Field of Science


It's time to meet the sweepers.

Smallscale bullseyes Pempheris compressa, copyright John Turnbull.

Sweepers, Pempheridae, are a group of moderately sized marine fish (usually about fifteen to twenty centimetres in length) found around tropical reefs in the Indo-Pacific and western Atlantic. I don't know why they're called sweepers, but in some areas they may be among the most abundant fish on the reef. Distinctive features of the group include a short, high dorsal fin and a long anal fin. The lateral line is also distinctively long, extending past the end of the tail right onto the caudal fin. Perhaps the feature that most stands out about sweepers is their large eyes. The eyes are so big because sweepers are nocturnal; during the day they retreat into protected crevices and caves, emerging at night to feed on minute crustaceans and other small animals (Mooi 2001).

Pygmy sweeper Parapriacanthus ransonneti, from here.

Sweepers are divided between two quite distinct genera. Members of the genus Parapriacanthus have a more 'average fish-like' elongate profile with the body less deep than the head is long. The other genus, Pempheris, has a distinctively deep profile, deeper than the head is long. The exact number of species of pempherid appears to still be uncertain. Pempherids lack the striking markings of other tropical fish and species can appear very similar to each other. What is more, they have two layers of scales on the body, with the outer scales being larger than the inner and deciduous (easily shed), and loss of the outer scales has the potential to change an individual's superficial appearance. Early descriptions of pempherid species are often inadequate for their reliable identification, and new species continue to be described at a quite rapid pace. A recent publication by Randall & Victor (2015), for instance, described no less than thirty-four new species of Pempheris from various locations in the Indian Ocean, close to doubling the number of species in the genus at a stroke. The genus Parapriacanthus is much less diverse, with only about five recognised species.

Orange-striped bullseyes Pempheris ornata in hiding during the day, copyright Peter Southwood.

Because of their relatively small size and retiring habits, sweepers are mostly not that significant economically. At least one species, Pempheris xanthoptera, is fished off the coast of Japan and mostly eaten as fish paste; it is supposed to be quite tasty. Some have appeared in aquaria.

When foraging at night, sweepers communicate with each other by producing popping noises through muscular flexing of the swim bladder wall. Noise production increases in the presence of potential threats, perhaps to warn other members of the school. At least some pempherid species also have bioluminescent glands associated with the posterior part of the gut. The bioluminescent compound is not directly produced by the fish itself but obtained by consuming bioluminescent ostracods. I haven't found whether the function of this bioluminescence is specifically known for pempherids, but similar ventral glows in other fish provide camouflage by breaking up the fish's silhouette when seen from below.


Mooi, R. D. 2001. Pempheridae. Sweepers (bullseyes). FAO Species Identification Guide for Fishery Purposes. The Living Resources of the Western Central Pacific vol. 5. Bony fishes part 3 (Menidae to Pomacentridae) pp. 3201–3204. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: Rome.

Randall, J. E., & B. C. Victor. 2015. Descriptions of thirty-four new species of the fish genus Pempheris (Perciformes: Pempheridae), with a key to the species of the western Indian Ocean. Journal of the Ocean Science Foundation 18: 77 pp.


  1. Hi,
    Assuming luminescence is due to bacterial products, I wonder if it relies on the fish actually hosting the bacteria or if the luminescent molecule is "extracted" and processed by the fish. Either would be cool; the former may imply adaptation on the fish and bacterial side to some form of symbiosis (the bacteria having to "coordinate" adaptation to arthropods and fish hosts), while the latter would at least require the fish having the means to extract and process the bioluminescent substrate.
    Anyway, thanks for the post.

  2. The luminescence is not produced by bacteria but by ostracods (the specific compound involved being Cypridina luciferin). The luciferin is extracted from the prey rather than being produced by live organisms in association with the fish.

  3. Yep, I had got the "extracted from the ostracod" part, but was wondering what the ultimate source was (the ostracods themselves or something they host), so thanks for clarifying.
    I can´t find any nuclear genome sequence (only mitochondrial) for Pempheris to see if they encode for potential luciferases, but I guess simply the fish takes up both substrate and processing enzyme from the ostracodss and just glows all the time.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS