FORAYS WITH MORAYS (4): EXPRESSIVE FEATURES


Green Moray Eel (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

FORAYS WITH MORAYS (4): EXPRESSIVE FEATURES

Time to return to those extremely expressive characters of the coral reefs, moray eels. Specifically, some green morays. One hesitates to anthropomorphise or ‘project’ human emotions onto creatures but with some species it’s hard not to do so. Following Mr Grumpy (or perhaps Mr Sad) in the header image, here are some close-ups of morays appearing to express their emotions, from happy to downright furious… Eels featured here include Judy and Wasabi, and I remind myself that the human habit of naming familiar wild creatures is itself a (perfectly harmless) form of benign animism. Exactly as with the regular banded piping plovers featured elsewhere in this blog that overwinter on Abaco’s beaches, such as Harry Potter, Bahama Mama and the delightfully-named Felicia Fancybottom…

Happy and contented?Green Moray Eel (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)Green Moray Eel (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)Green Moray Eel (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Something on my mind…Green Moray Eel (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Slightly amused?Green Moray Eel (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Pretty funny, actuallyGreen Moray Eel (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Ha ha…! Hilair!Green Moray Eel (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Watch it. You are beginning to bug us, Mr Harbour, with your stupid captionsGreen Moray Eel (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

ANGRY. BACK OFF… NOW!!!Green Moray Eel (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

THE NEXT POST WILL BE FROM ABACO HQ NEXT WEEK

Credits: All morayvellous photos, Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba except 6, Virginia Cooper / Grand Bahama Scuba

BLUEHEAD WRASSE: PRIVATE LIFE LAID BARE


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BLUEHEAD WRASSE: PRIVATE LIFE LAID BARE

The bluehead wrasse (or blue-headed wrasse) Thalassoma bifasciatum is a denizen of the coral reefs of the tropical waters of the western Atlantic Ocean. This bright little 4-inch fish is… a wrasse with a blue head. No more and no less. Unless it’s a juvenile. Then it is mainly bright yellow. It’s similar to BLUE TANG (aka ‘the Disney Dory’), which starts life bright yellow and grows up to be blue.

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The species may be found singly, in pairs or small groups, or in schools.  They have an important role to play in the life of the reef. They are CLEANER FISH, vital to the health and wellbeing of the larger species they attend to, and thus of the reef itself. This is ‘cleaning symbiosis’, a relationship of mutual benefit. The big fish get cleaned; the little fish have a useful function and – importantly for them – therefore don’t get eaten. 

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Having said that, blueheads are of course fair game as a snack for species that aren’t in the market for their cleaning services. And, unfairly, some species that are content to let cleaner gobies runtle around their gills and mouths are not so considerate of the wrasse. Some types of grouper and moray eel, for example.

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TELL US EXACTLY SEVEN BLUEHEAD WRASSE FACTS

  • Juveniles can alter the intensity of their colour, stripes & bars
  • The bluehead wrasse is a ‘protogynous sequential hermaphrodite’
  • All are born female**. Some change sex to male during maturation (see below)
  • Food includes zooplankton, small molluscs and small crustaceans…
  • …and parasites / other juicy bits (fungal growths, anyone?) from bigger fish
  • The main threat to the species is coral reef degradation or destruction
  • The bright colours invite aquarium use, but the trade is not a significant one

** Some sources suggest some are born male and remain male. I’m not sure which is right

A juvenile bluehead (with feather-duster worms) – mostly yellow, with a pale underside
Bluehead Wrasse juvenile (wiki)

THE REMARKABLE SEX LIFE OF THE BLUEHEAD WRASSE

This is an unavoidable topic, I’m afraid. The bluehead’s sex life is the most interesting thing about them, and this is no time to be prudish. It is the subject of extensive scientific research, not all of which I have read since I decided to write about the species last night. Like many human relationships, “it’s complicated”, but in a conch shell it boils down to this:

  • To recap, BWs are born female and as they mature, some become male.
  • Males reach an ‘initial phase’ when they can breed in groups with females
  • Some males grow even larger & reach full colouration. This is the ‘terminal phase’
  • These large males aggressively chase away smaller ones & seek females to pair with
  • Their state of readiness (as it were) is signalled by colour changes
  • This behaviour is similar to that seen in many city centres in a Saturday night
  • The smaller fish have one bonus – their sperm count is higher than a dominant male
  • Prozac tests have shown that the drug reduces a dominant male’s aggression

blue-headed_wrasse_det (wiki)

As the excellent organisation OCEANA puts it: Bluehead Wrasses may reproduce in four different ways throughout their lifetime:  1) as a female in a group spawning event; 2) as a female in a pair spawning event within the territory of a large male; 3) as a small male in a group spawning event; and 4) as a dominant, terminal male in a pair spawning event within its own territory.

A cropped still from a video I took at Fowl Cay marine reserve. I’ve looked at dozens of images online and not found one that was all blue with a yellow end to its tail fin. Maybe it’s not a BW at all. Or it’s a different type of fish completely. Or perhaps it is just an all-blue alpha male.bluehead-wrasse-fowl-cay-mr-abaco

Credits & Sources: Melinda Riger; Adam Rees; James St John; Oregon State edu / Pinterest; Wiki images; self; Oceana; IUCN; magpie pickings

A bluehead wrasse passes the time of day with a gruntbluehead-wrasse-grunt-adam-rees

WATCHING NURSE SHARKS: BE PATIENT…


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WATCHING NURSE SHARKS: BE PATIENT…

I last took a look at nurse sharks nearly 3 years ago HERE. Time to revisit these creatures. Indeed, time for a close-up look. If you want to know more about this fascinating species, just click the link above.

The two strange items hanging down from the upper lip are sensory barbels
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This side-view shows the shark’s relatively small mouth (for a shark anyway)nurse-shark-a-melinda-riger-gb-scuba

Admire the extraordinary texture of the the skin; and the tiny evil eye. Click or – better – double click on the image and you will see that the skin is in fact tessellated, made up of a mosaic of tiny squares and near-squares**nurse-shark-close-up-melinda-riger-g-b-scuba

This one is a baby nurse sharknurse-shark-baby-melinda-riger-gb-scuba

A juvenile nurse shark with a couple of grunts. Note the youngster’s paddle-like finnurse-shark-juv-melinda-riger-g-b-scuba

Head, mouth, jaws and teeth

 ginglymostoma_cirratum_head  

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SO, THEY ARE SHARKS – ARE THESE GUYS DANGEROUS?

Not really, no. They aren’t looking to pick a fight; and they are not as territorially aggressive as the ‘bitey’ sharks are (or can be).  These slow-moving bottom-dwellers are generally harmless to humans. However, they can be huge—up to 4 metres —and have very strong jaws filled with thousands of tiny, serrated teeth. They will bite defensively if stepped on or bothered by divers who assume they’re docile. [As I said previously, “there are recorded instances of injuries caused to divers who have tried to pull nurse sharks by the tail. And serve them right, I say. Treat them with patience and respect!”] 

Nurse Shark ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copy

**FUN FACT

M.C. ESCHER (the inspiration for Mr Hammer) was the master of tessellation in art. Click the link to explore the dedicated website. Maybe, sensationally, one day a shark will be found with skin like this… (Alert reader: “Actually, I think it most unlikely…”)

Escher fish

Credits: field photos by Melinda Riger, Grand Bahama Scuba; Wiki for the 4 mouth images & the Escher 

Nurse Shark ©Melinda Riger @ Grand Bahama Scuba

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH?) 12: THE TRUMPETFISH


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WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH?) 12: THE TRUMPETFISH

It’s been a while since the previous post in the WTF? series, dedicated to the unusual or downright weird marine creatures that, when you see them swim into in the frame of your mask, prompt the involuntary exclamation “WTF?” (What’s That Fish?). Now, in all its glory meet… The Trumpetfish. These long piscine pipes are in no way related to the President-Elect and his tank of pet fish, but perhaps more explicably to seahorses and seadragons.

