Lionfish

A lionfish (Pterois volitans) rises up from the reef to hunt silversides. Photo taken by Dr. Alex Mustard, you can find more at www.amustard.com

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygi
Order: Scorpaeniformes
Family: Scorpaenidae
Genus: Pterois
Species: Pterois volitans

When talking about invasive species, I mentioned the lionfish. Can they hurt you? Yes. Are they devastating Atlantic coral reefs? Yes. However, they are not evil fish, despite one of their other common names: the devil firefish.

Pterois volitans is a beautiful fish native to the tropical waters of the eastern Indian Ocean and the western Pacific Ocean. They can be found in depths of 7−180ft (2−55m) near seagrass beds, coral reefs, artificial reefs, and sunken ships. I’ve seen them hiding in crevasses or overhanging ledges on the reef.

When diving, lionfish can be fairly easy to identify. Along the head and body of the fish are alternating maroon and white strips, stretching from top to bottom. Long, unique, fan-like fins, with the same stipe pattern, help the lionfish corner its prey against a reef or hard surface. Along the top, are long striped spines that you want to avoid.

Lionfish are carnivorous fish that prey upon shrimp, crabs, and more than 50 species of fish. In their native habitats, they help to keep the reef healthy, and their populations are controlled by the few predators that eat lionfish, including a couple of species of moray eels and the bobbit worm.

In the Atlantic Ocean, however, they can eat all the available prey in a given reef if gone unchecked. With no natural predators in the Atlantic, and the fact that they produce a lot of eggs each year, their populations have boomed while the populations of herbivore and commercial fish have decreased.

Despite their invasion of the Atlantic, lionfish are quite important. Whether it’s in the Pacific, Indian, or Atlantic Ocean, Pterois volitans provides food and income to the coastal communities. Divers pay good money to see lionfish, and the fish is often the target of many spearfishing tournaments in the Atlantic. You can win hundreds of dollars, depending on where you sign up! Because they’re so distinctive, lionfish can be easy targets for divers.

P. volitans are also quite popular in home aquariums around the world. Their unique coloring and flamboyant fins make for a great conversation starter at a party! Just a reminder, though: if you’re getting rid of your aquarium fish, please don’t dump them in the ocean closest to you. Take them to your local aquarium and ask for help. You never want to dump a potential invasive species in your ocean.

Another common name for lionfish is tastyfish. When I was studying in Jamaica, our dive teams would always bring spear guns, and we would hunt lionfish while exploring or doing research. When we’d come back to the lab, we’d clean them and give them to the lab’s cafeteria. Let me tell you, those wonderful ladies made some amazingly spicy lionfish!

If we make it more popular to eat lionfish, then that will help solve the population issues in the Atlantic, and it will help take the pressure off some of our commercial fish. So, the next time you’re at your local fish market or restaurant, ask for lionfish and let the owners know you’re interested!

The coloration of a lionfish is a special adaptation called warning coloration, which indicates to potential predators that it’s unsafe to eat the lionfish. In this case, the warning is legitimate. In the spines along the top are glands that store venom. When the spines puncture the skin the glands release the venom into the wound. The venom can cause excruciating pain, sweating, paralysis, and respiratory distress; rarely has it been fatal to humans.

I had a couple of classmates get stung by lionfish. One kid got stung by a live one they didn’t see in the reef, which is why you never reach your hands into areas you can’t fully see. Another kid got stung when handling a dead lionfish. In both cases, they had to be rushed to the doctor, but even after being treated, the wounds remained quite painful for a while. So please be careful while diving around lionfish or when handling them!

Lionfish (Pterois volitans) fritters offered as an after dive snack. Photo taken by Dr. Alex Mustard, you can find more at http://www.amustard.com

Sources and links:
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide by the American Museum of Natural History
https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/pterois-volitans/
https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/lionfish-facts.html
https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/southeast/ecosystems/impacts-invasive-lionfish
https://www.britannica.com/animal/lionfish
https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2013/07/19/top-5-myths-about-lionfish/
https://lionfishcentral.org/resources/lionfish-recipes/ ←lionfish recipes you can try at home!

Osprey

Photo of an osprey by Frank Cone from Pexels

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Accipitriformes
Family: Pandionidae
Genus: Pandion
Species: Pandion haliaetus

The last bird I spoke of was a flightless bird, the African penguin. Penguins are the only flightless aquatic birds. Today, I’ll be discussing an aquatic bird that has been seen on every continent but Antarctica: the osprey.

