Tawny Nurse Shark

A group of tawny nurse sharks (Nebris ferrungineus) circling each other at dusk. This behaviour may be related to reproduction, the female, top, looks heavily pregnant in this photo and the male, below, might be able to sense she is soon to give birth. Note in the background there is another group of sharks circling each other. Photo by Alexander Mustard, for more go to www.amustard.com

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Chondrichthyes
Order: Orectolobiformes
Family: Ginglymostomatidae
Genus: Nebrius
Species: Nebrius ferrugineus

I have this kids’ picture book that illustrates 1000 things you can find in the sea, and I use it on occasion to decide what I’m going to research next. I haven’t written about a shark in a while, so I decided to research the Tawny Nurse Shark, also called Nebrius ferrugineus. Though to her friends, she’s referred to as Madame X…

I wish I was kidding about the common name Madame X . Supposedly, the common name was coined in the 1930s by a shark fisherman that found a specimen in Australian waters; before then, it had not been recorded in those areas.

The tawny nurse shark is located in the Indian Ocean, and the in western and southwestern areas of the Pacific Ocean. This shark hangs out near or on the bottom in sheltered areas, including lagoons, channels, seagrass beds, caves on the outskirts of coral reefs, crevices in coral reefs, and right off beaches. They sleep together in secluded areas during the day and hunt for prey at night.

Around the mouth, tawny nurse sharks have barbels—whisker-like appendage—that help them sense prey. They eat small fish and benthic organisms (creatures that live on the seafloor), including crustaceans, sea urchins, and some cephalopods. When it finds potential food, the shark creates a suction to pull the prey out of hiding and into its mouth, where comb-like teeth help to break up hard shells.

This is a pretty docile shark. Divers consider it a favorite because the shark allows the divers to approach it, even touch it. However, when harassed, it will fight back and has been recorded to cause non-fatal bite injuries.

Please do not touch sea creatures unless you have the specific training to do so! You would lash out too if a stranger came up and started putting their hands all over you.

Tawny nurse sharks are considered vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN Red List, and their population numbers are declining. They have a limited home range, so their immediate environment is very important to them. Some populations are declining due to overfishing of the nearby reefs. Some sharks get caught up in gill nets and die as bycatch.

Bycatch refers to any creature that isn’t the target of the catch. So if fisherman are using nets to catch tuna, then anything that isn’t tuna that gets caught up in the net is considered bycatch. Typically, bycatch is thrown back into the ocean, whether it’s alive or dead, because most fishing boats have a bycatch limit.

Tawny nurse sharks are also considered game in some countries. Their “fighting spirit” and strength make them a popular shark to fish for, especially in competitive fishing. Some areas will eat the meat of the tawny nurse shark and ship the fins to Asian countries.

If we’re not careful, this is another species of shark that can disappear before we know it, especially since it has a low reproductive rate. A balance between the fishing industry’s needs and proper fishing regulations must be found in order to address this issue.

Sources and links:
Ocean the Definitive Visual Guide made by the American Museum of Natural History
https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/nebrius-ferrugineus/ ⇐lots of information
https://www.sharks.org/tawny-nurse-shark-nebrius-ferrugineus ⇐brief overview
https://www.fishbase.de/summary/Nebrius-ferrugineus.html
https://fishesofaustralia.net.au/home/species/1974#moreinfo ⇐talks about the Australian populations
https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/41835/10576661

Longnose Butterflyfish

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Perciforms
Family: Chaetodontidae
Genus: Forcipiger
Species: Forcipiger longirostris

Butterflyfish, like butterflies, come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Today, I’m going to introduce you to the longnose butterflyfish, or Forcipiger longirotris.

Longnose butterflyfish are distributed throughout the Indo-Pacific Ocean, including around the islands of Oahu and Maui of the Hawaiian island chain. These fish are found on the very edges of seaward reefs, or coral reefs that extend toward the sea.

