New Zealand author Janet Frame once stated that she “likes to see life with its teeth out.”

There is one type of sea life that Ms. Frame might have appreciated had she had the chance. Though it may never have crossed her path in New Zealand waters, the tautaug, a fish native to the western Atlantic Ocean, lives with its teeth both in and out!

The tautaug has two sets of truly terrific teeth. Steve Junker, local NPR station WCAI producer and host of NPR’s All Things Considered, explains:  “Tautaug are fish to make dentists smile and give the rest of us the creeps — they have eerily human teeth.” 

That first set of teeth, just under their thick lips, serves to grab, puncture and move prey. Further back, this fish has another set of teeth, called pharyngeal teeth, which resemble our molars and are used to crush their crunchy prey.

The preferred foodstuffs of tautaug include mainly crustaceans and mollusks. Crabs, mussels, shrimp, clams, small lobsters and other shelled dwellers require those strong back teeth to fully grind their meal. Interestingly, it is that second set that decomposes more slowly, and occasionally is found on a beach.

Tautaugs are on my tongue for another reason, and that is their culinary value. Nineteenth-century Smithsonian ichthyologist G. Brown Goode describes them this way: “The tautaug has always been a favorite table fish, especially in New York, its flesh being white, dry and of a delicate flavor.” 

And Mr. Junker agrees: “they also transform into very tasty fish chowder.”

But before you can eat this fish, you have to catch it. Tautaugs are found on the East Coast, and can be harvested from Cape Cod Bay to the Chesapeake. Most fishing is by marine anglers, though there is also some commercial harvesting. Active by day, these fish are known for their nighttime lethargy and can be caught easily by divers if they know where to look. Rocky areas, wrecks, jetties and pilings are favorite spots, as tautaugs are content to rest in cracks and crevices.

Don’t expect to reel in a giant. Most tautaugs caught range from one to three pounds. But there have been some surprises. An unconfirmed new record occurred last January when a 28.8-pound tautaug was brought in from Ocean City, Md. In an interesting coincidence, this beat the former record of a 25-pounder from Ocean City, N.J.

However, there are challenges for this species, since it is both a slow growing and slow maturing fish. Tautaug take at least three years to mature, and by six to 10 years old, this fish has reached only two to four pounds. If not caught, tautaug can live up to 35 years.

The word tautaug hails from the language of the Narragansett tribe. This species is also called hoodfish, tog (for short), black porgy, chub, blackfish and white chin. The last name refers to the white coloring below the mouth that some older male fish have.

No matter what they are called or how they are cooked, I can’t help but appreciate those big teeth out front for all to see and admire, and then that second set way back in the fish’s throat. It is clear that both are not simply a tautology, though who could resist calling them a ‘tautaugology?’

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.