Pandion haliaetus is a bird of prey that often gets mistaken for a bald eagle, at least in the United States. From far below, these two birds can look very similar. Both species are large (around two feet tall or more) with wing spans of five to six feet. Ospreys and bald eagles frequent many of the same hunting grounds too: rivers, lakes, estuaries, and other coastal areas.

They way to tell an osprey from a bald eagle is by the coloring. If the birds are flying overhead, a bald eagle has a dark underside while an osprey has a white underbelly and legs. If you get close enough to see their heads, look for the dark stripe that streaks away from the eyes of the osprey.

Ospreys primarily feed on fish. They soar high above the water until they locate their prey. Then the bird drives straight for the water and hooks its talons around a fish. Pandion haliaetus have specially adapted feet that allow them to keep hold of their slippery prey: their talons are long and curved, and the soles of their feet are spiny, the better to grip their prey. After catching its prey, the osprey returns to its nest high above the ground.

Fun fact: In the US, bald eagles will often attack ospreys, trying to get the slightly smaller bird to release its fish. Once the osprey releases the fish, the bald eagle stops pursuing it and grabs the fish from the air.

P. haliaetus are migratory birds. They like to spend their winters in warmer climes, so they travel to the southern hemisphere when the northern hemisphere cools for winter, much like a lot of older humans I know.

Ospreys like to nest high in the trees or on the crags of a seashore or estuary. However, they have made use of artificial places, as well; many of their nests have been found on top of street lights and telephone poles. Often, the ospreys will return to old nests for many years.

Ospreys have one brood a year, and their nests contain two or three eggs. Seven weeks after the chicks hatch, the fledgling ospreys leave the nest to venture off on their own.

In the 1950s-1960s, the osprey populations were declining drastically. Researchers discovered that their eggs were becoming too brittle, and the osprey parents were accidentally breaking the eggs when they laid on them to keep them warm.

Studies showed that a common chemical of pesticides at the time, Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), was found to be the cause of the brittle eggs, through a process called biomagnification. The process is a bit complicated to explain here; essentially, it’s a process whereby harmful chemicals build up as they travel up the food chain until they eventually become quite lethal to those at the top, such as predatory birds and humans.

Fortunately, this is not a sad tale like that of Stellar’s sea cow.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published the book Silent Spring wherein she described the effects and consequences of DDT. She made public the drastic declines of predatory birds, like the osprey and the bald eagle, and the cause of it. From Silent Spring, a movement was born, DDT was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency, and stricter regulations on pesticides were passed.

Since then, the populations of osprey and bald eagles have bounced back with vigor. Ospreys have been labeled as least concern, meaning that they are no longer threatened by extinction.

I don’t believe that I have ever seen an osprey despite living near the coast. But I wanted to share this bird with you, along with its connection to Silent Spring as a reminder that not everything is doom and gloom in the world, at least when it comes to extinction and climate change. I wanted to show this as proof that we are not too far gone, that there is still hope for the future.

The book Silent Spring saved the ospreys and bald eagles of North America. If it was done once, it can be done again.

Who knows, maybe you will be the author of the next Silent Spring that awakens the world. Or maybe you’ll be one of the readers, doing your part to persuade a government.

Just remember that not all hope is lost.

Sources and links:
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide by the American Museum of History
Smithsonian Nature Guide: Birds by David Burnie
https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/osprey
https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Osprey/id
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/o/osprey/
https://nhpbs.org/wild/silentspring.asp <—some info on Silent Spring and DDT 

Zebra Mussels

Domain: Eukarya

A colony of zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha), living in freshwater. Photo by Dr. Alex Mustard, find more at www.amustard.com

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Mollusca
Class: Bivalvia
Order: Myida
Family: Dreissenidea
Genus: Dreissena
Species: D. polymorpha

Today, we’re going to talk about zebra mussels. We’re not going to talk about zebra muscles like I had originally written down on my blog schedule. Honestly, why would I talk about the muscles of a zebra? They’re not even aquatic!

I know that was a lame introduction. It just doesn’t have enough strength to land a clever opening—maybe it needs more mussels…

Okay, I’ll stop!

Zebra mussels, D. polymorha, are freshwater bivalves native to Eurasia. Bivalves are shelled creatures; specifically mollusks with two shells that close together, like clams and oysters. Zebra mussels are about an inch long and are shaped liked a stretched out “D”. They are named from the black, zigzag patterning on their shells.

