Tropical Visitor at Lambert’s Cove

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December 14, 2023 by Matt Pelikan, photos by Simon Hickman


Two-spotted Cardinalfish (Apogon pseudomaculatus) at Lambert’s Cove

Strolling on Lambert’s Cove Beach on December 12, 2023, Vineyard naturalist Simon Hickman was surprised to find a tiny, brilliant orange fish stranded and dead on the sand. Recognizing that he had found something unusual, Simon snapped some photos of the fish and emailed them to BiodiversityWorks. With Simon’s permission, we created an iNaturalist observation to help us identify the mystery fish and document its occurrence.

Our initial ID – a flamefish, Apogon maculatus – proved to be close but not quite right. Fortunately, several fish experts quickly weighed in with a refined identification: the closely related two-spotted cardinalfish (A. pseudomaculatus). As far as we can determine, this is the first Vineyard record for this species, bringing to 202 species our checklist of saltwater bony fish known from Vineyard waters. There is one Vineyard record for flamefish, dating back to 1899, though our go-to field guide for fish (the one in the Peterson field guide series) hints that most or all northern records of that species may actually reflect misidentified two-spotted cardinalfish. In any event, either member of this genus is a startling and significant find at our latitude.

A surprising number of those 202 Vineyard fish species are, like Simon’s discovery, tropical or subtropical in origin. Their occasional presence in Massachusetts waters highlights the extent to which ecosystems across the globe are connected. The presumption is that these tropical visitors drift northward in the warm water of the Gulf Stream and then are carried inshore by eddies that spin off of that tremendous ocean current. Late in the season, these visitors sometimes end up stunned or killed by cold northern water temperatures and wash up onto our beaches. At any time of year, aquatic vagrants from the south can be encountered by marine scientists, snorkelers, or fishermen. And a surprising number of such visitors have been found in Vineyard great ponds, entering those impoundments during openings of the barrier beach and getting trapped when the openings close up.

Perched just off the coast of mainland Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard is famous as a crossroads for migrants and vagrants all kinds (human, some would say, as well as animal!). The discovery of this fish is just the latest example of this. Savvy observers like Simon are constantly alert for unusual finds, always ready with a camera or cell phone to obtain documentation. This is what we mean when we describe the Martha’s Vineyard Atlas of Life as a community-powered survey of the island’s biodiversity!

For more information on the saltwater fish of Martha’s Vineyard, visit our marine Osteicthyes page.


Matt Pelikan is the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Atlas of Life project at BiodiversityWorks.