When you look at the genus name Forcipiger, does anything pop-out at you? Forcip-iger

Forceps are pincer-like instruments made for grasping and holding objects, similar to tweezers. Forceps are typically used in medical and surgical situations.

Forcipiger refers to how the organism feeds, grasping and eating prey whole. The species name longirotris describes the fish’s long snout. F. longirotris feed on small crustaceans found in the rocky crevices of the reef, or they suck them right off of branching coral.

Most individuals of this species are bright yellow with a black head, and a long, thin, silvery-white snout. Rare individuals have been recorded as all black or brown instead of yellow, though this color change has never been recorded in an aquarium. All longnose butterflyfish have a clear caudal (tail) fin, but the rest of their fins are yellow. Near the base of its tail fin is a black spot called an eyespot.

A defense tactic, eyespots are spots on an organism that resemble eyes to confuse predators. Eyespots are typically located away from the head and anything vital. For fish, it’s to fool predators into thinking that the tail end of the fish is the head, especially since the eyes of F. longirotris are hidden in the black coloring of its head. For insects, these eyespots can look like the eyes of other organisms. Eyespots are a common defense found on fish, reptiles, and insects, and each group uses them differently.

Longnose butterfly fish have often been observed in pairs. These fish form monogamous pairs during the breeding season, though it’s unclear if the same two would pair up in the next breeding season. The female releases thousands of eggs into the water column to be carried elsewhere in the water current.

I’ve swum around reefs in the Pacific Ocean twice, once in Hawai’i and once off the Great Barrier Reef. Both times were snorkel only, so I didn’t explore too deep around the reefs, and I doubt I would have seen these fish. I hope to fix that someday because these guys look impressive with their long noses!
There is potential research for Forcipiger longirotris. One, there’s no clear explanation as to why some individuals change their color to all-black or brown and why it’s never done in an aquarium setting. Two, they are labeled as Least Concern by IUCN Red List, but their population numbers haven’t been evaluated since 2009, so there is potential research in re-evaluating their population numbers.

Sources and links:
https://fishesofaustralia.net.au/home/species/425#moreinfo
https://www.waikikiaquarium.org/experience/animal-guide/fishes/butterflyfishes/longnose-butterflyfish/
https://www.fishbase.se/summary/Forcipiger-longirostris.html
https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/165667/6085300

Mola mola

A small sunfish (Mola mola) basks at the surface on a summer’s day. Photo taken by Alex Mustard, find more at www.amustard.com

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Osteichthyses
Order: Tetraodoniformes
Family: Molidae
Genus: Mola
Species: Mola mola

A common rule in evolution is: the strongest, most fit species are the ones to survive. Typically, a species has more than one adaptation that allows it to survive long enough to reproduce. Adaptations can be variations of speed, camouflage, strength, armaments, or some combination of those features..

The Mola mola is the exception to that rule.

The ocean sunfish, Mola mola, is the world’s heaviest bony fish, weighing in at 5,000 pounds. This makes the ocean sunfish 10 times smaller than the whale shark, which is the largest cartilaginous fish.

The Mola mola looks as if some god got bored and stopped after making half a fish. Its large bulbous head looks like it belongs to a fish much bigger than it is, especially with the lack of a caudal (tail) fin. Even looking incomplete, the sunfish is 14 feet from the bottom of its anal fin to the top of its dorsal fin, and it is about 10 feet from head to end.

Mola is the Latin term meaning “millstone,” referencing the creature’s disc-like shape. Humans are not always clever with their naming schemes, though you can count on us being obvious.

Without a functioning caudal fin, the Mola mola awkwardly swims by waggling its dorsal and anal fins. It does not swim very fast, making it easy prey for sharks, killer whales, and sea lions. With their thick, stretchy skin and their typical diet of jellyfish, ocean sunfish may not be a worthy meal for their predators.

Ocean sunfish are also preyed upon by parasites that live in and on their bodies. While an open water fish, they have been spotted near reefs while attempting to remove parasites. Reefs often contain organisms that feed on the parasites found on bigger fish and turtles. Mola molas will also swim flat on the surface of the water to allow birds to pick some of the parasites off.