Humans can be so creative with their naming schemes.

Zebra mussels have a relatively short life span, between 2‒5 years, reaching reproductive maturity at 2 years of age. Each female can produce up to a million eggs per year, spewing them into the surrounding water and using the currents to transport the eggs.

The reason I’m bring up D. polymorpha is because it is an invasive species in the United States and Canada. The mussels were first discovered in the early 1980s near the Great Lakes and are believed to have been transported by accident in the ballast water of a ship. Since then they have been found in the Great Lakes, the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay.

Why are the zebra mussels bad for these environments? Don’t they help filter the water in their surroundings, and isn’t that a good thing?

In their natural habitat their job as filter feeders is absolutely amazing; in other habitats, it can have devastating effects. In fact, zebra mussels are so efficient as filter feeders that they can clean a body of water of particulates in record time, faster than the native filter feeders. But this is not a good thing.

The environments that the mussels invade have a special balance that is maintained by the native populations of animals. If you change one aspect of that balance, then it creates a domino effect.

Let’s say that we have an imaginary river, the River Sága, which is home to large, healthy beds of freshwater bivalves called blue purses (not a real bivalve). In this river there are also a few species of fish that go there to spawn and where the juvenile fish live until they’re big enough to move on. One day, an old fisherman dumps water into the River Sága from his boat and unknowingly releases several thousand eggs of the zebra mussel. A couple of years later, the river is no longer the same. The once-healthy beds of blue purses are now completely covered in smaller bivalves, smothering the native species. The water of the river is the clearest it’s ever been, but downstream there are enormous patches of algae, and there are no fish to be seen. What was once a nice fishing spot for man and animal alike is now barren, save for the zebra mussels and the algae.

Zebra mussels, like any invasive species, are horrible for the environments that they infiltrate because they have no natural predators, and they often outcompete the native species. Because zebra mussels are so good at filtering the water, it makes it easier for predators to find their prey in the water, whether it’s a larger fish or a bird hunting the juveniles that have spawned there. And because zebra mussels reproduce so much, they can easily smother their competitors, becoming the dominate species of the environment and changing it for the worse.

Zebra mussels also have an impact on human property. They have been known to block the drainage pipes of factories. They can incapacitate boats by clogging pipes and engines, or even by covering the sides of the boat and making it too heavy to float properly. It can take an absurd amount of money to remove them, and we have to do it often because they regularly come back and are so hard to eliminate.

I wanted to talk about zebra mussels because they have been noticed in the Chesapeake Bay, which is an important part of my life, and because it helps introduce the topic of invasive species. From what I understand, there is not much you can do once the zebra mussels appear, only that we must strive to prevent their spread elsewhere. But this also means that there is a potential opportunity for you, because maybe you can find a way to remove them from their nonnative habitats.

More information can be found:
https://www.chesapeakebay.net/discover/field-guide/entry/zebra_mussel
https://www.tn.gov/twra/fishing/twra-fish-species/zebra-mussel.html
https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/profile/zebra-mussel
https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/what-are-zebra-mussels-and-why-should-we-care-about-them?qt-news_science_products=0#qt-news_science_products
https://www.nps.gov/articles/zebra-mussels.htm

Humpback Whale

Humpback whale jumping out of the water. Photo taken from pexels.com

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Family: Balaenopteridae
Genus: Megatera
Species: Megatera novaeangliae

When we speak, hum, sing, etc. we make those noises by vibrating our vocal cords. Sometimes, when you hum or hold a note, you can even feel the vocal cords in your throat. Whales can also sing. In fact, male humpback whales sing to communicate and can be heard for miles by other whales, each “song” lasting up to about 30 minutes.

Fun fact: scientists don’t know how humpbacks pull off singing, because they have no vocal cord.

Humpback whales get their common name from the way they arch their back when diving. They aren’t the largest or heaviest whales in the world, but they do have the longest flippers. Their fluke and wing-like flippers can help you identify the whale as a Megatera novaeangliae, and the unique white splash-like markings on those appendages allow scientists to distinguish between individuals, like a fingerprint.

These creatures can be found in all of the world’s oceans, in both tropical and polar regions, though they don’t venture too far up into the poles.

M. novaeangliae are a type of baleen whale, meaning that they don’t have teeth like we do, and they take in large amounts of water that, hopefully, contain a lot of krill and small fish. Humpback whales are different from other baleens because they can actually trap their prey through a process that is better to watch in a video or documentary (e.g. Blue Planet).

