The Turning Worm – Hyalinoecia sp.

Hyalinoecia sp. worm (onuphid worm) in Lembeh Blennywatcher.comLembeh Strait Indonesia, May 2014 ~ What if you carried your home around with you – one that you built yourself – what shape would it be? If you were a worm, then I guess a tube would make sense. I watched the tiny, one-and-a-half-inch, onuphid worm in its clear tube, struggling to negotiate the clumps of algae that covered the black sand slope: stretch forward and grab something, pause, yank the tube forward, feel around, reach sideways and grab something, pause, yank the tube sideways – whew – it seemed like a lot of work! The worm wasn’t anything new – we see them on many of our dives in Lembeh – but I was killing time, waiting for Ned and our guide, Man, to move up the slope, so I watched.

Polychaete worms in the genus Hyalinoecia (from hyaline, meaning transparent, glassy) inhabit clear tubes that they build by secreting a material, onuphic acid, the chemical composition of which has been of much interest to scientists. Other genera in the family Onuphidae build tubes, but they cement things to them like shells and sand and in many species the worms remain in one spot, tubes partially or totally buried in the sediment. But my worm was mobile, carrying its house with it and through the miracle of the macro extension on my camera port, I could see its entire iridescent body undulating and pulsing down the length of the clear tube.

Hyalinoecia sp. worm (onuphid worm) turning in tube

The turning worm: doubled over in its tube.

Then it turned! The worm doubled over on itself – basically doing a back flip inside its tube – and exited out the other end to struggle off in the opposite direction. Whoa! Worm watching just got interestingnow I have questions. For starters, this suddenly doesn’t seem like a very good house design – open at both ends – like a soda straw. How would the worm, preoccupied with dragging itself around and foraging for food, protect itself from a rear attack? Is it even in danger of a rear attack – what, if anything, eats these worms?

Hyalinoecia sp. worm (onuphid worm) emerging from tube

After turning, the worm is about to emerge

It turns out that these worms build 2 – 3 pairs of membranous valves at each end of the tube. The valves open when the worm pushes out and close by the force of incoming water when the worm retracts. So the worm can operate out of whichever end is convenient and its rear is sealed and protected. As it grows, the worm lengthens its tube and the valves are removed and rebuilt closer to the entrance. And these valves are not constructed in a haphazard manner: the membranes making up a valve at the front end of the tube are placed opposite from each other; at the narrower, back end of the tube, they are offset. The placement of the valves in this very regular pattern is evident by the traces of the old membranes on the sides of the tube. On the front end, the pattern is “v” shaped and on the rear end, the pattern is zig-zagged. Hyalinoecia sp. (onuphid worm) tube & valve

In looking around for information about what preys on the worms, I found a mention of one in an aquarium that was eaten by another species of worm and another account of a dissected starfish that was chock full of the undigested tubes – really, the photo is pretty amazing – Echinoblog included the image in the post, When Starfish Eat Too Much!!

This is my new favorite invertebrate – well, almost… after ctenophores and skeleton shrimp, of course.  To see the worm turning in its tube and moving around the bottom, check out my short video over on our BlennyWatcher YouTube channel or click on the video below. Note: all the images in this post are screen captures from the video:

Blenny Auction Result

Malacoctenus carrowi Peter Wirtz

Malacoctenus carrowi by Dr. Peter Wirtz

Meet Malacoctenus carrowi, a newly described blenny known from the Cape Verde Islands in the eastern Atlantic. A year ago, we announced a Blenny Auction to raise funding to enable Dr. Peter Wirtz to collect another specimen and complete the research to formalize the description of the fish, only the second species of the genus Malacoctenus to be known from the eastern Atlantic. As a result, the species has been named to honor Mr. Frank Carrow, whose interest in marine conservation led to his creation and funding of a foundation that supports a broad range of marine conservation activities. The paper, A new species of Malacoctenus from the Cape Verde islands, eastern Atlantic (Pisces Teleostei Labrisomidae) is available online.  For more information about the books, publications and images of Dr. Wirtz, visit his web page at

Happy Friday everyone!

