Dive into the new Blue Planet II book accompanying the landmark BBC One series with an extract examining the impressive tuskfish
By sunup, the orange dotted tuskfish has already arrived at his workshop on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and to get ahead in this challenging world it has opted for ingenuity. It has joined the exclusive club of animals – predominantly mammals and birds – that have found ways of using ‘tools’. It likes to eat clams, so it uses a neat trick to expose one buried in the sand. Instead of blowing a mouthful of water at it, the fish turns away from the clam and snaps shut its gill covers, blasting water in the same way that closing a book creates a waft of air. Then it grabs the clam in its mouth and, with a deft movement of the head and body, smashes it against a coral. The blows are so precise that, after a short time, the shell breaks apart. The fish then gobbles it down, swallowing the soft flesh and spitting out shattered shell fragments.
While scouring the reef for signs of tuskfish activity, one individual in particular caught the eye of assistant producer Rachel Butler and underwater cameraman Roger Munns.
‘We weren’t really sure we were going to see anything when we first found the tuskfish we nicknamed “Percy”, but within a few minutes he’d found a shell and set off to his favourite coral head, where he proceeded, with violent swings of his head, to smash it to bits. Although we knew what to expect, Rachel and I were both dumbfounded at his amazing behaviour.’
Seeing a fish use a "tool" for the first time was truly remarkable
‘Seeing a fish use a “tool” for the first time was truly remarkable,’ adds Rachel. ‘Percy came back to his “castle” each day. He was a tenacious little thing, swimming for hours every day in search of clams that he would bash on his anvil for up to 20 minutes at a time.’
Piles of broken shells scattered around the coral head indicate that the tuskfish regularly uses the same ‘anvil’. Furthermore, similar collections of broken shells can be observed across the Great Barrier Reef, suggesting the behaviour may be widespread. Despite being a relatively conspicuous behaviour, anvil use in tuskfish had rarely been observed in Australia prior to commencement of filming Blue Planet II and has been professionally filmed for the first time by this series.
These resourceful tuskfish are in the wrasse family, and since these observations were reported several others have come to light. Off the Florida coast, the yellow-headed wrasse smashes scallops against an anvil rock, and in the Red Sea three species of wrasse collect sea urchins, drag them back to their territory, and break off the spines and split the test against a chosen rock to get at the soft parts inside. Fish are not noted generally for their intelligence, but digging up a clam or collecting a sea urchin, carrying it some distance in its mouth to a preferred anvil and then smashing it open, like a sea otter, requires some degree of forward thinking, and for a fish that’s a big deal.
Dive deeper into the world of Blue Planet II with the book that accompanies the landmark BBC One series.
More about the book
Take a deep breath and dive into the mysteries of the ocean.
Our understanding of ocean life has changed dramatically in the last decade, with new species, new behaviours, and new habitats being discovered at a rapid rate. Blue Planet II, which accompanies an epic 7-part series on BBC1, is a ground-breaking new look at the richness and variety of underwater life across our planet.
From ambush hunters such as the carnivorous bobbit worm to cuttlefish mesmerising their prey with a pulsating light display, Blue Planet II reveals the never-before-seen secrets of the ocean. With over 200 breath-taking photographs and stills from the BBC Natural History Unit's spectacular footage, each chapter of Blue Planet II brings to life a different habitat of the oceanic world. Voyages of migration show how each of the oceans on our planet are connected; coral reefs and arctic ice communities are revealed as thriving underwater cities; while shorelines throw up continual challenges to those living there or passing through. A final chapter explores the science and technology of the Ocean enterprise – not only how they were able to capture these amazing stories on film, but what the future holds for marine life based on these discoveries.