When humpbacks find swarms of krill or schools of small fish, they will try to gather them together. They do this by exhaling air while they spiral around their prey. This action creates a “bubble-netting” that confuses and traps the prey, allowing humpbacks to dive below and lunge upward to feed upon their prey. Like I said, I highly recommend watching this on a video or a documentary because it’s incredible to see, and if you get a chance to see it in person, all the better!

I feel like humpback whales are underappreciated. I first learned about them when I started watching nature documentaries in high school, but it wasn’t until college that they started getting more fleshed out in my mind.

They’re amazing creatures that produce eerily beautiful songs. I should know; I had to listen to some in a lab class in college, and they have a unique feeding behavior for baleen whales. While they’re not endangered or threatened, their populations have been reduced to a fifth of what it once was due to whaling practices—that’s mind-blowing to me!

If what you’ve read has piqued your interest, please take the time to learn more about these creatures. There’s so much that I couldn’t add, and who knows, maybe your curiosity will lead you into a job that will allow you to understand the mysteries of their singing.

Videos of bubble netting:

Sources and more reading:
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide made by American Museum of Natural History
Ocean: A Visual Encyclopedia made by the Smithsonian
Marine Mammals Evolutionary Biology 3rd edition by Annalisa Berta, James L. Sumich, and Kit M. Kovacs
https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Megaptera_novaeangliae/
https://www.chesapeakebay.net/discover/field-guide/entry/humpback_whale
https://oceanwide-expeditions.com/to-do/wildlife/humpback-whale
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/h/humpback-whale/
http://wildwhales.org/speciesid/whales/humpback-whale/
https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/humpback-whale
https://us.whales.org/whales-dolphins/species-guide/humpback-whale/

Caribbean Spiny Lobster

A Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) emerges onto a coral reef in late afternoon. Photo taken by Dr. Alexander Mustard. More photos like this can be found on his website: www.amustard.com

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Malacostraca
Order: Decapoda
Family: Palinuridae
Genus: Panulirus
Species: Panulirus argus

Originally, I was going to write a post about the Spiny Lobster, but then I realized that there are at least two species with that common name. One lives in the Atlantic and the other in the Pacific. Today, I’ll be talking about the Caribbean spiny lobster, or Panulirus argus.

P. argus can be found around coral reefs, seagrass beds, and rocky areas off the coast from North Carolina to Brazil, in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea.

These guys are a combination of tan, black, and white, with large white spots across their spiny bodies. They also have two long antennae and large, forward-facing eyes.

Unlike other lobsters, the Caribbean spiny lobster’s claws are not terribly large and don’t cause a lot of damage. However, these guys are not without their defenses. The carapace—the body of the lobster and not the tail—is covered with small spikes and can cause injury to anyone who tries to pick up these guys barehanded. So, swimmers, don’t touch them!

These guys start out rather tiny as larvae. In fact, they’re considered zooplankton and are food for numerous fish. If a larvae survives, it eventually can grow to about 2 ft. long, though not without getting rid of its old exoskeletons a few times all the way.

P. argus are considered to be omnivores, though they primarily feed on bivalves and gastropods, and they have been seen eating other things as well.

I think the coolest thing about these guys is their mass migrations. In autumn, P. argus will be seen walking in long, single-file lines to deeper waters during the day; in theory, to find cooler areas and more food.

I’ve seen Caribbean spiny lobsters most often at fresh fish markets, though I’ve seen them a few times during some of my dives. They’re really important to coastal economics, because a lot of coastal areas will hunt them and export their sought-after meat to other countries.

Unfortunately, this means that this species can become victim of overfishing, and population numbers can be wiped out completely. There is no conclusive data on the status of their populations as a whole and whether or not the species may become threatened by extinction, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful.

If regulations aren’t put into place, then entire populations can be wiped out, and many small countries that rely on their export will suddenly be faced with an economic crisis.

Sources:
Reef Creature Identification: Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas 3rd edition by Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach, and Les Wilk
https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Panulirus_argus/
https://marinebio.org/species/caribbean-spiny-lobsters/panulirus-argus/
https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/caribbean-spiny-lobster
https://thisfish.info/fishery/species/caribbean-spiny-lobster/
https://oceana.org/marine-life/cephalopods-crustaceans-other-shellfish/caribbean-spiny-lobster

Doctorfish

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Osteichthyes
Order: Perciformes
Family: Acanthuridae
Genus: Acanthurus
Species: Acanthurus chirurgus

Last time on Doctor Who, the Doctor was mortally wounded and forced to regenerate…again. This time, though, to everyone’s surprise and horror, the Doctor turned into a fish. And not just any fish, but the tropical surgeonfish known as the Doctorfish—bum bum buuuuuuuuuuuum!

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a giant nerd, and I laughed way too hard when I realized that I could combine Acanthurus chirurgus with Doctor Who. I have no shame—most of the time.

Anyways, the Doctorfish is a type of surgeon fish that inhabits coral reef areas and can be commonly found in Florida, Bahamas, and the Caribbean. They can also be found in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, north to Massachusetts, south to Brazil, your neighbors’ exotic aquarium, and the tropical waters of West Africa.

Color is not always an easy way to identify these Doctorfish because they can range from bluish gray to dark brown, and they can pale or darken dramatically between individuals. The major way to identify them while diving is by looking at the body; all doctorfish have 10‒12 vertical bars between their head and their tail. They also have distinct markings around their eyes, almost like flashy eye make-up.

Acanthurus chirurgus are herbivores that feed on algae, and they even have special teeth that allow them to pick off the algae growing in the sand, in rocky areas, and even on coral. In fact, these guys are really important to reef health because they can consume the algae that grow on coral, which would otherwise smoother the coral and their best friends, the zooxanthellae.

The origin of their common name is pretty cool. A. chirurgus have spines on either side of their caudal peduncle, or the base of their tail, that were discovered to be really sharp like a scalpel that doctors use. When feeling defensive, surgeonfish will use those spines as weapons by slashing their tails side to side at their aggressors.

Typically, Doctorfish will keep their distance from divers and will try to stay away if approached. However, people handling these fish can get serious injuries which are often quite painful and can lead to serious infection, especially since there is a crazy amount of bacteria and viruses in a single drop of water! So please be careful when diving with or handling doctorfish!

They are a common fish species found in private aquariums, and while they are not considered to be at risk of becoming endangered, you should still be aware of how they are caught and sold before purchasing individuals for your aquarium.

The doctorfish was one of the fish species I had to learn to identify for my Coral Reef Ecology class in college. I’ve seen them a handful of times when diving around reefs, and I’ve even watched them eating the algae from the coral, which was pretty cool to witness. I’ve read that you can eat Doctorfish, but I won’t try that because of the slight chance of getting ciguatera poisoning—which I’ll save for another ramble!

Sources and cool links:
Reef Fish Identification: Florida Caribbean Bahamas 4th ed. By Paul Humann and Ned DeLoach
http://species-identification.org/species.php?species_group=caribbean_diving_guide&menuentry=soorten&id=209&tab=beschrijving
https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/acanthurus-chirurgus/
https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/177982/1510626
https://www.fishbase.de/summary/943

Flamingo Tongue

A flamingo tongue (Cyphoma gibbosm) feeding on a seafan (Gorgonia ventalina). Cyphomas feed on corals and concentrate the toxic chemicals into their mantle, which they then wrap around the outside of its white shell. The mantle is brightly coloured to warn predators of its toxicity. The mantle also absorbs oxygen from the water. Photo and caption by Dr. Alex Mustard. Find more photos at www.amustard.com

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Mollusca
Class: Gastropoda
Order: Littorinimorpha
Family: Ovulidae
Genus: Cyphoma
Species: Cyphoma gibbosum

Please note: no flamingos were harmed in the making of this creature.

Honestly, I don’t know how they got they got their common name. These mollusks look nothing like flamingo tongues, and I should know because I’ve been staring at flamingo pictures for the past several minutes!

Cyphoma gibbosum are interesting mollusks to find on a reef. They have bright orange spots that are outlined in black on a creamy background, but the mollusks aren’t terribly big, averaging about 1‒1.5 inches long. When they’re young, they don’t have many rectangular spots, but as they get older, the spots get smaller and more numerous.

Flamingo tongues can be found on coral reefs in the Western Atlantic, from North Carolina to Brazil, in the Gulf of Mexico, and in the Caribbean Sea. They make their homes on gorgonian corals (soft corals), which is the only thing they consume—eating the soft tissue of the coral they sit on. Flamingo tongues use the chemicals from their prey in their own natural defense against predators by storing the chemicals in their soft tissue, the mantle, making them taste disgusting to most fish. Their predators include pufferfish, hogfish, and the Caribbean spiny lobster.