The Real Secretary Blenny

Secretary Blenny Acanthemblemaria maria

The real Secretary Blenny, Acanthemblemaria maria

November, 2014 ~ If you have a photo of a blenny labeled Secretary Blenny, Acanthemblemaria maria, it is likely that you actually have a photo of a Spinyhead Blenny, Acanthemblemaria spinosa. A Google image search for “secretary blenny” produces pages and pages of images that are actually, with an occasional exception, Spinyhead Blennies. I have intimate knowledge of this problem — it has been wrong in Reef Fish Identification – Florida Caribbean Bahamas since the second edition (1994) and just sorted out in the recently published fourth edition of the book. Our field guides are written to help divers visually identify fishes in their natural habitat and even after 25 years, Ned and Paul still consider them to be works in progress, adding additional species and corrections, whenever practical, to new printings and editions. The Spinyhead Blenny – Punk/Christmas Tree Blenny – Secretary Blenny correction has been a long time in coming but with the help of Dr. Ben Victor the confusion has finally been cleared up.

November 2014: A Google image search for "secretary blenny" yields mostly misidentified fish.

A Google image search for “secretary blenny” yields mostly misidentified fish.

Figuring out how to visually tell the fishes of the genus Acanthemblemaria apart has long been an obsession of mine;  I read scientific descriptions, examined Ned’s photos (first slides, then enlarged digital images) and experimented with various macro options on my video camera. Everything seems obvious on paper or the computer screen but underwater, in a surge, identifying a tiny, moving fish presents many difficulties. Along the way, I’ve learned some interesting things, including how the Secretary Blenny got its name. If you are only interested in the details of how to tell the two species apart, then skip down to the end of this post where there is also a link to a short video.

Spinyhead Blenny by Ned DeLoach

Spinyhead Blenny, Acanthemblemaria spinosa

Fishes in the genus Acanthemblemaria are small, tube-dwelling blennies, distinguished from other blennies in the family Chaenopsidae by the presence of spines on their heads and around their eyes. The spines are not to be confused with cirri – the fleshy stalks over the eyes and snout – or the papillae, soft protuberances, which are present on the heads of some of the acanthemblemariids (A. medusa and A. chaplini). The number, size and shapes of these spines, cirri and papillae are features that distinguish one species of the genus from another, but these features are usually so small that it is difficult to discern the differences without the aid of magnification and a very still fish. One of my all time favorite publications about blennies is Atlantic Fishes of the Genus Acanthemblemaria, with Description of Three New Species and Comments on Pacific Species (Clinidae: Chaenopsinae) by William F. Smith-Vaniz and Francisco J. Palacio. For years, I pored over the descriptions in this paper and obsessed over the illustrations of the cranial spines and cirri, but just could not match them with what we were seeing underwater on live fish.

About nine years ago, in an effort to establish a visual identification key for divers, we consulted Dr. Bill Smith-Vaniz. Under his direction, we obtained a collecting permit in Bonaire and collected a number of specimens of what we thought were Secretary, Spinyhead and Medusa blennies. Our friend Claire Davies helped us locate, photograph and collect the fishes. Our goal was to work out a key for fishwatchers, using Ned’s photos, matched to the positive identifications obtained from Bill’s examination of the collected fishes.  But the results came back from Bill’s lab revealing that our collected fish were all Spinyheads and Medusas – not a Secretary in the bunch, even though we were certain we had collected some! That was important reinforcement that something was amiss in the visual identification of these fishes, but other projects took precedence and we set the question aside.

