WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH?): THE FROGFISH


Frogfish (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)

The Astoundingly 5* Strange Frogfish (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH?)

A COMPENDIUM OF SUBSURFACE WEIRDNESS

A SERIES OF 15 OF THE STRANGEST SEA CREATURES IN BAHAMAS WATERS

INTRODUCTION

WTF? stands for ‘What’s That Fish’? But it might also be your exclamation when you come across one of these creatures. The WTF? series highlights some of the unusual, curious, weird and downright extraordinary fishes that inhabit the waters of the northern Bahamas. Some represent local forms of a species found elsewhere in the world; others are in their own evolutionary cul-de-sac. Just as I think I have seen it all, so another oddity crops up somewhere that demands inclusion. 

The WTF? series, put together over several years, is intended to be the most direct route to an underwater menagerie of piscine strangeness, with some great photos to whet your appetite to learn more about these fascinating denizens of the ocean. 

1. THE FROGFISH

* CLICK ON THIS TITLE TO BE TRANSPORTED TO THE STRANGE WORLD OF THE FROGFISH *

Frogfish (Adam Rees, Scuba Works)Credits are given in the individual articles. Thanks to all those that have provide the photos, without which this type of illustrated, unscientifically scientific poke around in the ocean depths would not be possible.

IS THIS THE REAL LIFE? OR IS THIS JUST FANS AT SEA?


Purple sea fan, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

IS THIS THE REAL LIFE? OR IS THIS JUST FANS AT SEA?

I wrote the original post on this theme, with its somewhat Bohemian and rhapsodic title, a while back. It was put together at a time of sunshine, normality and optimism. The 2019 hurricane season was far in the future, and the prospect of one – let alone two – of the finest islands in the Bahamas being virtually eradicated overnight was unthinkable.

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

Right now, in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Dorian, and as the communities gradually start on the long road to recovery, the priorities remain personal and community safety, food, fresh water, medical supplies and access to all the other necessities that the major relief operation has so effectively enabled. However, as gradual improvements to daily life are achieved, so a degree of interest in the natural world is returning.

Purple sea fan, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

The despoliation of the land is there for all to see, visible even from space. As yet – as far as I know – no one has had the time or opportunity, or even a boat and the right equipment to investigate below the surface of the sea. What of the reefs: the bright darting reef fish; the larger denizens of the deep; the corals, sponges and anemones? The massive Cat 5 storm caused an unprecedented 23′ surge. It’s hard to see how the reefs can have remained unaffected, and there must be the possibility that the THIRD LARGEST BARRIER REEF in the world will have been altered irrevocably.

Purple sea fan, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Since Dorian, the related organisations have been unable to operate. Abaco’s ‘Dive Abaco’ was virtually annihilated along with the rest of Marsh Harbour. Grand Bahama Scuba has just reopened, although it may take a while before dive trips are anywhere back to normal. This post contains beautiful photos from both the Melindas concerned, taken in happier times before the dark cloud swept over the islands just one month ago.

Purple sea fan, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

NOTES FROM THE PRE-DORIAN PAST

The waters of Abaco teem with myriads of fish that depend on the coral reefs for shelter and safety, for breeding, for growing up in, and for nourishment. Sea fans (or gorgonians, to use the technical name) are animals too. They may look like plants and stay rooted to the spot, but like anemones these ‘soft corals’ are creatures of the reef and essential indicators of its health.

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

At the moment it can still be said that the static (‘sessile’) members of the Abaco reef community are relatively unscathed by the impact of (and I don’t want to get into any arguments here) whatever causes mass bleaching and the death of reefs elsewhere in the world.

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)  Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

The purple sea fan Gorgonia ventalina (classified by Linnaeus in 1785) is one of the most common species of sea fan, and a spectacular one at that. The main branches are linked by a lattice of smaller branches. Below the ‘skin’ is a skeleton made of calcite compounded with a form of collagen. 