Jellyfish don’t provide a lot of nutrition, but sunfish eat a lot of them, along with algae, squids, and some crustaceans. Ocean sunfish don’t chew. Instead, they have an infused tooth-plate on the top and bottom parts of its mouth. When they suck jellyfish into their mouths, the action against the plates turns the jellyfish into a gelatinous material that’s easier to consume. Yum!

Ocean sunfish are a slow-moving, easy target for predators to catch. So, how is it still around? How does it populate almost every ocean? A single female Mola mola can release 100 million eggs into the open water each year. Therefore, if 100 females reproduce in a given year, that’s still about 10 billion eggs.

If only those eggs were cash, am I right?

Despite how many eggs they produce, their global populations are on a decline. They get caught in gill nets that trail behind fishing boats; the nets cause them injury and can even suffocate them. Sunfish also fill their stomachs with indigestible plastic bags, which look like jellyfish floating in the water, and the plastic eventually causes them to starve to death.

You can help Mola mola by picking up trash off the beach when you can or when you’re out in public anywhere. Even if you don’t live right next to the water, those discarded plastic bags you see can still make it to the ocean by way of wind. As for the gill nets, try supporting fisherman and fishing companies that have been reported to fish sustainably. Typically, there is a label of some kind on fish products that have been harvested or caught sustainably.

Please do what you can; every little bit helps these goofy-looking fish!

Sources and links:
Reef Fish Identification: Florida Caribbean Bahamas 4th edition by Paul Humann and Ned Deloach
Ocean The Definitive Visual Guide made by the American Museum of Natural History
https://www.montereybayaquarium.org/animals/animals-a-to-z/ocean-sunfish/
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/o/ocean-sunfish/
https://oceansunfish.org/species-and-distribution/ ⇐has more info on sunfish and research relating to them.

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 

Common Bottlenose Dolphin

A pair of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) swim beneath the surface. Sandy Ridge, Little Bahama Bank. Bahamas. Photo taken by Dr. Alex Mustard, more can be found at www.amustard.com

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Family: Delphinidae
Genus: Tursiops
Species: Tursiops truncatus

So long and thanks for all the fish!

Do you know the significance of the number 42? Bottlenose dolphins sing a song about Earth’s destruction; quick, ask them before they leave the planet!

The world’s about to be destroyed
There’s no point getting all annoyed
Lie back and let the planet dissolve around you

Never mind; the dolphins are too busy. Forty-two is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything—at least, according to the super computer Deep Thought and Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!

For me, this is the 42nd post on this blog, and I thought I’d be funny about it. So, no, the world is not going to end and all the bottlenose dolphins aren’t breaking out into song before jetting themselves out of the ocean and into space. If you haven’t seen the movie or read the books, I highly recommend them.

Now, let’s get back to our regularly scheduled programming!

The common bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus, is one of the most exposed dolphins in the world. They are very common in zoos and aquariums. They make appearances in movies or even star in them, like Flipper. They also like to hang around boats and can be seen close to the beach. When people think of dolphins, they usually imagine a T. truncatus.

Bottlenose dolphins are found in a variety of habitats around the world. Their distribution stretches from the temperate waters of the Northern Hemisphere to the temperate waters of the Southern Hemisphere. Local populations of the common bottlenose dolphin can be found along every continent but Antarctica.

Tursiops truncatus have a wide head and body, short stubby beak, long flippers, and a relatively tall dorsal fin. These dolphins have a crease between the beak and the melon that allows researchers to distinguish common bottlenose dolphins from similar-looking species, like the Rough-toothed dolphins.

The common bottlenose can be found inshore of most coasts, living in or near bays, estuaries, coral reefs, or even the mouths of rivers that link directly to the sea. Other populations of dolphins can be found offshore in deeper waters. Offshore bottlenose dolphins look a little different from their inshore relatives with thicker, darker bodies and shorter flippers, though genetically they are the same species.