Secretary Blenny from St Vincent by Ned DeLoach

What people were calling the Punk is actually the Secretary Blenny

The next year, we visited St. Vincent, where we were shown the Punk Blenny, a reportedly undescribed Acanthemblemaria species that received its common name from the red flattop of spines on its head. In other areas, there were reports of a blenny that fishwatchers were calling the Christmas Tree Blenny, for its distinctive cirri. Around the same time, I saw a post in an online forum requesting help in determining whether a fish was a Spinyhead or Secretary Blenny and Ben Victor’s response, that the “CDs and books are wrong” and the Punk Blenny is the real Secretary Blenny. Ned and I finally had the opportunity to talk to Ben at length about the Secretary/Spinyhead confusion when he joined the ReefNet team and us for a two-week dive trip to Dominica in 2010 and we enlisted him to help set the record straight. Ben is both an ichthyologist and medical doctor who has conducted extensive research on larval fishes of the Caribbean (his site: ) and is familiar with the distribution of fishes based on collection records throughout the tropical western Atlantic. Ben confirmed that there is no such thing as a Punk or Christmas Tree Blenny. After asking around, I am pretty sure the Christmas Tree and Punk blennies were references to the same fish although it is possible that what people were calling Christmas Tree Blennies were actually Medusa Blennies (A. medusa).

Secretary Blenny out of hole by Ned DeLoach

Secretary Blenny (A. maria) stretches out of its hole.

While waiting for the publication of the fourth edition of Reef Fish Identification with its additional photos and corrected identifications, I decided to dig into the scientific literature about Secretary and Spinyhead blennies. The Spinyhead, Acanthemblemaria spinosa, was originally described in 1917 from specimens taken in Curacao. In 1928, William Beebe and John Tee-Van described Acanthemblemaria variegata. In 1941, this was temporarily made a synonym of, i.e., considered the same species as, the Spinyhead (A. spinosa) by Longley and Hildebrand. In 1957, James Böhlke published The Bahaman Species of Emblemariid Blennies, in which he summarized the Acanthemblemariids known to date in the Bahamas. In discussing the Spinyhead, he includes the work of both Beebe and Tee-Van (A. variegata) and Longley and Hildebrand and noted some differences in spine counts between his specimens and those described by Longley and Hildebrand indicating that, “It is possible that A. variegata is the true spinosa and the above specimens represent an undescribed species;”

Sure enough, in 1961, he published, The Atlantic species of the clinid fish genus Acanthemblemaria, in which he sets the record straight, that A.variegata Beebe and Tee-Van is actually A. spinosa - the Spinyhead originally described in 1919 – and the blenny that was troubling him in his 1957 paper was in fact a new species, Acanthemblemaria maria, which he “Named for Mrs. Mary George, my secretary for the past five years and now parent and housewife, in appreciation of her assistance in all the activities of the department during that period.” So the new blenny was named to honor to Dr. Böhlke’s secretary, Mary George, hence the common name, Secretary Blenny (I love little tidbits about how fishes are named – see my Arrow Blenny post). I’ve heard suggestions that the common name should just be changed to Punk Blenny, but in deference to Dr. Böhlke and Mary George, I truly hope that never happens. The name “punk blenny” just adds to the confusion and should be dropped completely.

Spinyhead (Acanthemblemaria spinosa) vs. Secretary Blenny (Acanthemblemaria maria)

So to summarize: If you have a picture of a Punk or Christmas Tree Blenny, it is most likely a true Secretary Blenny. If you have a blenny photo labeled Secretary Blenny, check it again to make sure it isn’t really a Spinyhead Blenny. Both species have similar markings, including spots on their lips (except the Bahamas, where Secretaries’ lips have lines – note from Ben Victor). Spinyheads tend to have many uniform, short head spines, while Secretaries have fewer that are larger. The differences in their cirri are very difficult to see with the naked eye. The Secretary Blenny has a very distinctive orange patch over the back of the head, tends to be larger than Spinyheads and we have always found them in areas of high-energy or surgy water and rarely below 25 feet. Ben also notes, “There are no records of Secretary blennies in Florida or Bonaire. There are no records of Spinyheads in Florida or Panama.”

Unsure of your blenny? Here is a short video of the two (click on the video or this link: ) and be sure to like our FaceBook Blennywatcher page for more updates.

Banda Sea Images

Banda Sea, April 2014 ~ This algae covered decorator crab, found by Ned on a night dive off Pantar, Indonesia, is one of my favorite images from our April trip around the Banda Sea. We boarded the Dewi Nusantara in Ambon and dived our way down through and around the southern perimeter of the Banda [...]