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Trumpetfishes Aulostomus maculatus are as happy to swim upright as more conventionally, which helps them to blend in with vertical corals and sponges on the reefs in the tropical waters of the western Atlantic. Adults may grow to 3 foot long or more. These creatures come in a variety of colours – shades of red, orange, brown, green and yellow.

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At the end of the fish’s long snout – see how far back the eyes are set – is a small mouth. Here’s how a trumpetfish goes about catching its prey (mostly small fishes):

  • Slowly swimming or drifting to a target from behind, and sucking it into its mouth
  • Staying suspended in the water, motionless, and waiting like a malevolent stick for a passing wrasse or similar to get too close
  • Swimming alongside larger fishes, which camouflages its presence and enables it to ambush small fish as they pass 
  • More generally, the trumpetfish has some ability to change its colour to blend with its surroundings – both a defensive as well as an attacking advantage

Trumpetfish (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)

The very excellent Peppermint Narwhal recently produced a series of posters in appreciation of particular species – and trumpetfishes and their kin in the Order syngnathidae were honoured. The PN’s cheerful website is well worth checking out for the sheer diversity of their ideas.

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MUSICAL NOTES

We are beginning to collect the makings of a decent orchestra here. The trumpetfish has a relative, the cornetfish, elsewhere in the world. The remarkable GUITARFISH has already featured in the WTF? series, as has a species of BASS, the Harlequin. And – hey! – what about the spotted DRUMFISH to lay down the beat? Maybe I need to compose a little jingle featuring these one day…

Credits: Melinda Riger (Grand Bahama Scuba); Adam Rees (Scuba Works)

FAIRY BASSLET (‘MIND YOUR GRAMMA’): BAHAMAS REEF FISH (33)


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FAIRY BASSLET (‘MIND YOUR GRAMMA’): BAHAMAS REEF FISH (33)

The Fairy Basslet is a tiny brightly-coloured fish with a pretentious alternative name. It is otherwise known as the Royal Gramma (Gramma loreto). These fish are found  in the coral reefs of the (sub)tropical western Atlantic. They are also found in aquariums anywhere you like, being small, bright, placid and generally good-natured.

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Conveniently, the basslet is unlikely to be confused with any other species. Its striking two-tone colour scheme of purple and yellow is hard to miss. The purple front half (which is presumably where the ‘royal’ comes from, being a regal or imperial colour) may also be violet or even blue in some fish and / or in some light conditions. Another identification pointer is a black spot on the dorsal fin. 

fairy-basslet-melinda-riger-grand-bahama-scuba

You’ll notice that the basslet above appears to be upside down. Which is because it is – this isn’t an inadvertent photo-flip. These little fish tend to orientate themselves to be parallel with the closest surface. This leads to them happily swimming upside down, or aligning vertically. As one article I read says severely, “this behaviour is not to be mistaken for illness”.

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Fairy basslets / royal grammas are also CLEANER FISH. They pick parasites and dead skin off larger fish that visit so-called cleaning stations to be attended to by tiny fish and cleaner shrimps, and in some instances to have their gills and even their teeth cleaned. The deal is that, in return, the large fish do not eat the cleaners. Even snack-sized ones rootling around inside their mouths.

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 WHAT ABOUT BREEDING?
I really can’t improve on this rather touching description from Wiki: “The male will build the nest among rocks using pieces of algae. The male will then lead the female to the nest, where she will deposit 20-100 eggs in the nest. During the breeding period, this behaviour is repeated almost every day for a month or longer (my italics). The eggs are equipped with small protuberances over the surface with tiny threads extending from them which hold onto the algae of the nest and keep the eggs in place. The eggs will hatch in five to seven days, normally in the evening…”

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HOW COME THE NAME ‘GRAMMA LORETO’?

