, 86: 1396-1415.

  6. Brantley RK, Wingfield JC, Bass AH. (1993). Sex steroid levels in Porichthys notatus, a fish with alternative reproductive tactics and a review of the hormonal bases for male dimorphism among teleost fishes. Hormones and Behavior, 27, 332-347.

  7. Bass A. (1992). Dimorphic male brains and alternative reproductive tactics in a vocalizing fish. TINS, 15(4): 139-145.

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