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Barrelfish Palinurichthys perciformis (Mitchill) 1818


[Jordan and Evermann, 1896-1900, p. 964.]

Barrelfish (Palinurichthys perciformis)

Figure 195.—Barrelfish (Palinurichthys perciformis) After DeKay.


The reduction of the spiny portion of the dorsal fin of the barrelfish to 6 to 8 short detached spines, with very small triangular fin membranes, closely followed by a long soft-rayed dorsal fin, marks the barrelfish from all other Gulf of Maine fishes, except for certain of the pompano tribe. The caudal fin of the barrelfish is only slightly emarginate instead of deeply forked and its caudal peduncle moderately stout and without keels instead of very slender. It suggest a tautog remotely in general appearance, especially in its rather stout body (about two-fifths as deep as long, not including the caudal fin), very bluntly rounded nose, convex forehead, and small mouth. But its rudimentary spiny dorsal fin and forked caudal fin are ready field marks to distinguish it. The soft dorsal fin (20 to 22 rays) arises about mid-way from tip of snout toward base of caudal fin; the anal (16 or 17 rays) somewhat farther back. Both these fins are moderately high and they taper slightly from front to rear. The anal is preceded by three short spines so nearly imbedded in the skin as to be hardly visible. Both the ventrals and the pectorals are large with rounded tips. The top of the head is scaleless but the sides of its head and the body are clothed with small rounded scales.

The presence of the dorsal fin-spines and the scaliness of the sides of its head distinguish it from its close relative the black ruff (fig. 196).

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Described as varying from blackish to green in life, and as either as dark below as above, or paling to bluish white on the belly, the latter variously mottled with darker dots and bars. It is said to change color to accord with its surroundings.


Maximum length 12 to 14 inches and about 1¼ pounds in weight, but most of those seen are smaller.


The barrelfish owes its common name to its habit of congregating about floating spars and planks or any drifting wreckage, or inside of barrels or boxes, where it is easy to catch one in a dip net. Off southern New England they are often found under gulfweed, or under any other raft of drifting seaweed or eel grass (Zostera). And they sometimes gather about slow-moving vessels. Merriman[34] thinks its proper home is in the mid-depths offshore, but this is a question for the future.

It feeds on the sundry small crustaceans, barnacles, hydroids, young squids, small mollusks and salpae, which it finds near or attached to its floating homes; on ctenophores; likewise on fish fry, the diet lists of specimens taken at Woods Hole including herring, mackerel, menhaden, launce, scup, and silversides.[35] Sometimes they contain seaweed, but we suspect that this is eaten for the animals attached to it, and not from a vegetarian taste.

Nothing is known of its breeding habits.

General range—

Atlantic Coast of North America, Cape Hatteras to outer Nova Scotia;[36] most plentiful south of Cape Cod. Probably it is oceanic, as Merriman[37] suggests, and more widely distributed than the foregoing would suggest, for one was found in a drifting packing case off Penzance Harbor, Cornwall.

Occurrence in the Gulf of Maine—

The barrelfish is caught in some numbers in the traps near Woods Hole and to the westward, or is found drifting under mats of seaweed. They were unusually plentiful in Vineyard Sound, for example, in 1920.[38] But it is so rare a fish within the Gulf of Maine that we have never seen it there,[39] nor did Doctor Kendall find it on his various collecting trips along the Maine coast. In fact, the only published Gulf of Maine records for it that we have been able to find are one from Boston Harbor; one from Salem; one from Annisquam; one from Gloucester;[40] and one vaguely described as brought in from the fishing banks off the coast of Maine. We can now add one taken on the northern edge of Georges Bank by the trawler Squall on September 10, 1947.[41]

[34] Trans. Connecticut Acad. Arts. Sci., vol. 36, 1945, pp. 842-843.

[35] Notes by Vinal Edwards.

[36] According to Vladykov and McKenzie (Proc. Nova Scotian Inst. Sci., vol. 19, 1935, p. 87) occasional specimens are caught off outer Nova Scotia in most summers. Recent records there are of one at Halifax, October 1924, and of another there September 1927 (Vladykov, Proc. Nova Scotian Inst. Sci., vol. 19, 1935, p. 6).

[37] Trans. Connecticut Acad. Arts Sci., vol. 36, 1945, pp. 842-843.

[38] Smith, Copeia, 1921, No. 91, pp. 9-10.

[39] Our own experience with this fish is limited to a single occasion, south of Nantucket, when several were seen about a drifting box.

[40] Reported by MacCoy, Bull. 67, Boston Soc. Nat. Hist., 1933, p. 9.

[41] This specimen now in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and was received through the kindness of J. Miggins of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.