Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!

Strictly Incog
by [?]

Among the reefs of rock upon the Australian coast, an explorer’s dredge often brings up to the surface some tangled tresses of reddish seaweed, which, when placed for a while in a bucket of water, begin slowly to uncoil themselves as if endowed with animal life, and finally to swim about with a gentle tremulous motion in a mute inquiring way from side to side of the pail that contains them. Looked at closely with an attentive eye, the complex moving mass gradually resolves itself into two parts: one a ruddy seaweed with long streaming fronds; the other, a strangely misshapen and dishevelled pipe-fish, exactly imitating the weed itself in form and colour. When removed from the water, this queer pipe-fish proves in general outline somewhat to resemble the well-known hippocampus or sea-horse of the aquariums, whose dried remains, in a mummified state, form a standing wonder in many tiny domestic museums. But the Australian species, instead of merely mimicking the knight on a chess-board, looks rather like a hippocampus in the most advanced stage of lunacy, with its tail and fins and the appendages of its spines flattened out into long thin streaming filaments, utterly indistinguishable in hue and shape from the fucus round which the creature clings for support with its prehensile tail. Only a rude and shapeless rough draught of a head, vaguely horse-like in contour, and inconspicuously provided with an unobtrusive snout and a pair of very unnoticeable eyes, at all suggests to the most microscopic observer its animal nature. Taken as a whole, nobody could at first sight distinguish it in any way from the waving weed among which it vegetates.

Clearly, this curious Australian cousin of the Mediterranean sea-horses has acquired so marvellous a resemblance to a bit of fucus in order to deceive the eyes of its ever-watchful enemies, and to become indistinguishable from the uneatable weed whose colour and form it so surprisingly imitates. Protective resemblances of the sort are extremely common among the pipe-fish family, and the reason why they should be so is no doubt sufficiently obvious at first sight to any reflecting mind–such, for example, as the intelligent reader’s. Pipe-fish, as everybody knows, are far from giddy. They do not swim in the vortex of piscine dissipation. Being mostly small and defenceless creatures, lurking among the marine vegetation of the shoals and reefs, they are usually accustomed to cling for support by their snake-like tails to the stalks or leaves of those submerged forests. The omniscient schoolboy must often have watched in aquariums the habits and manners of the common sea-horses, twisted together by their long thin bodies into one inextricable mass of living matwork, or anchored firmly with a treble serpentine coil to some projecting branch of coralline or of quivering sea-wrack. Bad swimmers by nature, utterly unarmed, and wholly undefended by protective mail, the pipe-fish generally can neither fight nor run away: and therefore they depend entirely for their lives upon their peculiar skulking and lurking habits. Their one mode of defence is not to show themselves; discretion is the better part of their valour; they hide as much as possible among the thickest seaweed, and trust to Providence to escape observation.

Now, with any animals thus constituted, cowards by hereditary predilection, it must necessarily happen that the more brightly coloured or obtrusive individuals will most readily be spotted and most unceremoniously devoured by their sharp-sighted foes, the predatory fishes. On the other hand, just in proportion as any particular pipe-fish happens to display any chance resemblance in colour or appearance to the special seaweed in whose folds it lurks, to that extent will it be likely to escape detection, and to hand on its peculiarities to its future descendants. A long-continued course of the simple process thus roughly described must of necessity result at last in the elimination of all the most conspicuous pipe-fish, and the survival of all those unobtrusive and retiring individuals which in any respect happen to resemble the fucus or coralline among which they dwell. Hence, in many places, various kinds of pipe-fish exhibit an extraordinary amount of imitative likeness to the sargasso or seaweed to whose tags they cling; and in the three most highly developed Australian species the likeness becomes so ridiculously close that it is with difficulty one can persuade oneself one is really and truly looking at a fish, and not at a piece of strangely animated and locomotive fucus.