Fresh from the bay - probably nothing to excite a real collector, but fun anyway.
Bermuda, October 2012 ~ During a dive at Nonsuch Island three years ago, I found an intact marble bottle. I wasn’t hunting for bottles; I was supposed to be counting fish, but the tiniest hint of aqua glass caught my eye and I started digging. It took about five minutes to free the sediment-filled bottle from the soft sand bottom but I was hooked at the last tug.
Before I continue, I need to do some record straightening. A few months ago, I posted photos of some of my beachcombing treasures, including a handful of what I thought were parrotfish beaks that I found on a previous trip to Bermuda. See the photos here. Well I was wrong, wrong, wrong! An alert reader, Audrey, commented that she thought they were chiton shells. We were in Bonaire at the time her message came through and I had just seen some intact chiton shells during my morning walk along the waterfront, so I went back for one. Now that we are home I shot a photo of it along side the parts from Bermuda – and look at that – they match! And last week, at the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo (BAMZ) I saw a real parrotfish beak on display! So thank you, Audrey – I hope you are still reading this blog.
A real parrotfish beak on display at BAMZ
Not parrotfish beaks!
So back to the bottles. Before Bermuda, I was an opportunistic collector. In Banda Harbor (think Dutch clay gin bottles) or the Solomons (WWII era Coke bottles) if I happened upon something interesting, I looked but rarely picked one up. Ever since my marble bottle find, I’ve been scheming to get back to Bermuda. It didn’t take much to talk Tammy and Ken Marks into going with us and we spent two days mucking around, literally, in 8 – 20 feet of water.
Bottle graveyard - Just in case you thought this was glamorous treasure hunting
Sometimes we swam for ten minutes, seeing nothing and sometimes we’d find a bottle graveyard. This didn’t mean that we found really old, really good bottles. We managed to examine about 10,000 Heineken and Amstel bottles of fairly recent vintage. My favorite find was an old water bottle with an embossed message so long that it wrapped twice around the base of the bottle. The stern message: “This bottle is our exclusive property – anyone using, destroying, or retaining it will be prosecuted” In other words, as Tammy said “Don’t even look at this bottle!”
The marble bottle that started it all
Don't even look at this bottle!
We met a a really nice bottle collector, Brion Estis, who pulled up alongside us for an impromptu evaluation and bottle lesson. The more we consulted Brion, the more bottles we pitched over the side. It was great fun. In fact, so much fun that we’ve talked Ned into returning in a few months. I made it home with a few that are all cleaned up and sitting in their new home on our curio shelf with my other bottles:
Although born in a nest of Sargassum seaweed, baby flying fish are found just outside the floating rafts.
October 2012 ~ Bermuda - an island where we ran wild with our obsessions! While I prepared to spend the morning bottle hunting with Tammy and Ken Marks, Chris Flook pulled up to our dive boat in his launch and rescued Ned, whisking him off to explore the Sargassum. An easterly wind had conveniently blown rafts of the seaweed into a nearby bay, giving Ned all the excuse he needed to jump ship. They came roaring back three hours later with a bucket full of tiny juvenile fishes, including two species of Ned’s favorites: flying fish.
Cupped in my hand, a juvenile flying fish - less than an inch long.
Bermuda's Sargassum holds at least 72 different animal species
We met Chris years ago in the Bahamas, where as collector of specimens for the Bermuda Aquarium, he had joined us for a lionfish data collecting expedition. He made quite an impression when he casually leaned over the side of the boat with a red plastic cup and deftly scooped up a half-inch flying fish. We spent a lot of time exploring the Sargassum with him during our 2009 visit to Bermuda but didn’t capture any images of flying fish then.
Last year, Ned had quite a flying fish adventure in Indonesia (chronicled in our Alert Diver article, Team Flying Fish), so returning to Bermuda to try to find some of the 13 species known from these waters was high on our list. Chris is now executive director of Bermuda’s Blue Halo initiative but he graciously took time out to show Ned more of the Sargassum’s exquisite animals. He was quite amused at Ned spinning in circles in 4 feet of water as he chased the fishes with his camera.
