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)

URCHIN RESEARCHIN’: SEA HEDGEHOGS OF THE REEF


Long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

URCHIN RESEARCHIN’: SEA HEDGEHOGS OF THE REEF

The long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum featured in this post is one of those creatures that handily offers its USP in its name, so you know what you are dealing with. Something prickly, for a start. These are creatures of the reef, and many places in the Caribbean and in the western Atlantic generally sustain healthy populations.

Long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

These animals are essentially herbivores, and their value to vulnerable coral reefs cannot be overstated. Where there is a healthy population of these urchins, the reef will be kept clean from smothering algae by their methodical grazing. They also eat sea grass.

Long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

HOW DO THE SPINES OF DIFFERENT KINDS OF URCHIN COMPARE?

Small sea urchins species have spines a few cms long at most. The long-spine variety exceed 10 cms, and the largest may have spines up to 30 cms (= 1 foot) long. The length, as shown here, means that when the creatures are safely lodged in crevices near their algae supply, their spines remain very visible.
Long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)
Anatomy of a long-spined sea urchin. You may possess a few of these organs yourself…

Long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum anatomy diagram (wiki)

Long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

CAN YOU GIVE US A TEST, PLEASE?

As with SAND DOLLARS and similar creatures, the skeleton of a sea urchin is known as a ‘test’. Urchin tests are remarkably beautiful, especially seen in sunlight. Here are 2 examples I photographed a while ago. You’ll immediately notice the delicate colours and the amazing complexity of the pattern and symmetry. The top one is (or is most like) a long-spined urchin test.
Long-spined sea urchin Test / Skeleton Diadema antillarum (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour) Long-spined sea urchin Test / Skeleton Diadema antillarum (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

A BIT ABOUT SYMMETRY

Sea urchins are born with bilateral symmetry – in effect, you could fold one in half. As they grow to adulthood, they retain symmetry but develop so-called ‘fivefold symmetry’, rather as if an orange contained 5 equal-sized segments. The graphic above gives a good idea of how the interior is arranged inside the segments.

Long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

A FEW FACTS TO HAND DOWN TO YOUR CHILDREN

  • Urchin fossil records date the species back to the Ordivician period, c 40m years ago
  • In the ’90s the population was decimated and still has not recovered fully
  • Urchins feel stress: a bad sign that the spines here are white rather than black
  • Urchins are not only warm water creatures: some kinds live in polar regions
  • Urchins are of particular use in scientific research, including genome studies
  • Some urchins end up in aquariums / aquaria, where I doubt the algae is so tasty
  • Kindest not to prod or tread on them
  • Their nearest relative (surprisingly) is said to be the Sea Cucumber 

Sea Cucumber (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

ARE THEY EDIBLE?

Apparently they are eaten in some parts of the world; their gonads and roe are considered a delicacy. As far as I know, they are not generally on the menu in the Bahamas. Correction invited. Personally, I could leave them or leave them.

CREDITS: Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco (1, 2, 3, 6, 9) taken Abaco; Melinda Riger / G B Scuba (4, 10, 11) taken Grand Bahama; Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour (7, 8) taken Abaco; Wiki graphic (5) taken from internet. RESEARCH Fred Riger for detailed  information; otherwise the usual magpie pickings…

Long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

‘TELLIN TIME’ – RISE AND SHINE: ABACO SEASHELLS


Sunrise Tellin Shell, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen Rolling Harbour)

‘TELLIN TIME’ – RISE AND SHINE: ABACO SEASHELLS

SUNRISE TELLINS Tellina Radiata

I included these pretty shells, with their striking pink radials, in a much earlier posBEACHCOMBING BIVALVES The ones shown here are larger specimens. Some call them ‘rose-petal shells’. The hinges (muscles) are very delicate, and for many of these shells that wash up on the beach, the two halves have separated naturally. 

Sunrise Tellin Shell, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen Rolling Harbour)

STs are not uncommon, and I recently found some beauties at Sandy Point. They can grow up to about 7 cms / 2.75 inches, and some of these ones were that length, or very nearly so. I realised after I had taken the photos that I should have used a coin for comparison.

Sunrise Tellin Shell, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen Rolling Harbour)

TELLIN: THE TRUTH

The occupant of each of these pretty shells is a type of very small clam. I have completely failed to find a photo of a nude one with its shell removed, but maybe these are never seen at all. The clams live on the sea-floor, often buried in the sand, and with the lid (mostly) shut. Then they die (or their shells are bored into by a predator and they are eaten) and the shells eventually wash up empty on the beach. There’s not much to say about them – they perform no tricks (some shell creatures do, such as backflips) and are believed to have vanilla sex lives (some shell creatures are quite inventive in this department).

Inside Story… not much to tell except (a) still very pretty & (b) possible predator bore-hole top rightSunrise Tellin Shell, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen Rolling Harbour)

WELL, WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO THEM, APART FROM BEING PRETTY & BEACHCOMB-ABLE?

  • The clams have 5 tiny teeth to chew up their staple diet, which is mainly plant material
  • These include one ‘strong’ tooth, and one ‘weak’ one, though how someone found it out remains a mystery
  • Tellins are native to the Caribbean and north as far as Florida.
  • They live mainly in quite shallow water, but can be found as deep as 60 foot
  • They have no particular rarity value, and are used for marine-based crafts

Sunrise Tellin Shell, Abaco Bahamas (Seashells . org)

PLEASE TRY HARDER TO HOLD MY ATTENTION

You know those lovely tellins you collected during your holiday on Abaco to take home to your loved ones? You may have committed a crime! You did take them, didn’t you? However the general rule – law, even – seems to be “in most countries it is illegal to bring back these shells from holidays”. However, you have been fortunate; the Bahamas has no specific prohibition on the removal of tellin shells, certainly not for personal use.

READER COMMENT: WHOOPS! ALSO, PHEW!

Sunrise Tellin Shell, Abaco Bahamas (Rhonda Pearce)

 

As ever, the very excellent Bahamas Philatelic Bureau has covered seashells along with all the other wildlife / natural history stamp sets they have produced regularly over the years. The sunrise tellin was featured in 1995. You can find more – much more – on my PHILATELY page.

Sunrise Tellin Shell 5c Stamp Bahamas (BPB)

All photos Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour; Rhonda Pearce Collection plus Seashells.Org, O/S Linnean Poster, O/S BPB stamp

Sunrise Tellin Shell, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen Rolling Harbour)

FLAMINGO TONGUE SNAILS: DECORATIVE CORAL-DWELLERS


Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

FLAMINGO TONGUE SNAILS: DECORATIVE CORAL-DWELLERS

FLAMINGO TONGUE SNAILS Cyphoma gibbous are small marine gastropod molluscs related to cowries. The living animal is brightly coloured and strikingly patterned, but that colour only exists in the ‘live’ parts – the so-called ‘mantle’. The shell itself is usually pale, and characterised by a thick ridge round the middle. These snails live in the tropical waters of the Caribbean and the wider western Atlantic. Whether alive or dead, they are gratifyingly easy to identify.

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

THE IMPORTANCE OF CORAL

Flamingo tongue snails feed by browsing on soft corals. Often, they will leave tracks behind them on the coral stems as they forage (see image below). But corals are not only food – they provide the ideal sites for the creature’s breeding cycle.

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Dive Abaco, Bahamas)Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

Adult females attach eggs to coral which they have recently fed upon. About 10 days later, the larvae hatch. They eventually settle onto other gorgonian corals such as Sea Fans. Juveniles tend to live on the underside of coral branches, while adults are far more visible and mobile. Where the snail leaves a feeding scar, the corals can regrow the polyps, and therefore the snail’s feeding preference is generally not harmful to the coral.

The principal purpose of the patterned mantle of tissue over the shell is to act as the creature’s breathing apparatus. The tissue absorbs oxygen and releases carbon dioxide. As it has been (unkindly?) described, the mantle is “basically their lungs, stretched out over their rather boring-looking shell”

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

THREATS AND DEFENCE

The species, once common, is becoming rarer. The natural predators include hogfish, pufferfish and spiny lobsters, though the spotted mantle provides some defence by being rather unpalatable. Gorgonian corals contain natural toxins, and instead of secreting these after feeding, the snail stores them. This supplements the defence provided by its APOSEMATIC COLORATION, the vivid colour and /or pattern warning sign to predators found in many animal species.

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

MANKIND’S CONTRIBUTION

It comes as little surprise to learn that man is now considered to be the greatest menace to these little creatures, and the reason for their significant decline in numbers. The threat comes from snorkelers and divers who mistakenly / ignorantly think that the colour of the mantle is the actual shell of the animal, collect up a whole bunch from the reef, and in due course are left with… dead snails and “boring-looking shells” (see photos below). Don’t be a collector; be a protector…

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

The photos below are of nude flamingo tongue shells from the Delphi Club Collection. Until I read the ‘boring-looking shell’ comment, I believed everyone thought they were rather lovely… I did, anyway. You decide!

Flamingo Tongue Snail Shell, Keith Salvesen AbacoFlamingo Tongue Snail Shell, Keith Salvesen Abaco

Image Credits:  Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco; Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

HERMIT CRABS: SHELL-DWELLERS WITH MOBILE HOMES


Hermit Crab, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

HERMIT CRABS: SHELL-DWELLERS WITH MOBILE HOMES

As everyone knows, Hermit Crabs get their name from the fact that from an early age they borrow empty seashells to live in. As they grow they trade up to a bigger one, leaving their previous home for a smaller crab to move into. It’s a benign** chain of recycling that the original gastropod occupant would no doubt approve of, were it still alive… The crabs are able to adapt their flexible bodies to their chosen shell. Mostly they are to be found in weathered (‘heritage’) rather than newly-empty shells for their home. [**except for fighting over shells] 

Hermit Crab, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

 HERMIT CRAB FACTS TO ENLIVEN YOUR CONVERSATION

  • The crabs are mainly terrestrial, and make their homes in empty gastropod shells
  • Their bodies are soft, making them vulnerable to predation and heat.
  • They are basically naked – the shells protect their bodies & conceal them from predators
  • In that way they differ from other crab species that have hard ‘calcified’ shells / carapaces
  • Ideally the shell should be the right size to retract into completely, with no bits on display

Hermit Crab, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

  • As they grow larger, they have to move into larger and larger shells to hide in
  • As the video below shows wonderfully, they may form queues and upsize in turns
  • Occasionally they make a housing mistake and chose a different home, eg a small tin

Hermit Crab, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

  • The crabs may congregate in large groups which scatter rapidly when they sense danger
  • The demand for suitable shells can be competitive and the cause of inter-crab battles
  • Sometimes two or more will gang up on a rival to prevent its move to a particular shell

HERMIT CRABS CAN EVEN CLIMB TREES – WITH THEIR SHELLS ON TOO

Hermit Crab, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

HERMIT CRABS EXCHANGING HOMES with DAVID ATTENBOROUGH

This is a short (c 4 mins) extract from BBC Earth, with David Attenborough explaining about the lives and habits of these little crabs with his usual authoritative care and precision . If you have the time I highly recommend taking a look.

Credits: All photos taken on Abaco by Keith Salvesen except for the tree-climber crab photographed by Tom Sheley; video from BBC Earth

Hermit Crab, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

TUNICATES: SESSILE ASEXUAL SEA-SQUIRTS


Painted Tunicates Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

TUNICATES: SESSILE ASEXUAL SEA-SQUIRTS

Painted Tunicates Clavina picta are one of several species of tunicate ‘sea-squirts’ found in Bahamas and Caribbean waters. These creatures with their translucent bodies are usually found clustered together, sometimes in very large groups. One reason for this is that they are ‘sessile’, unable to move from where they have taken root on the coral.

Painted Tunicates Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

HOW DO THEY FEED?

Like most if not all sea squirts, tunicates are filter feeders. Their structure is simple, and enables them to draw water into their body cavity. In fact they have 2 openings, an ‘oral siphon’ to suck in water; and an exit called the ‘atrial siphon’. Tiny particles of food (e.g. plankton) are separated internally from the water by means of a tiny organ (‘branchial basket’) like a sieve. The water is then expelled. 

Diagram of adult solitary tunicate

Painted Tunicates Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

WHAT DOES ‘TUNICATE’ MEAN?

The creatures have a flexible protective covering referred to as a ‘tunic’. ‘Coveringates’ didn’t really work as a name, so the tunic aspect became the name. 

Painted Tunicates Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

IF THEY CAN’T MOVE, HOW DO THEY… (erm…) REPRODUCE?

Tunicates are broadly speaking asexual. Once a colony has become attached to corals or sponges, they are able to ‘bud’, ie to produce clones to join the colony. These are like tiny tadpoles and their first task is to settle and attach themselves to something suitable – for life – using a sticky secretion. Apparently they do this head first, then in effect turn themselves upside down as they develop the internal bits and pieces they need for adult life. The colony grows because (*speculation alert*) the most obvious place for the ‘tadpoles’ to take root is presumably in the immediate area they were formed.

 

Painted Tunicates Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

APART FROM BEING STATIONARY & ASEXUAL, ANY OTHER ATTRIBUTES?

Some types of tunicate contain particular chemicals that are related to those used to combat some forms of cancer and a number of viruses. So they have a potential use in medical treatments, in particular in helping to repair tissue damage.

Painted Tunicates Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

Credits: all fabulous close-up shots by Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba; diagram from depts.washington.edu; magpie pickings with a particular mention of an article by Sara MacSorley

Painted Tunicates Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

 

ECHINODERMS, DOLLAR DOVES & PETRIFIED BISCUITS


Sand Dollar, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

ECHINODERMS, DOLLAR DOVES & PETRIFIED BISCUITS

Echinoderms (Gr. ‘Hedgehog Skin’) comprise a large variety of sea creatures characterised (mostly) by radial symmetry. In a nutshell a creature with radial (as opposed to bilateral) symmetry can be divided into equal portions from the centre, like a cake. It has no left or right side and no definable front or back.  It is multidirectional from the centre, where the mouth is located. It obviously has a distinct upper side and an underside, but that has no bearing on this form of symmetry. 

Ten dollar Sand Dollar coin, Bahamas

Within the family of radially symmetrical animals, echinoderms (starfish, sand dollars and sea urchins) are unique in having five-point radial symmetry. These are the creatures you are most likely to come across in Abaco. There are two particular aspects of dollars and biscuits that merit a closer look (made more difficult by me stupidly taking photos of white things on a white background).

Sand Dollar Doves, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

DOLLAR DOVES

I’m sure all Bahamians know or are aware of at least one version of the famous ‘Sand Dollar’ poem, in which the various characteristics of the test (the skeleton of the creature) are given religious significance. One verse of the poem may be puzzling: “Now break the centre open And here you will release The five white doves awaiting To spread good will and peace”.

The Sand Dollar Legend

A few years back, Senior Granddaughter was looking at some Abaco sand dollars I’d given her for her growing collection of shells. She picked one up, shook it and it rattled. She said a friend at school had told her that a rattling sand dollar has ‘doves’ inside it, and asked if we could break it open and see. I’ve learnt that it is useless to argue with her – she has the tenacity of a trial lawyer – so we did. This is what we found.

Sand Dollar with a spiky interior like a white cave with stalagmites and stalagtitesSand Dollar Doves, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Five white doves (in fact, the separated parts of the creature’s feeding apparatus)Sand Dollar Doves, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Two broken pieces showing where the doves are centrally locatedSand Dollar Doves, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

A regrettably poor photo of a single doveSand Dollar Doves, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

The image below, from Pinterest, shows the ‘mouth’ with its dove-parts intact, in an arrangement called ‘Aristotle’s Lantern‘, a five-sided globular structure that supports the mouth and jaws of an echinoderm.

Sand Dollar : Aristotle's Lantern : Doves (Pinterest)

PETRIFIED BISCUITS

In common parlance ‘petrified’ is an extreme version of ‘terrified’. Literally, it means ‘turned to stone’ (L. petrus, a rock). It is descriptive of a state of fossilisation, where an animal skeleton or dead wood or plant matter turns over aeons into stone. Senior GD (a most inquisitive girl) followed up on the doves research after discovering a box containing random stones and fossils. She found these two items:

Fossilised sea biscuitsPetrified / Fossilised Sea Biscuit (Keith Salvesen)

A closer look at the pair of rocksPetrified / Fossilised Sea Biscuit (Keith Salvesen)

The undersides of the fossils above – looking like stones but with some tell-tale small holesPetrified / Fossilised Sea Biscuit (Keith Salvesen) Petrified / Fossilised Sea Biscuit (Keith Salvesen)

A close-up of the pale biscuitPetrified / Fossilised Sea Biscuit (Keith Salvesen)

Sea biscuits on the beach at Delphi – familiar white skeletons (‘tests’) but not yet fossilsSea Biscuits, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

A ‘modern’ non-Jurassic Abaco sea biscuit in close-upSea Biscuit, Abaco Bahamas (Rhonda Pearce)

FUN FACT

Florida has an unofficial but proposed State Fossil, the ‘Sea Biscuit (Eocene Age)’. I didn’t know it before, but it turns out that more than 40 US States have State Fossils. Whatever next? State Bacteria? State Viruses?

Sea biscuit from Madagascar (OS)

SO HOW OLD MIGHT A PETRIFIED BISCUIT BE?

The fossil biscuits I have looked at, from Florida to Madagascar (see small image above), are said to come from three specific historic epochs – from the oldest, Jurassic (145m – 201m years ago), to Eocene (34m – 56m) and Pleistocene (0.01m – 2.6m). 

HOW DOES THAT HELP ANYBODY? BE MORE PRECISE

By all means. Here is an excellent Geochart that gives an idea of the time span. A Jurassic sea biscuit would be more than 145m years old. This chart also helpfully helps avoid confusion with the Eon Era Period Epoch ordering.

geotimescale

You will find more echinoderm entertainment using this link to my fellow-blogger ‘Dear Kitty’ https://dearkitty1.wordpress.com/2007/01/01/big-hedgehog-small-sand-dollars-diving-schools/

All photos ‘in-house’ except the Delphi biscuits, Clare Latimer; & the single biscuit Rhonda Pearce; Sand Dollar poem on Postcard, Dexter Press; the Geochart was in my ‘useful chart photos’ folder but I can’t now find the source. I did try.