• In seagrass beds, on coral reefs, and in other marine habitats along the east coast of the Americas, a snorkeler or diver might spot the uniquely shaped scrawled cowfish (Acanthostracion quadricornis). This colorful fish has earned its name because the pointed appendages above its eyes resemble horns, and its profile and puckered mouth give it a cow-like appearance. This species is often called cowfish, trunkfish, or shellfish.

    The scrawled cowfish lives in the Atlantic ocean as far north as Massachusetts in the United States, to Bermuda, throughout the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and south to Brazil. Living in shallow areas and to a depth of about 80 meters (260 feet), it feeds on invertebrates, vegetation, sponges, and small, slow-moving crustaceans. While the largest cowfish recorded measured about 56 centimeters (22 inches), the average length is about 20 centimeters (8 inches).

    Lacking the scales of many fish, the scrawled cowfish’s body is covered with hexagonal-shaped dermal plates. These plates are fused together to form a hard shell covering.

    The scrawled cowfish is not considered an endangered or vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN), and it is often prized as an excellent food fish, particularly around the Caribbean where it is abundant. Nevertheless, protection of natural seagrass beds and ocean waters is generally important for the scrawled cowfish and many other marine species, that depend on healthy habitats for survival.

    1. What does a young, also called “juvenile,” scrawled cowfish look like?

      The juvenile scrawled cowfish looks much like a tiny version of its parents, but greener in color and with a less pronounced tail fin. See link for a photograph.

    2. What is the range for the scrawled cowfish?

      This fish can live in a wide expanse of ocean waters, along the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts in the United States south to Brazil, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.

    3. Why is this fish named “cowfish”?

      People named this the cowfish because of the appendages on its head, looking like horns, and the shape of its face and mouth.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    appendage Noun

    part of something that extends out from the main body, such as an arm or leg.

    crustacean Noun

    type of animal (an arthropod) with a hard shell and segmented body that usually lives in the water.

    dermal Adjective

    pertaining to skin.

    endangered species Noun

    organism threatened with extinction.

    Encyclopedic Entry: endangered species
    habitat Noun

    environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: habitat
    invertebrate Noun

    animal without a spine.

    marine Adjective

    having to do with the ocean.

    vulnerable species Noun

    level of conservation between "near threatened" and "endangered." Vulnerable is the lowest of the "threatened" categories.