Spadefish Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve

Atlantic Spadefish

Chaetodipterus faber
Spadefish resemble angelfish, with a vertical striped pattern and laterally flattened body style, however the two are not related. Dark in color with white spots, juveniles sometimes mimick fallen leaves by floating on their sides when threatened.

Where to Find

Spadefish are found in warm coastal waters in habitats ranging from mangroves to beaches to offshore reefs.


Scorpaena brasiliensis
As a part of the scorpionfish family, the barbfish has spines along its dorsal fin that may eject venom when not handled with care. As it hides, it vacuums up the crabs, shrimp and bony fish in its diet. This fish is a master of camouflage.

Where to Find

Barbfish are mainly bottom-dwellers.
Barbfish Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve
Big Head Sea Robin Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve

Bighead Sea Robin

Prionotus tribulus
This species of sea robins has heavily armored, spiny heads. Sea robins are bottom dwellers. The first three rays on the pectoral fins are separated and covered in taste buds which helps them find food. The rays help the fish find food buried in the sediment below. This fish’s head appears to take up about one third of its entire body length, hence its name.

Where to Find

Big head sea robins inhabit bays and estuaries.

Black Drum

Pogonias cromis
A relative of the red drum (redfish), the black drum gets its name from the sounds that come from its pharyngeal teeth. This sound called “drumming” can be heard during spawning season, sending low frequencies throughout the area. These fish can grow up to 100 pounds and frequent sand flats and shallow water up to 100 feet deep.

Where to Find

Black Drums are commonly seen in Rookery Bay estuaries and offshore waters.
Black Drum Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve
Code Goby Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve

Code Goby

Gobiosoma robustum
The code goby is a small fish with a long, slender body. The color pattern along its body includes a series of dark colored bands, dots and dashes that somewhat resemble morse code. The code goby has two dorsal fins typical of most gobies.

Where to Find

Code gobies inhabit seagrass beds and algal mats, and are commonly found in shallow, saline waters.

Crested Goby

Lophogobius cyprinoides
The crested goby is named for the crest on top of its head. It is one of several goby species found within the Reserve and in the tanks at the Environmental Learning Center. Crested gobies can reach lengths up to four inches.

Where to Find

The crested goby is able to tolerate varying salinities, from fresh to marine environments.
Crested Goby Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve
Mosquito Fish Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve


Gambusia affinis
This fish eats 500 mosquitoes a day! The mosquitofish is a freshwater species usually found in water bodies with dense vegetation. It can live with low oxygen levels, can adapt to extreme temperature changes, and is relatively resistant to disease. A member of the guppy family, this fish gives birth to live young. It has large eyes and an upturned mouth, well-adapted for feeding on mosquitoes near the water’s surface.

Where to Find

The gambusia is a freshwater species usually found in water bodies with dense vegetation. It can live with low oxygen levels, can adapt to extreme temperature changes, and is relatively resistant to disease. Native to the southeastern U.S., this fish has proven to be an effective non-chemical means of controlling local mosquito populations.

Giant Rays

Sting rays, cownosed rays and spotted eagle rays are relatively common in reserve waters, but manta and devil rays are quite unusual. Giant rays have been spotted a few times in the Research Reserve, near Keewaydin and Marco Island. Devil rays generally grow to about four feet across while mantas can reach more than twenty feet. Both Devil and Manta rays are known to filter plankton out of the water by swimming slowly with their mouths open.  Both species lack a barbed tail, and neither of these species pose a threat to people.

Where to Find

The Atlantic devil ray is found only in the western Ataltic ocean and gulf of Mexico. The manta ray is found between 35° N and 35° S latitudes world wide.
Ray Wildlife in Rookery Bay | Rookery Bay Research Reserve
Goliath Group Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve

Goliath Grouper

Epinephelus itajara
This grouper is appropriately named, as individuals can weigh up to 800 pounds and reach lengths over 8 feet long. Their mottled coloration allows them to camouflage while ambushing prey items. Juvenile fish are more heavily patterned than adults. Goliath groupers are considered critically endangered and have been protected since 1990.

After spawning occurs offshore, currents carry tiny hatchlings into estuaries where they begin to grow until they are big enough to move out to sea.