To get ready for this trip, I re-read William Beebe’s 1932 book, Nonsuch: Land of Water (this book is available for download at the Internet Archive). In his chapter about flying fish, Beebe called them “Butterflyingfish.” Our fish in the bucket look a lot like two illustrated in the lovely frontispiece of the book:
Flying fish illustrated on the frontispiece of Nonsuch: Land of Water
Before the fish were released to a nearby raft of Sargassum, I slipped my hands under them for Ned to take a few final shots:
Less than a half inch long, Chris guesses that these are about a week old.
Best of all, Ned was able to include the photos in his presentation at the famous Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute (BUEI) last week:
..and Ned used the photo in his show at BUEI!
Coming soon: More blenny images from last month’s trip to Bonaire and more Bermuda adventures, including bottle hunting and our REEF survey team’s search for the mythical Emerald Parrotfish. Stay tuned! ~ The BlennyWatcher
Blenny Watcher beachcombing finds: Do you know what these are?
Cleaning up my library curio shelf last week, I relived some favorite dive and shore excursions through the odd bits that I picked up: mantis shrimp claws, parrotfish beaks, tiny internal shells of an oceanic squid-like creature. I don’t know why I am compelled to collect these things but our travels afford me many opportunities to explore beaches, some on very remote and little visited islands in the tropics, and I can’t resist carrying home a treasure or two. So, I’m going a little off topic today on Blenny Watcher to share some of my favorite beachcombing finds.
Spearer mantis shrimp molt and replace their claws
I found these mantis shrimp claws underwater, one in Indonesia and one in the Philippines. I won’t collect shells underwater because even an empty one might serve as a home for something like a small octopus or hermit crab, but things like mantis claws and marbles (I have found marbles in some surprising places) are fair game. Mantis shrimps (they are crustaceans but not really “shrimp”) are divided into two groups, spearers and smashers, depending upon their claws (mine are from spearers), which they use to spear or club their prey. I read that they molt and replace their claws every few months – that made me feel better about finding these in the rubble.
Beaks, with and without the parrotfish
Parrotfishes get their family name because of their fused teeth that look like a parrot’s beak. Over the years I have found many broken pieces but my biggest haul of intact “beaks” came from Bermuda. I’m not sure about the one in the bottom left of the photo – might be from a different fish.
Internal shells, a.k.a. rams' horns, from Spirula spirula
These small coils are the internal shells from a small squid-like creature, Spirula spirula. The shells are gas filled and chambered and have tiny pinholes that allow the animal to control its buoyancy. Sometimes called rams horn shells, they are fairly common on oceanic island beaches, but extremely fragile so they are difficult to transport home.
Opercula a.k.a., cat's eyes
These dome-shaped “shells” are opercula of several species of gastropods (snails). Sort of like a boat hatch, they seal the opening of the shell, in this case to prevent a predator from accessing the soft body of the snail. I find these both underwater and on the beach. I think these are also commonly called cats eyes.
Sea bean heaven on Kicha Island
Sea beans are my favorite finds. Sea bean is a catch-all name for various tropical drift seeds that wash down from forests and float on ocean currents until cast on the beach. I find too many to haul them all home these days so a photo usually suffices. I am going to save most of those photos for a post all their own, but one of my favorite beaches was Kicha Island in the Solomons. There were loads of sea beans but the most memorable part of that excursion were the lovely, melodious bird songs that drifted out of the trees as I picked my way down the shore.
One of my favorite beachcombing books is Flotsametrics and the Floating World by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano. In addition to being highly entertaining and informative, it gave some validation, at least in my mind, to my compulsion to spend hours sifting through the wrack.