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

Sea fans are filter-feeders, and have polyps with eight tiny tentacles that catch plankton as it drifts past. They develop so that their orientation is across the prevailing current. This maximises the water passing by and consequently the supply of food as the fans gently wave in the flow.

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)  Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

Gorgonians have a chemical defence mechanism that protects against potential troublemakers. The main effect is to make themselves unpleasant to nibble or uproot.

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

One species impervious to this deterrent is the fascinating FLAMINGO TONGUE SNAIL (more of which quite soon). Other ‘safe’ species include the fireworm and BUTTERFLYFISHES.

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

One benefit of sea fans to mankind is that their defensive chemicals have been discovered to provide the basis for drug research and development, specifically in the field of  anti-inflammatories. Another benefit, of course, is that they are very beautiful to look at. And in bad times, that can only be good .

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)    Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

Most of the photos featured are by courtesy of Capt. Keith and Melinda Rogers of the well-known local scuba dive and snorkel centre DIVE ABACO, located in central Marsh Harbour. As prime enablers of reef exploration in Abaco waters, it can truly be said that they too have plenty of fans.

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

Credits: Melinda and Keith Rodgers / Dive Abaco, Marsh Harbour; Melinda and Fred Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba (1, 3, 4, 5)

** The answer to the questions in the Title is… it’s both!

FINALLY, A SPECIAL FAN FOR ABACO AND GRAND BAHAMA

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

HIDDEN DEPTHS: LIFE ON ABACO’S CORAL REEFS


Reef Coral Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

HIDDEN DEPTHS: LIFE ON ABACO’S CORAL REEFS

Nearly 4 weeks after the devastation of Hurricane Dorian, the island and its cays are beginning to emerge gradually from the wreckage and the desolation. The extent of the disaster on the ground is clear, not least from the aerial photos – first drone, then plane, and now Google – of ‘before’ and ‘after’. 

Reef Coral Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)Reef Coral Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

At the stage, it isn’t possible to determine the extent to which the underwater world has been affected. The storm surge was huge and the waves were savage. The progress of the storm was slow (and it went on to stall over equally damaged Grand Bahama). Who knows the effect on the corals and other reef life for which Abaco is renowned.

Reef Coral Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco) Reef Coral Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

This pictorial post is a reminder of how things were below the surface of Abaco waters before Dorian struck. If it lifts spirits to any degree, I shall be glad.

Reef Coral Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco) Reef Coral Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

All these photos are by Melinda Rodgers who, with Capt Keith, are DIVE ABACO. Many will know how badly they have fared, being in the heart of Marsh Harbour. We wish them a speedy return to the wonderful enterprise they have run for many years. I’m pleased to be able to show the beauty of the reefs in happier times from their archive.

Reef Coral Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)Reef Coral Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

Credits: Melinda Rodgers /  Dive Abaco

Reef Coral Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

BLUE CHROMIS: A FLASH OF COLOUR ON THE REEF


BLUE CHROMIS: A FLASH OF COLOUR ON THE REEF

I’ve gone pictorial for today because I have only got my phone with me while we are away. Composition is slow, close to decomposition – and the comms connection is close to disconnection

Blue chromis (Chromis cyaneus) belong to the same group of fishes as damselfishes. These unmistakeable, bright reef denizens are very visible despite their tiny size. These fish are shoalers, so out on the reef you can enjoy them flickering around you as you swim along or hang in the water to admire the corals.

Like many a pretty and easily captured small fish that can be monetised once removed from its natural home environment, the blue chromis is popular for aquariums, and for humans to keep in their own home environments, unselfishly feeding them concocted food.

Blue chromis are adaptable and sociable, and will happily swim with other small reef fishes (as above). My own favourite combo is chromis mixed in with sergeant majors. But a shoal of them (mostly) alone is pretty special too….

I cynically mentioned ‘concocted’ food earlier. Here is one online care instruction for looking after them: “They are omnivores, meaning that they eat both meaty and plant based foods. They are not difficult to feed and will eat a variety of regular aquarium fare, frozen, live, and sometimes even dry food. Feeding them a variety of foods will help them retain their color in captivity. They sometimes feed on the algae in the tank”. 

If you are tempted to rescue some from their reef habitat, rest assured that: They have been known to spawn in captivity. Blue chromis can usually be obtained for about $10-15. And don’t hold back on the frozen food (though maybe warm it up a bit before feeding time).

Credits: Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco; Melinda Riger / G B Scuba

INTERNATIONAL SHARK WEEK? IT’S SO OVER… EXCEPT HERE


Sharks in Bahamas - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

INTERNATIONAL SHARK WEEK? IT’S SO OVER… EXCEPT HERE

There’s never a day without a ‘Day’, nor a week without a ‘Week’. Almost all creatures under the sun are celebrated in some regular calendar-based time-frame. With the exception of No-see-ums: I’ve checked – there is no national or international Ceratopogonidae Day in any online calendar. 

Sharks in Bahamas - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

By a mere 2 days, I have missed Shark Week, a happening tied in with the Discovery Channel, and heralded by an amusing trailer that features no actual sharks… So, belatedly, here are some cool shark photos to enjoy, in case you didn’t get enough of them last week, or (like me) had other fish to fry.

Sharks in Bahamas - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba“I’m so glad we agreed to watch each other’s backs…”

Sharks in Bahamas - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

 Meet Nurse Betty, as she is known to diversSharks in Bahamas - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

MANGROVES: THE SHARK NURSERY

As all children are taught and some adults know, the mangroves that grow in the shallow waters around the islands of the Bahamas are of enormous ecological significance. This isn’t the place to expand on that now, but it is worth mentioning that the mangrove swamps are the nurseries of young sharks (‘pups’) until, as juveniles, they are old enough to leave the safely of their home for deeper waters. Check out the short video below.

Sharks in Bimini Bahamas - biminis-marine-protected-areaSharks in Bimini Bahamas - biminis-marine-protected-area

Spot the REMORA hitching a ride on this shark’s backSharks in Bahamas - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

Nurse shark – note the twin barbels (cf recent Goatfish article)Sharks in Bahamas - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

Sharks in Bahamas - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

HAMMERHEADS FROM BIMINI Sharks in Bimini Bahamas - Grant Johnson / 60 Pound Bullet   Sharks in Bimini Bahamas - Grant Johnson / 60 Pound Bullet

These wonderful photos were all taken in Bahamian waters. Melinda Riger of Grand Bahama Scuba is, as ever, the star snap-getter of sharks (and indeed all other marine creatures). Special thanks are also due to Grant Johnson / 60poundbullet and Neal Watson / Bimini Scuba Center for occasional use permission of photos – especially of hammerheads – that are, well, eye-popping. Video from ‘ZeroEye’

Sharks in Bimini Bahamas - Grant Johnson / 60 Pound Bullet

BAHAMAS REEF FISH (53): YELLOW GOATFISH


Goatfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

BAHAMAS REEF FISH (53): YELLOW GOATFISH

GOATFISHES belong to the mullet family, a large group of species with a flexible membership. In other words, there is disagreement as to whether certain fish are mullet or not. For present purposes, it’s not our problem – no one doubts that the goatfish is a mullet.

Goatfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

SO WHY ARE THESE CALLED GOATFISH? WAS SOMEONE KIDDING?

These fish get their name for the pair of so-called ‘barbels’ below their mouths (see image below), thought to be reminiscent of a goatee beard. The name has Latin origin, ‘barbula‘, meaning a small beard. Linnaeus may have had a hand in this choice of description.

Goatfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

WHAT IS THE FUNCTION OF THE BARBELS?

The barbels are sensory organs which, depending on the creature, may be located on either side of the mouth, on the chin, or even extending from the nostrils. In broad terms, the barbels are where the taste buds are located. They help a fish to find food even when the water is stirred up or murky or at night, and are used to probe into sand or into holes in the reef for prey.  

Goatfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

WHY ARE THEY OFTEN SEEN WITH YELLOWTAIL SNAPPERS, GRUNTS & PORKFISH?

Goatfish have limited means of self-protection. They are not poisonous or venomous, they have no spines or razor-sharp teeth, nor ink to squirt. They do have an ability to change colour rapidly to blend into their surroundings – e.g. over pale sand – to make them less conspicuous to predators. Overall, however, they are docile and probably delicious to many other species. Their bright hues may have some function as aposematic colouring to warn, scare or repel potential predators, but this is possibly of limited use among the familiar reef denizens. So instead the goatfish goes in for so-called protective mimicry, as shown in the image above.

Goatfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

PROTECTIVE MIMICRY?

Goatfish and yellowtail snappers (in particular) are similar in size, appearance, coloration and behaviours, though the feeding patterns differ. The reason they are often found in mixed groups on the reef is for the individual protection they gain in a larger mixed school. This really amounts to taking advantage of safety in numbers (especially for the fishes in the middle). Here’s a very recent photo that shows exactly this scenario – a large mixed shoal of two almost indistinguishable fish species.

Goatfish & Yellowtail Snappers shoaling (Melinda Riger, GB Scuba)

IS THIS A ‘SPOT THE DIFFERENCE’ TEST?

If you’d like to make it so! (click on the image to enlarge it). Look out for the fish with the barbels (Goatfish); and the fish with the larger, more deeply forked tails (Snappers). A predator won’t take a great deal of notice of the finer points of difference of course, but overall this large mixed shoal gives a degree of protection to individual fish in the unit as a whole

Goatfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

ARE GOATFISH EDIBLE?

Goatfish are eaten in many ares of the world, though I can’t recall seeing it on a Bahamian menu. The Romans ate the local mullet / goatfish species, but then they ate many things that we do not now consider as permissible food – dormice in honey for example. Rather revoltingly, the goatfish were served live so that guests could watch them die and see the amazing change of colours in the process. Barbaric? But don’t we cook live… well, never mind that.

Goatfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

Photos: all great photos from Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba; magpie research pickings inc. the abstract of a scientific paper with about 23 authors; tip ‘o the hat to Wiki, no seriously

Goatfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

PEACOCK FLOUNDERS REVISITED: NOW YOU SEE THEM…


Peacock Flounder (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

        PEACOCK FLOUNDERS (Part Deux)

MASTERS OF SUBAQUATIC CAMOUFLAGE

I featured the extraordinary, colour-transforming PEACOCK FLOUNDER Bothus lunatus about 3 years ago in the Bahamas Reef Fish series (No. 21 I think). These really are remarkable creatures, and I am pleased to be able to show some more wonderful illustrative photos. 

Peacock Flounder (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

ROVING EYES

In the fish shown here, you’ll see that – surprisingly – both eyes are on the upperside of the fish, above the rather grumpy mouth, whereas the head is horizontal to the ocean floor. Oddest of all, juveniles are constructed conventionally with bilateral eyes, and look like ‘normal’ fish rather than flatfish.

Peacock Flounder (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

As the fish matures, in some magic way the mechanics of which I can only guess at**, the right eye grows round to the topside and the flounder transforms from a ‘vertical’ fish to a flatfish. For this reason, the PF is known as a ‘lefteye’ flounder. Maybe in other flounder species in the world – the southern hemisphere maybe? – the eye that moves round to the upperside is the left eye.

Peacock Flounder (Virginia Cooper / G B Scuba)

The eyes of this fish have another special trick up their sleeves (so to speak). They operate completely independently. Thus the creature can look left and right, or forwards and backwards, simultaneously. It’s an excellent system for detecting predators coming from any angle. It’s a superpower we might all benefit from.

Peacock Flounder (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

DO THEY HAVE ANY OTHER TRICKS WE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT?

Yes they do indeed. If you have been admiring the fish shown so far, you’ll have noticed that the colour of each one differs from the others. In addition to the predator-protection that the eyes provide, the peacock flounder can make itself (near) invisible. They can rapidly change colour to match their surroundings. There are 3 reasons for this: to avoid / confuse predators; to conceal themselves on the sea-floor to catch passing prey; and, as dive expert Fred Riger has pointed out, “the male peacock flounder can, and does greatly intensify his colours to declare territory and attract females. When doing this the males will also signal with the left pectoral fin, sticking it straight up and waving it around.” 

The same fish, photographed over several minutes as it moves over the ocean floorPeacock Flounder (Wiki)

Matching the background happens as the fish swims, and in a few seconds. When they rest on the sea-floor, the camouflage may even become total. In #4 above you can just about make out the eyes. The whole effect is known as ‘cryptic coloration’ or CRYPSIS. In contrast, the image below shows just how adaptable the transformation can be. Note how the fish can even mimic the pinkish tinge of the sand perfectly. If threatened, the fish will bury itself in the sand, with just its eyes showing.

Peacock Flounder (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

HOW DO THEY MANAGE TO CHANGE COLOUR IN SECONDS?

It’s complicated! A simple answer is: a mix of hormones, pigment-cells and vision, all coordinating rapidly. The colour change works in two ways: pigments are selectively released to the skin cells; and other pignments can be selectively suppressed. An analogy might be image manipulation using variations in brightness, saturation etc. Not convinced? Then watch this short video and prepare to be impressed. Astonished, even.

WHAT IF A FLOUNDER CAN’T SEE CLEARLY FOR SOME REASON?

As with many (all?) superpowers, there is usually some kryptonite-style flaw. A flounder with a damaged eye, or one temporarily covered (by sand, for example) will have difficulty in changing colour – possibly at all, or at any rate with the swiftness it needs to have. 

Peacock Flounder (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

THESE SIDEWAYS FISH – HOW DO THEY… YOU KNOW…?

Take a look at the fish above with its top fin raised. It’s a ‘ready’ signal in a harem. Male flounders have a defined and defended territory within which live up to 6 females – a so-called ‘harem.’ I can do no better than borrow the description of the rituals from an article derived from scientific papers by Konstantinou, 1994Miller, et al., 1991 in the website animaldiversity.org/…ounts/Bothus_lunatus To which I can only add, ’15 seconds, eh?’

Peacock Flounder (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

“Mating activities usually begin just before dusk. At this time, a male and a female approach each other with the ocular pectoral fin erect. The two fish arch their backs and touch snouts. After this interaction the female swims away, and the male sometimes follows, approaching the female again from the left side. At this point the male pectoral fin is erect and the female pectoral fin moves up and down, possibly signalling willingness to mate. The male then positions himself underneath the female and mating begins. This process consists of a mating rise, during which the female and male rise in the water column together. On average, these rises last about 15 seconds. At the highest point of this rise, usually around 2 m above the substrate, gametes from both fish are simultaneously released, producing a cloud of sperm and eggs. Once the couple returns from the rise, the male “checks” to make sure mating was successful, and the pair separates quickly, swimming away from each other in opposite directions. Not all mating rises are successful, and the process of “checking” is thus important. The exact purpose of the mating rise in these flounders unknown; possible reasons for rising include better dispersal of gametes and predator avoidance.” 

Peacock Flounder – Kim Rody ArtPeacock Flounder (Kim Rody Art))

**This may in fact be through sheer laziness

Credits: Melinda Riger & Virginia Cooper / Grand Bahama Scuba; Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco; Adam Rees / Scuba Works; Kim Rody; animaldiversity.org; magpie pickings and other credits in the text

Peacock Flounder (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)