Where to Find

The goliath grouper is typically associated with offshore coral reef or wreck habitat. It might seem strange that these monstrous fish would call an estuary home, however, mangrove-forested estuaries provide crucial habitat for juveniles.

Goldspotted Killifish

Floridichthys carpio
Goldspotted killifish are small, hearty fish that tolerate a range of water conditions. Breeding males often display gold spots on their cheeks and bodies. Breeding males will attempt to chase off much larger fish when defending their territory.

Where to Find

Goldspotted killifish can be found in both marine and brackish environments, especially around tidal flats.
Goldspotted Killifish Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve
Gulf Flounder in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve

Gulf Flounder

Paralichthys albigutta
Gulf flounders are left-eyed flat fish. As young they look and swim like most fish, but shortly after hatching, the right eye migrates around to the other side of its head. Gulf flounders can be distinguished from other flounders by the three dark ocelli (false eye spots). Masters of camouflage, flounders settle down on the bottom and change shades and pattern to match their environment. They eat small crabs and shrimp.

Where to Find

The gulf flounder is often found inshore on sandy or mud bottoms, often ranging into tidal creeks. They are occasionally caught on nearshore rocky reefs.

Hardhead Catfish

Arius felis
The hardhead catfish is gray and has a long slender build. It has sharp venomous spines in both pectoral fins and dorsal fin that help it fend off predators. It is not considered good eating, and fishing enthusiasts must handle it with care to avoid a painful wound. Its smooth skin is covered with thick slime. A bottom-dweller, the catfish uses barbels (scent organs) at the corners of its mouth and on its chin to help it locate food in the mud. When it comes to raising young, the males are mouth brooders and keep their eggs in their mouth until they hatch.

Where to Find

The hardhead catfish prefers shallow water with a muddy bottom.
Hardhead Catfish Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve
Inshore Lizardfish Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve

Inshore Lizardfish

Synodus foetens
Inshore lizardfish are active predators with a mouth full of teeth. They prefer areas with a mud or sand bottom where they can bury themsleves and ambush prey. Their prey consists of small fish and invertebrates.

Where to Find

The inshore lizardfish are bottom dwellers, usually found near shore.

Lane Snapper

Lutjanus synagris
Lane snappers are a commonly sought food and game fish. Adult fish are normally found on nearshore reefs where they feed on mollusks, crustaceans and fish. The juveniles are residents in estuaries where they feed and grow near inshore seagrass beds or sand flats. Not to be confused with a mutton snapper, the lane snapper has a rounded anal fin instead of a pointed anal fin. While their coloration can vary depending on location and mood they will always have a black spot above their lateral line toward their tail and usually 8-10 yellow stripes on their side. In some areas they may hybridize with yellowtail snapper.

Where to Find

Lane snappers are found in coastal waters near structures. Adults can often be found in offshore reefs and rock piles. They are most common in South Florida. Juvenile lane snappers are found inshore over grass beds or shallow reefs.
Lane Snapper Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve
Lined Sea Horse Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve

Lined Seahorse

Hippocampus erectus
Unlike most other fish, the male seahorse incubates eggs deposited by his mate in a pouch on his abdomen. Seahorses have small fins and therefore are ill-equipped to swim against the current. They must cling to algae, seagrasses, and each other using their tails. Seahorse populations around the world are believed to be declining due to overcollection and use in traditional medicines.

Where to Find

Lined sea horses camouflage themselves amount coral and seagrass.


Pterois volitans
The lionfish is an invasive, non-native species of fish that threaten’s Florida’s native fish and wildlife. Originally from the Indo-Pacific, lionfish have become established in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and throughout the Caribbean Sea. It is believed their introduction to this hemisphere began during an aquarium release.

Where to Find

They can live as deep as 1,000 feet, tolerate salinity as low as 4 ppt, and temperatures as low as 52° Fahrenheit.

Why are lionfish a problem? Lionfish are able to consume prey that are more than half of their own length, and have few natural predators in the Atlantic. They are now 17 times more densely populated in the Atlantic than in their native Pacific Ocean. They reach maturity in one year and may live up to 30 years in an aquarium setting.

Lionfish aren’t (yet) found in Rookery Bay Research Reserve waters, but they have been found just off shore.

