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. 

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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.

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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

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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)

HOGFISH: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (31)


Hogfish at cleaning station ©Melinda Riger @GB Scuba

HOGFISH: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (31)

Hogfish. Fisherman’s delight… getting ‘high on the hog’. This wrasse species Lachnolaimus maximus is a reef denizen, especially where gorgonians are found. It has the distinction of being the only known member of its genus, and because it is IUCN listed as vulnerable, there are strict regulations governing bag, size, and gear limits to protect the species from overfishing.

Hogfish ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba

The hogfish gets its name from its long ‘pig-like’ snout, coupled with its rootling behaviour on the sea floor for crustacean prey.

Hogfish ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba copy ed Hogfish foraging ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba

GENDER STUDIES: IT’S COMPLICATED

The hogfish is a sequential hermaphrodite, meaning it changes sex during different life stages. Juvenile hogfish are female, but mature into males at around 3 years old.

Hogfish ©Melinda Riger @ G B ScubaHogfish ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copy

Hogfish social groups are organized into harems, where one male will protect a group of females in his territory and mate with them.

Hogfish ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba Hogfish with isopods ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba

CAUTIONARY NOTE Capt. Rick, a loyal follower, has made another of his pertinent comments: “A bit of caution is necessary here! There is some history in the Bahamas of mild to severe Ciguatera poisoning from Hogs. Our M.O. was to only eat Hogs no larger than 5 or 6 lbs. Temporary or permanent blindness, paralysis, and even death is possible with bigger Hogs”. Ciguatera is also a problem with, for example, ‘cuda on Abaco. Those caught on the Marls (west) side are ok to eat; those from the east side have to be treated with circumspection…

Hogfish (with isopod above eye) ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba

Credits: all fantastic fish fotos – Melinda Riger at Grand Bahama Scuba

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH) (10): FLYING GURNARD


Flying Gurnard (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH) 10: FLYING GURNARD

Imagine that you are swimming along resplendent in your snorkelling gear (me) – or in scuba gear for the advanced swimmer (you). There, below you, camouflaged against the sea bottom is a fish. A strange-shaped brown sort of creature with odd side fins. As it progresses over the gravelly sand, your immediate reaction is ‘what the…?’ Its fins seem to be turning into… wings. Like this:

Flying Gurnard (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)Flying Gurnard (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)Flying Gurnard (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)

Yes, it’s a flying gurnard. Unlike flying fish, it can’t actually fly through the air. But once its wings are fully spread, it certainly looks as though it could.

Flying Gurnard (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)Flying Gurnard (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)

WHAT’S THE POINT OF THE WINGS IF THE THING CAN’T FLY?

This gurnard species usually gets around using its ventral fins as ‘legs’, with the pectoral fins (‘wings’) close to the body. There seem to be several possible reasons for possessing the ‘sudden-deployment-of-flashy-wings’ superpower. 

  • It surprises and deters predators by movement, turning prospective prey into an apparently different creature
  • Bright or lurid colouring may be a deterrent warning of a foul-tasting or poisonous species  (APOSEMATISM)
  • A creature may actually be harmless and even tasty (as here) but may appear to be unpalateable or poisonous (BATESIAN MIMICRY)
  • In any event, the wings enable the fish to take off from the sea bottom and travel faster by ‘flying’ thought the water to escape a predator

Dactylopterus_volitans Flying Gurnard (cralize wiki)

I had a quick look to see how  scientists in history had depicted this extraordinary fish. The earliest illustration I could find was taken from “Allgemeine Naturgeschichte der Fische (General natural history of fishes),” a 12-volume encyclopedia by author/illustrator Marcus Elieser Bloch (1723-1799), which described all fish species then known to science (and 267 previously unknown) (© AMNH\D. Finnin) sourced from ‘Hyperallergic’
Flying Gurnard

Here’s a short video of a flying gurnard on the move, from ‘Sia Big Fish’

Credits: All main images Adam Rees / Scuba Works with many thanks, except final one ‘cralize wiki’; Hyperallergic for the historic image; Sia Big Fish for the video

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH) (9): THE HARLEQUIN BASS


Harlequin Bass ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copy

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH) (9): THE HARLEQUIN BASS

I’m conscious of being rather unfair on this pretty dwarf bass species by including it in the WTF? series. The usual denizen of the series is a fish so strange that one’s immediate instinct is to yell into one’s facemask, “WTF?”. BATFISH or FROGFISH or GUITARFISH and their bizarre ilk. So with apologies to this species for its somewhat harsh classification, here are some quite flattering photos of it to make up for any hurt feelings.

Harlequin Bass Fish ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copyHarlequin Bass (jpc what'sthatfish)

The Harlequin Bass Serranus tigrinus has unusually striking body markings and a rather endearing spotty tailfin. They are hardy creatures and I note that they are recommended aquarium fish “and make a great candidate for beginners”, though there are warnings that they are “semi-aggressive”. NB they are only a few inches long, so no need to panic.

Harlequin_Bass_Serranus_tigrinus wikiHarlequin_Bass_(Serranus_tigrinus) wiki

If you are still not confident that you can ID one in the wild, here is a short video… Actually I’m really including it to show how these fish swim around. And next time, I promise a truly eye-watering WTF? fish from Bahamian waters, though its camouflage is so good that you may never notice it…

Credits: Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba (1, 2); jpc/ what’s that fish; wiki

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH) (7): THE SOAPFISH


Soapfish ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH) (7): THE SOAPFISH 

The WTF? series features some of the stranger fish that inhabit the waters of the Bahamas. Ones that, were you to encounter one on the reef, might make you exclaim “WTF?”. The soapfish Rypticus belongs in the same family as grouper and sea bass. Within the soapfish genus there are quite a few varieties in different shapes, sizes and colours that include several mottled, freckled, spotted and generally blotchy fish.  This post features one (or two) of them! Sorry to be lame here and lacking in authority, but having looked carefully online at images of several types of soapfish, I reckon there are 3 candidates. Freckled, I think these are. Enlightenment would be welcome!

Soapfish ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba

Rypticus tend to inhabit shallower tropical and sub-tropical waters. They are mainly nocturnal in their habits, feeding at night on small fish, crustaceans and molluscs. The WTF? factor arises from the creature’s oddly truncated shape. If you cover the back end of the fish in the image below with your hand, you might expect the fish to be about the same length again. But no, there’s just the tail to come. It looks a bit cut in half.

Soapfish © Melinda Riger @GB Scuba

DOES THE SOAPFISH HAVE ANY AWESOME POWERS?

I’m glad you asked because in fact it has two. First, these fish respond to threats by secreting large amounts of toxic mucus from their skins. This acts as a defensive barrier to repel predators. Secondly, female soapfish are able to change sex to male. This is not uncommon among fish, and in some (e.g. Clownfish) the change works the other way, male to female. I read a lot about chemicals and gonads in this connection, then decided to spare you the details. So basically, it’s toxic slimy coats and female gender realignment.

Soapfish ©Melinda Riger @ Grand Bahama Scuba

Credits: all photos, Melinda Riger of Grand Bahama Scuba