This official name became a brainworm with me after I started this post. I had to check it out. The ‘Gramma’ part is unrelated to the fond name for a grandmother; rather, it simple denotes a member of the genus of fishes in the family Grammatidae.

The Loreto part is more mysterious. It is an an ancient town in Italy; and the name of several British schools, including – almost too good to be true – a school called Loreto Grammar. In a nutshell, the link between the town and places of education is that the Sisters of Loreto, founded in the c17 and named for a shrine in the Italian village, are dedicated to education in their Ministry.

How that ties in with a tiny Caribbean reef fish, I have yet to find out. I probably never will… Here’s a short video to alleviate the disappointment.

I failed to be able to resist finding out whether any country of the world has a purple and yellow flag. The answer is, no. However I am delighted to be able to report that the flag of the Independent Party of Uruguay is basslet-coloured.

inependent-party-uruguay-flag

fairy-basslet-melinda-riger-g-b-scuba-copy

Credits: all fantastic photos by Melinda Riger of Grand Bahama Scuba; magpie pickings of an unacademic sort for facts and speculation

SILVERSIDES: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (32)


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SILVERSIDES: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (32)

I have no idea if there is a collective noun for a large group of silversides. ‘Frenzy’ would cover it, but that is reminiscent of ‘feeding freezing’ which has a specialist meaning – and anyway, silversides are crazy even when they aren’t feeding. 24/7/12/365 as far as I can make out. I think ‘a panic of silversides’ might be the answer. They are just… all over the place at high speed. Sometimes swirling around pointlessly, other times moving in unison and suddenly all changing direction simultaneously, like a single creature made of tiny shards of silver.

silversides-school-melinda-riger-g-b-scuba-copyfish-frenzy-melinda-riger-gbs

There are quite a few silverside species around the world. The ones in the Bahamas are Atlantic silversides (Menidia menidia), also known in the north east of the United States as ‘spearing’. They seem to exist for two purposes. The main one is to be breakfast, lunch or dinner for larger fish, sea birds and shore birds. The other is for their usefulness in scientific research because of their sensitivity to environmental changes. 

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In one sense they are easy prey for predators. A determined fish will always manage a snack by swimming into the middle of a panic and (probably) simply by opening its mouth wide. On the other hand, their sheer numbers coupled with the speed and randomness of movement mean that a single may find a degree of safety in numbers. It’s hard for a predator to target any individual fish in the general melee and confusion. Silversides also favour seagrass beds, which give some shelter and protection – and a reasonably safe place to spawn. Or, as some of these photos show, they will hang around wrecks or squeeze into rocky spaces in the reef.

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A panic of silversides apparently pouring like a waterfall down through a gap in the reefsilversides-waterfall-abaco-kay-politano

WHAT DOES A STATIONARY ATLANTIC SILVERSIDE LOOK LIKE?

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Some time ago we used to go to the reef at Fowl Cay Marine Preserve with Kay Politano, and I would snorkel with a small and very basic lo-res underwater camera. I was hampered by being a disgracefully feeble swimmer; by not having snorkelled for a length of time calculable in decades; and by being a complete novice at underwater photography.  Despite these not inconsiderable disadvantages I managed to cobble together a few short movies on my computer (I was new to that too). Here’s one that nearly works, in that it gives an idea of what happens if you ‘swim with silversides’. I know you scuba guys all swim with sharks, but cut me some slack here please…

Photo Credits: Main photos Melinda Riger of Grand Bahama Scuba; Silverside Waterfall by Kay Politano; motionless silversides by FISHBASE.ORGMusic: Goldon Giltrap, ‘Fast Approaching’

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH?) 11: STARGAZER FISH


Star Gazer fish (Adam Rees : Scuba Works)

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH?) 11: STARGAZER FISH

It’s a real shocker! This fish is a serious contender. An A-list horror-fish. The WTF? series has featured some extraordinary, bizarre and frankly unbelievable fish species. Here’s one that might just blow them all out of the water. So to speak. Not only is this fish weird in a number of respects, but it is also dangerous. Behind its eyes it has a special ‘electric organ’ (a “Hammond”?**) that produces a shock when touched. Oh for a superpower like that, even if only to be used defensively. 