Are lionfish dangerous to people? They have 18 venomous spines total: 13 on dorsal (top), 1 on each pelvic fin (bottom front), 3 on anal fin (bottom back). They are not aggressive: they use their venomous spines only for defense. Neuromuscular toxin in their spines can cause pain, swelling, redness, tingling, and numbness if they puncture human skin, but there have been no reported deaths from a lionfish sting. Treat stings by immersing the wound in hot (not scalding) water for 30 to 90 minutes and seek medical attention if necessary.

Can anything be done? Lionfish can be speared, caught in hand-held nets or caught on hook and line. There are no minimum size limits, closed seasons or bag limits for recreational or commercial harvest, and a recreational fishing license is not required to harvest lionfish when using dip nets, pole spears, Hawaiian slings or any spearing device designed and marketed exclusively for lionfish. Care should be taken to not damage reefs when spear fishing. Please safely remove lionfish whenever possible and consider participating in lionfish derbies and tournaments.

Lionfish Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve
Lookdown Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve


Selene vomer
Lookdowns are members of the jack family. When young, their unusual body shape is small enough to resemble a swimming silver dollar. Young lookdowns also have long, green, streamer-like dorsal and anal fins and a faint striped pattern that helps them blend in with sea grass. Lookdowns sometimes swim in a head-down position searching for small crustaceans and worms.

Where to Find

Lookdowns are often found in coastal waters and estuaries over hard or sandy bottoms.

Orange Filefish

Alutera schoepfii
The orange filefish has a barbed, file-like spine on its head. It likes to swim at an angle, with its tail up and head pointed down. Related to the triggerfish, the orange filefish has a tiny, pursed mouth suitable for eating small fish and shrimp. Orange filefish vary in color from uniform olive gray to rich orange yellow.

Where to Find

Orange filefish are found along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
Orange File Fish Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve
Pipefish Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve


Syngnathus spp.
Four species of pipefish can be found in the Reserve. All pipefish species have a tube-shaped mouth and a long, narrow body ringed with bony plates. As with its relative, the seahorse, the male pipefish is responsible for incubating eggs, which are deposited by his mate on his abdomen.

Where to Find

The pipefishes olive-brown coloration helps them blend in with surroundings such as sea grasses or algae.

Polka-Dot Batfish

Ogcocephalus cubifrons
Reaching lengths up to 15 inches, this triangular-shaped fish relies on camouflage and slow, stealthy movements to sneak up on food. Batfish have modified pectoral fins underneath their bodies that help them “walk” across the floor of the estuary.

The esca (lure), located on the batfish’s forehead, wiggles and emits a scent to catch the attention of small prey items such as snails, shrimp or worms. Once its food is within range, the batfish’s lips shoot forward to slurp up the unsuspecting meal.

The polka-dot batfish is found nearshore unlike most batfish species which are found in deeper water. Because it is so unique, the polka-dot batfish even serves as Rookery Bay’s mascot. Come visit us at the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center to see the ten-times-life-sized sculpture that sits beneath the welcome sign.

Where to Find

The polka-dot batfish tends to move sluggishly around the sand and rubble bottom or among the seagrass.
Click below to watch a Polka-dot batfish luring his prey with his esca.
Batfish in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve
Pygmy Sea Bass Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve

Pygmy Sea Bass

Serraniculus pumilio
This small fish is in the same family as groupers, exhibiting similar body and fin shape, pupil color and shape, and the characteristic large mouth and lips. They are synchronously hermaphroditic, meaning they possess both male and female reproductive organs at the same time.

Where to Find

Small in size, pygmy sea bass are bottom dwellers often found around sea grass beds.

Spotfin Jawfish

Opistognathus robinsi
Spotfin jawfish are mouth brooders, which means males keep fertilized eggs and newly hatched fry in their mouths for protection. They use their powerful jaws to dig burrows as shelter in sandy areas. Spotfin jawfish are easily identified by the large false-eyespot on their dorsal fin.

Where to Find

Spotfin jawfish use their powerful jaws to dig burrows as shelter in sandy areas.

Watch our jawfish excavate his burrow!