Bottlenose dolphins are extremely sociable creatures, between themselves and other animals as well, including pilot whales and human swimmers. Despite their stereotypical friendliness, they have been reported to be unfriendly towards other species of dolphins. Along with acting sociable, dolphins emit a wide variety of clicks, squeaks, and squeals that they use to communicate with each other and other pods of bottlenose. Research suggests that each dolphin has a specific sound associated with it, like a name, that other dolphins use.

T. truncatus are highly intelligent creatures. Depending on their prey, the dolphins use various tools and techniques to catch their food. Some use echolocation, the emission of high frequency sound, to locate and confuse fish. Others have been seen rushing a school toward the shore, getting the fish nearly beached before the dolphins catch and eat them.

The diet of the dolphin changes depending on where the pod is located. For instance, inshore dolphins may have more crustaceans and shrimp in their diet while offshore bottlenose have more deep sea fish and squids in theirs. Bottlenose dolphins are remarkably adaptable, even to the extent of learning to identify fishing vessels and shrimp boats, and incorporating the fisherman’s actions into their hunting behavior.

Overall, their population numbers are good. The species as a whole is not a concern for extinction. Local populations, however, are decreasing due to viral outbreaks, weaker immune systems due to biotoxins and pollution, loss of habitat, and depleted fishing stocks. On a smaller scale, many local populations of inshore bottlenose dolphins need help.

When I first got interested in the ocean, I wanted to work with dolphins. In elementary school, I had a well-worn book on dolphins and sharks that was a companion novel to a Magic Treehouse book. I was so proud of it!

Now my focus has changed to coral, and I have a love/hate relationship with dolphins. I absolutely love dolphins; they are beautiful, intelligent creatures that want nothing more than to eat and play—and boy, do they play! However, sometimes I feel that they get too much attention from the public, and other sea creatures are hurt by it, as in the example of dolphin-safe tuna.

I don’t have time to get into the history and nuances of dolphin-safe tuna; I’ll leave that topic for a future post. The common bottlenose is one species that I’ve loved since I was a child. My biggest complaint is that dolphins get more empathy—because they are warm-blooded creatures like us—than any other creature in the ocean, except for maybe polar bears. This lack of human empathy toward cold-blooded creatures can have a negative impact on the ocean, and, ultimately, dolphins to.

Sources and links:
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide by the American Museum of Natural History
National Audubon Society: Guide to Marine Mammals of the World by Randall R. Reeves, Brent S. Stewart, et.al.
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/c/common-bottlenose-dolphin/
https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/bottlenose-dolphin/
https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/common-bottlenose-dolphin
https://www.britannica.com/animal/bottlenose-dolphin
https://animals.net/bottlenose-dolphin/

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/

Jackass/African Penguin

Photo by Jean van der Meulen from Pexels

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Sphenisciformes
Family: Spenisciformes
Genus: Spheniscus
Species: demersus

First, I would like to clarify that this penguin has two accepted common names, Jackass and African penguin, and I’m not just cursing just for the fun of it. The two common names are used to describe unique features of this species of penguin.

This species is known as the African penguin, because it lives on the coasts of South Africa and in the south Atlantic and southern Indian oceans. It’s lovingly called the Jackass penguin because when it calls out for a mate it sounds like a braying donkey, and the name “Donkey penguin” just doesn’t roll off the tongue. Seriously though, take the time to watch videos of these guys’ mating calls—it will make your day!

Not all penguins live in arctic climates. The African penguin has adaptations that allow it to survive the cold temperatures of the oceans and the sweltering heat of Africa. It has a dense coat of feathers that keeps it warm and water proof. For the hotter weather, its pink glands above the eyes collect blood that is then cooled by the surrounding air to help keep the penguins from overheating.

Jackass penguins grow no bigger than about two feet tall, making them one of the smallest penguin species. It looks very similar to its South American cousin, the Magellanic penguin, but instead of having two black bands on its chest, the jackass penguin has only one black band.