We were given the honor of naming Cirrhilabrus humanni
Two years ago, on a dive site near Alor, Indonesia, I saw a fish I had never seen before. Last month, just over two years from my first sighting, we received word that the fish, collected by our friends, Dr. Gerald Allen and Dr. Mark Erdmann, has received its official name, Cirrhilabrus humanni. This post is about the small role we had in establishing the fish as a newly described species. So, back to the dive two years ago: Descending onto a 30-foot deep rubble area that would be our staging area before continuing around the corner for a drift dive over the reef, our friend Lynne Van Dok gestured toward a population of fairy and flasher wrasses – favorites of Ned’s and mine. It was late afternoon; a time when the males court their harems, turning on neon colors for a brief moment, hence the common name “Flasher Wrasse.” A bright flash of orange sped by, swooping up and down in the characteristic signal jump of a courting male, only this fish was performing at warp speed. That got my attention. Other divers paused to watch but left one by one to drift around the corner. Chasing the fish would be futile, so I positioned myself by one of its harems and waited for it to make another frantic pass. Mentally checking off the species I knew, I eliminated flasher wrasses and moved on to the fairy wrasses but still could not place this fish. Ned was diving on another site with Paul, so if, as I was beginning to suspect, this was an undescribed species, I would have to document it with video – a real challenge as you will see in the video at the end of this post.
These colorful clingfish from Komodo remain undescribed
Back on the boat, I showed my video to Ned, who did not recognize the fish either. We were returning to Maumere to pick up another group of divers so I had two weeks to pore over all the references we had with us including Hiroyuki Tanaka’s Fairy and Flasher Wrasse Guide and Rudie Kuiter’s Labridae Fishes: Wrasses. By the time we made it back to the area, we were convinced this was an undescribed species. Fortunately, Garry Bevan, our cruise director, knew the dive site well and dropped us right on top of the rubble patch. Ned got the shot and once back in Bali, we emailed it to Dr. Tanaka and our friend, Dr. Gerry Allen who both responded that they believed it was a “new” species. Since Dr. Allen and Dr. Mark Erdmann were planning a Conservation International survey trip to the area, I sent them a sketch of the dive site, the GPS coordinates and a video clip to provide a search image of the fish’s behavior. Ned also sent them photos of a walking shark and clingfish that we couldn’t identify.
Undescribed shark from Indonesia
Last month, I received an email response from Gerry to my inquiry about the fish. It was on my mind because we recently finished reading The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff (here is a link to his blog and info about his books) and what it means to “discover” a species was much on my mind. Ned and I are field naturalists and we spend a lot of time underwater, recording images of rare or unusual marine life. When we see something we suspect might be undescribed, we contact a scientist. Often, the response is, “Did you collect a specimen?” Collecting permits are usually difficult to obtain and returning to a far-away site nearly always impossible, so we usually settle for a photo and the “sp.” (undescribed) designation.
Noticing an undescribed species is really a very small part of the process of formally describing it. The animal has to be collected – more than one specimen is desirable – a male and female, if possible. The scientist describing the fish must have expert knowledge to place the specimen in its proper place in the evolutionary order and must write and sometimes draw very detailed descriptions. This takes time (translate: money). If funding and access is available for DNA study, that is also carried out. The final description is peer-reviewed and submitted to an appropriate journal for publication. Many journals charge (sometimes a lot of dollars) to publish the final paper. My summary of the process doesn’t do justice to the effort, but the point is that our role in it was small. If you are interested in reading about describing a species from one scientist’s experience, check out Kevin Zelnio’s EvoEcoLab post about his work in describing a new species of shrimp.
Last year, Dr. Allen informed us that they had returned to Alor. Although they were unable to find the walking shark and the clingfish, they collected two specimens of the little fairy wrasse and were in the process of formally describing it. To our delight, he offered us the honor of naming it. We suggested naming it after our partner, renowned underwater photographer Paul Humann. Here, on the Blenny Watcher blog, we are pleased to present Cirrhilabrus humanni. It will make its formal debut this month in their new book, Reef Fishes of the East Indies by Allen and Erdmann, from the University of Hawaii Press.