For those who don’t know—which until recently included myself—the bright spots that you see aren’t part of their shell. In fact, their shell is a very basic-looking cream color, and the spots that you’ll see when diving and snorkeling at a reef are actually the fleshy bits that hide the shell, called the mantle. When frightened, a C. gibbosum will retract into its creamy shell, pulling its colorful patterned mantle inside.

Unfortunately, the populations of C. gibbosum have decreased rapidly in recent years due to the increase activity of humans. Specifically, divers and snorkelers see these cool guys on the reef and think that the spots are part of their shell, so they decide to bring them back as a neat souvenir. When the creature dies, all that’s left is a simple shell sans the color and the spots.

Flamingo tongue shells have also boomed in popularity in the coastal jewelry business, so people will collect a lot of them to make their jewelry. As far as I’m aware, there is no data that can determine if the species is threatened or endangered and there are no regulations in place to protect them. However, that still shouldn’t stop us from being more aware of the situation and doing what we can to help, for instance know where the shells on your jewelry come from before you buy it.

I was lucky enough to spot a few of these guys while diving in Jamaica. I saw them the most when we went to a gorgonian-heavy reef, naturally, and the C. gibbosum were one of the cooler things to spot while swimming by. They’re small and can be easy to miss, but whenever I found one, I was mesmerized by it for a few beats before moving on. I think the coolest thing about them is their ability to be unaffected by the toxins the soft coral produce to deter predators, and they can use it to make themselves distasteful too.

Sources:
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide made by the American Museum of Natural History
Reef Creatures Identification: Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas 3rd Ed. By Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach, and Les Wilk
http://www.marinespecies.org/aphia.php?p=taxdetails&id=432297#links
http://species-identification.org/species.php?species_group=caribbean_diving_guide&id=410
http://www.thecephalopodpage.org/MarineInvertebrateZoology/Cyphomagibbosum1.html
https://oceana.org/marine-life/cephalopods-crustaceans-other-shellfish/flamingo-tongue
https://www.lamar.edu/arts-sciences/biology/marine-critters/marine-critters-1/flamingo-tongue.html

Sea Otters

Photo of a Sea Otter taken by Dave Bezaire & Susi Havens-Bezaire

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Mustelidae
Genius: Enhydra
Species: Lutris

Today we’re going to discuss sea otters! These adorable carnivores can be rather cool to read about, especially when you get into behavior, adaptations, and their ecological role in their environment.

The sea otter is the only otter that can spend its whole life in the ocean, all other otter species dwell near the water for resources but lack the adaptations needed to live in the water. One such adaptation is their fur in sea otters, which was highly coveted by fur traders a century or more ago because of how dense it was.

In fact, they have the densest coat of all mammals, their hairs are so tightly packed that water can’t penetrate, keeping them nice and dry in the cold Pacific waters. And while all the other mammals are jealous of their glorious fur, the sea otters need it because they lack any real fat to help keep them warm.

These guys can be found along the coasts of Japan, Alaska, and California and especially near kelp forests. Enhydra lutris are what we call a keystone species because of their massive impact on the kelp forests, which I’ll discuss in a later post.

Sea otters are carnivores that feed on crabs, sea urchins, and mollusks. They can dive up to 40 meters to grab food that they bring to the surface, and then they use a stone to crack open shells and other protective covers so they can get at the meat inside.

I know what you’re thinking, if these guys can’t breathe underwater how do they sleep? Well, they use the giant kelp around them to help prevent them from drifting out to sea with the ocean current. They also live in communities with other sea otters, making them social creatures. When they need to rest they’ll form groups called rafts, and they’ll hold onto each other to keep their friends and baby otters from drifting out to sea—cute, right?

Like I’ve said earlier, there is so much more to sea otters than I can discuss in a single post. If I’ve piqued your interest, then I highly recommend looking at the links I’ve provided below! They’re cool mammals that use tools to help them with food and survival, and they’re also extremely adorable to watch. If I could do several more posts about sea otters I would, but that wouldn’t be very fair to the other sea creatures that are incredible in their own right!

Sources and cool references to check out:

Ocean the Definitive Visual Guide by the American Museum of Natural History
https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Enhydra_lutris/#food_habits

https://www.montereybayaquarium.org/animals/animals-a-to-z/sea-otter