Photo: Close-up of a fish

The dog snapper boasts large canine teeth, set in their upper jaws, which are visible even when their mouths are closed.

Photograph by Reinhard Dirscherl, Alamy

Fast Facts

Type:
Fish
Diet:
Carnivore
Size:
24 in (60 cm)
Group name:
Aggregation
Protection status:
None
Did you know?
Young dog snappers sometimes ascend freshwater rivers.
Size relative to a 6-ft (2-m) man:
Illustration: Fish compared with adult man

These tough-looking fish boast large canine teeth, set in their upper jaws, which are visible even when their mouths are closed. Smaller fish often fall victim to the dog snapper's powerful bite, as do shrimp, crabs, and other bottom-dwelling creatures.

Adult dog snappers prowl rocky seafloors and reefs at average depths of about 100 feet (30 meters). Their turf includes the western Atlantic Ocean from Brazil to Florida and, more rarely, north to Massachusetts.

The dog snapper is a bit of a lone wolf and tends to keep to itself most of the year. All that changes in March, however, when the fish gather in large groups to reproduce at spawning sites in the northeastern Caribbean and near the island of Jamaica.

Snappers may travel large distances to reach these spots. Once there they mingle en masse to release sperm (males) and eggs (females) into the sea. The eggs, and later the hatched larvae, are left to drift, and many individuals are devoured—but good numbers survive to eventual adulthood. Vulnerable young dog snappers tend to stay closer to shore and are often found swimming in estuaries.

Several things still puzzle scientists studying spawning aggregations, including how the fish choose these special sites and find their way back to them year after year. The fish do return, however, with amazing attention to both time and place.

Though this species is formidable it’s not the top dog in the neighborhood. Adults fall victim to larger hunters like sharks and groupers, while tiny larvae are far more vulnerable and consumed with relish by all manner of marine creatures. Humans also prey on dog snappers because they are considered a quality meal—though one that sometimes requires caution. Some diners have experienced mild poisonings from the consumption of dog snapper.

The fish produce no poison but may build up harmful levels of ciguatera as that toxin works its way up the marine food chain. Ciguatera is created by dinoflagellates, tiny microalgae that reside on dead corals or algae. When smaller, herbivorous fish snap up the coral and algae they also ingest this toxin and pass it along in turn to any dog snappers, which prey upon them.

But dog snappers and other aggregating reef fish have far more to fear from humans than vice versa. Because fishermen know exactly where and when to find huge numbers of these fish, the snappers are vulnerable to overharvesting—at the exact time of year when the survival of a new generation hangs in the balance.

Dog snappers and their relatives can be protected by banning or limiting fishing at known spawning sites and during prime spawning periods.

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