Another cool feature about these guys is that each individual display a unique flecked pattern on its feathers that acts like a fingerprint. Each pattern is unique and allows researchers to keep track of who is who. Jackass penguins can hold their breath for up to 2‒3 minutes and can dive down to 400 feet to catch small fish such as anchovies and sardines, small squid, and crustaceans. African penguins are also really good parents, even if they keep their eggs in nest made of guano (seabird and bat poop). They don’t always mate for life but they stay together through incubation, hatching, and raising.

I’ve liked penguins ever since I was little, but they were never really a main focus of my affections. Penguins are still interesting to read about because each species has their little quirks, like these guys that sound like braying donkeys when they’re looking for a lady. I highly recommend taking the time to read up on these penguins’ they’re the only species of penguin in Africa, and they’ve been declared to be endangered. There are already programs in place to help protect this species, but even that can’t completely stop the overfishing of their food sources.

Penguins braying like donkeys:

Sources and cool links:
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide made by the American Museum of Natural History
https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/birds/penguins/African_penguin.html
https://animalfactguide.com/animal-facts/african-penguin/
https://oceana.org/marine-life/seabirds/jackass-penguin
https://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/african-penguin

Whale Sharks

A circular fisheye photo of a whale shark (Rhincodon typus) gapes open its mouth while feeding at the surface, in a behaviour known as botella feeding. Photo taken by Dr. Alex Mustard, you can find more amazing photos at www.amustard.com

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Chrondrichthyes
Order: Orectolobiformes
Family: Rhincodontidae
Genius: Rhincodon
Species: Typus

A good friend of mine from college is a huge shark enthusiast. She could tell you all sorts of facts about sharks and I’d always go to her if I was having a hard time learning various tidbits about them for class. So I hope I do the whale shark justice today, or else I’m sure I’ll get a playful smack for it later!

Whale sharks (Rhinocodon typus) are pretty cool because they’re the largest shark that lives today, which makes them the largest fish too. Sharks belong to the class of cartilaginous fish with skates and rays—yes, skates and rays are considered fish too. Whale sharks grow up to 65 ft long and are typically the size of a school bus. Their mouths are large enough to fit a person inside comfortably, but don’t worry. We’re safe from these gentle giants because they’re filter feeders! That’s right, these behemoths feed on some of the smallest organisms on the food web—plankton and small fish. But how do they get enough food to support their size?

While they cruise around the tropical waters of the oceans they open their large mouths, suck in a lot of water, and push it out over their gills where the food gets stuck on gill rakers. The food sits on the bony projections until it’s later swallowed. Other than their size, you can also identify these guys by the long ridges that run down their bodies and their spot covered skin. In fact, each Rhincodon typus has a unique pattern of white spots that allows scientists to identify different individuals.

Here’s another neat fact about whale sharks. Whale shark mothers carry their fertilized eggs inside themselves and those eggs will hatch inside her, allowing her to give birth to live young. Cool, right? Sharks have a lot of weird birthing processes that I’ll eventually cover, but this process is called ovoviviparous—that’s a mouthful!

I hope I’ve gotten you interested in whale sharks with this piece. I saw my first one a few years ago at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia. I didn’t know what to expect but it was like love at first sight. They were these big goofy sharks gliding around the large tank, occasionally opening their mouths as they went. They were really peaceful to watch and that’s what I did for hours, letting the people around me melt away as I watched the whale sharks move about and the manta rays danced around them.

It’s sad to know that whale shark populations are declining, even though they’re protected in some countries. Their meat and fins are highly sought after for shark fin soup, and they are hunted in unsustainable numbers. Don’t get me started on the dish, not yet. When you get the chance, take the time to watch these gentle giants and get lost in their goofy majesty.

Sources and cool links:
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide made by the American Museum of Natural History
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/w/whale-shark/
https://www.sharksinfo.com/ovoviviparity.html
https://www.georgiaaquarium.org/?rebound=1

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