Ocean Love Spotlight – California Sheephead

February SEA Days: Ocean Love

Every month, the third Saturday is a special day at Birch Aquarium: SEA Days! As the tagline suggests, SEA Days are always full of  “Science, Exploration and Adventure.” Visitors and members can meet a Scripps Institution of Oceanography or UC San Diego researcher and get hands-on with science, participate in activity stations, and get creative with a thematic craft. 

In February, love is in the air, and the ocean! It’s the time of year when whales are calving, birds are nesting, and fish are spawning. Join us Feb. 21 for this family-friendly event as we learn about ocean “love” from experts at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. 

California Sheephead: A Unique Love Life 

California Sheephead have one of the most unique “love lives” of any local fish. These kelp forest residents change from female to male over the course of their lifetime and researchers still don’t fully understand why.

All California Sheephead are born female and spend much of their lives as a pinkish color with light undersides. Males, on the other hand, have large black bulbous heads and black tails with a reddish band. This coloration makes the male California Sheephead one of the most recognizable fish in the kelp forest. Both male and female sheephead have characteristic white chins and protruding teeth.


A male California Sheephead swims through its kelp forest habitat. Credit: NOAA

The Change From Female to Male is Still a Mystery

Most research on California Sheephead agrees that there are various environmental factors that contribute to the change from female to male. There is great variation in the timing of the switch depending on location, and it is generally accepted that females become males some time from five to 14 years of age. Male sheephead are very territorial during the mating season, when the waters warm in summer and early fall. They will also vehemently defend their spawning territory from other males looking for mates.

Vulnerable, But Protected

California Sheephead are listed as a vulnerable species by the IUCN. Their population decline is contributed to commercial fishing, recreational fishing, and capture for the live fish trade. Luckily, many live in Marine Protected Areas such as the Matlahuayl State Marine Reserve in La Jolla, CA. This reserve is a “no take” area, meaning that all species are protected from fishing. Great news for the vulnerable California Sheephead!

Our male California Sheephead can be seen in the Kelp Tank

Our male California Sheephead can be seen in the Kelp Tank

Quick Facts:

Scientific Name: Semicossyphus pulcher

Habitat: Kelp forests and rocky bottoms from Point Conception, California to the Sea of Cortez, MEX

Diet: Carnivorous – preying mostly on invertebrates with hard shells such as crabs, lobsters, sea urchins, and mollusks

Size: up to three feet in length and weigh up to 36 pounds

At Birch Aquarium? Yes! You can spot both male and female California Sheepheads in the Kelp Tank on your next visit or look them now on our live Kelp Cam 

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  • Harrold "Mr. Fish"
    April 28, 2015 at 6:32 pm

    These fish have one of the most interesting life cycles I’ve seen, although the angler fish “love life” (such as it is for the males) is pretty interesting too! I caught a glimpse of one of your Sheephead on the Kelp Kam, very cool to be able to look live into the aquarium!

  • Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC San Diego