Spotfin Jawfish Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve
Sharks Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve


South Florida is home to many species of sharks, skates and rays. The five most common species of sharks include the bonnethead shark, bull shark, blacktip shark, nurse shark and lemon shark. Many breed in the shallow, protected waters of mangrove estuaries where they are safe from predators and surrounded by a bountiful food supply. Young sharks thrive in the brackish bays of the Ten Thousand Islands. When nearing maturity, they leave the bay for deeper waters offshore. Research is ongoing in the reserve to learn more about how sharks use the estuaries as nursery grounds.

Where to Find

Young sharks thrive in the brackish bays of the Ten Thousand Islands. When nearing maturity, they leave the bay for deeper waters offshore. Research is ongoing in the reserve to learn more about how sharks use the estuaries as nursery grounds.

Smalltooth Sawfish

Pristis pectinata
Smalltooth sawfish are fishes closely related to sharks and rays with skeletons composed of cartilage. Their distinctive rostrum has about 30 teeth on both sides used for defense and hunting prey. Southwest Florida estuaries have the greatest concentration of smalltooth sawfish in the world. As of 2017, Rookery Bay fisheries research had captured 36 different sawfish within the preceding 14 years, ten of them being recaptured at least once.

Where to Find

Juveniles smalltooth sawfish inhabit coastal areas such as estuaries, river mouths, and bays year-round. Adult smalltooth sawfish are typically found in open water habitats, but have been encountered near coral reefs and occur inshore during the spring when females give birth and mating is thought to occur.

Staff spotted this juvenile smallthooth sawfish swimming in the shallow waters near Cape Ramono in Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Smalltooth Sawfish Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve
Smooth Butterfly Ray Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve

Smooth Butterfly Ray

Gymnura micrura
Related to the stingray but without the stinging barb on its short tail, the smooth butterfly ray has eyes on the top of its body and the rest of its “face” on its underside. The two eye-like features in this photo are called spiracles, which allow some sharks and rays to breathe while hiding or resting on the bottom. Below the spiracles we can see its mouth and gills. We sometimes catch rays like this one while conducting bottom trawls for our research or education programs.

Where to Find

The smooth butterfly ray is tolerant of a variety of salt content, from brackish river mouths to highly saline lagoons, as long as there is a muddy or sandy bottom.

Get to know the smooth butterfly ray, a harmless resident of back bays and nearshore waters.


Centropomus undecimalis
Snook are game fish listed as a species of special concern. The under slung jaw and pronounced black stripe on the sides of adults are distinguishing characteristics. Juveniles often don’t develop the black stripe until later in life. Snook are carnivorous lie-in-wait predators (making quick dashes to swallow its prey). Snook are sequentially hermaphroditic – they start out as males and turn into females as they get larger.

Where to Find

Snooks are often found inshore in coastal waters, including mangrove shorelines, seagrass beds, beaches and around structures.
Snook Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve
Southern Stargazer Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Research Reserve

Southern Stargrazer

Astroscopus y-graecum
This seldom-seen predator spends much of its life buried on the seafloor with only its eyes showing. It ambushes small fish and invertebrates and swallows them whole. Capable of reaching 22 inches in length, this fish has glands behind its eyes that create an electrical shock for self-defense.

Where to Find

The southern stargazer spends most of its life inshore, or under sandy silty and rubble bottoms.

Southern Puffer

Sphoeroides nephelus
The southern puffer, when threatened, is able to inflate itself by swallowing water or air to make it more difficult for a predator to swallow. It is olive-gray above with tan spots and light belly. It has small spinelets, or pimple-like bumps, but no scales. Its small mouth consists of 4 teeth fused together forming a powerful beak used to crush the hard-shelled invertebrates that it eats.

Where to Find

Southern puffers inhabit bays, estuaries and protected coastal water ways. In Florida, they are often found in mangrove and wetland vegetation habitats.
Southern Puffer Fish Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve
Striped Burrfish Wildlife in Naples | Rookery Bay Research Reserve

Striped Burrfish

Chilomycterus schoepfi
Often erroneously called a porcupine fish or a puffer, the striped burrfish uses a similar defense mechanism but is in a different family. The combination of a puffed up body and sharp spines deters predation on this slow swimming fish. The burrfish’s beak-like mouth easily crushes the shells of mollusks and crustaceans. Its yellowish body is covered with dark wavy stripes.

Where to Find

Striped burrfish are often seen in seagrass beds in bays and coastal lagoons. They are also found on shallow coastal reefs.

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