“They’re the meanest things in creation,” fish scientist William Leo Smith, who owns a stargazer, told the New York Times. “I was so excited to get it. It’s the worst pet on earth.”

‘Fish out of water’. Note (but do not touch) the area behind its eyes…Northern_Stargazer (Canvasman21 wiki)

The Northern Stargazer Astroscopus guttatus whiles away the long lazy days lying mostly buried by sand, the stargazy eyes on top of its head picking out prey – mostly small fish – to ambush and stuff into its bizarre YKK zip-mouth. It can bury itself in seconds. An adult stargazer may grow to nearly 2-foot of concealed eating machine. They will stay put unless disturbed, confident that a false move by a creature – it could be you in your flippers – will mean it will be in for a shock. 

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10 STARGAZER ATTRIBUTES TO ADMIRE (BESIDES THE ELECTRIC SHOCKS)

  • The strange mouth looks as it does because it is fringed to keep out sand
  • The head-top eyes can be made to protrude to allow a wider field of vision 
  • It ambushes small fish and swallows them whole (see video below)
  • To lure prey, stargazers discharge seawater through their gills… (Reader: why?)
  • It causes the sand to move about – possible lunch is waiting for a fish further up the food chain
  • They are born with eyes on side of the head; they move to the top as they grow from the larval stage
  • They are content to be solitary, except in the Spring (for the usual reasons)
  • Apparently “little is known about the mating behaviours of these creatures”. A pity, I feel.
  • They have no scales, but they make up for that with an impressive 13 anal spines
  • Unimpressed? Well they also have venomous spines near their gills & above their pectoral fins

stargazer-fish.jpg.653x0_q80_crop-smart

WEIRD FISH – AND WHAT’S WITH THE WEIRD NAME?

I wondered that too. The Astroscopus part derives from the Greek, ‘astro’ (star) and Latin ‘scopus’, a conceptual noun combining watching and targeting – think ‘telescope’, or ‘far-target-watching’. The guttatus (L) part simply means spotted or speckled. A Homo guttatus may need mild medical attention.

Stargazer clip (Wideangl)

THOSE ELECTRIC SHOCKS – HOW BAD ARE THEY?

Well. I kinda knew you’d ask so I looked into it. According to the exceptionally cool ‘Monsters of the Deep’ (see credits), the stargazer shock is approximately 50 volts. The British Health and Safety Executive, whose job is normally to interfere with almost every aspect of daily life in the UK (“you are strongly advised not to drink from bottles marked ‘Rat Poison’ portraying a Skull & Crossbones motif, lest disappointment should result”) has assisted: 

A voltage as low as 50 volts applied between two parts of the human body causes a current to flow that can block the electrical signals between the brain and the muscles. This may have a number of effects including: stopping the heart beating properly; preventing the person from breathing; causing muscle spasms.

The exact effect is dependent upon a large number of things including the size of the voltage, which parts of the body are involved, how damp the person is, and the length of time the current flows.

Sadly, you are quite unlikely to find a stargazer in Abaco waters, which lie slightly beyond their fairly limited western Atlantic range. But hop over to Floridian waters, move a bit north, and you might meet one.

**A musical instrument allusion

Credits: Adam Rees / Scuba Works; Canvasmas21 wiki; Nat Geo Kids;  MONSTERS OF THE DEEP (cool underwater site to check out!); Casey Patton / FMNH; Mother Nature Network (inc for video); Wideangl (clip)