Bobbit Worm

A bobbit worm (Eunice sp.) emerges from its hole in black sand at night to feed. Photo by Dr. Alex Mustard, more can be found on www.amustard.com

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Annileda
Class: Polychaeta
Order: Einicida
Family: Einicidae
Genus: Eunice
Species: Eunice aphroditis

Annileda is the phylum of segmented worms, with over 22,000 extant species, including leeches and earthworms. Today, I’m going to share with you the shiny rainbow horror that is the bobbit worm.

Eunice aphroditis looks like a creature from a horror writer’s drug-induced fever dream.

Averaging about 3 feet long and 1 inch wide, the bobbit is also a member of the bristle worms. Along each side of its body are paired, spike-like appendages called parapodia. Each fleshy protrusion contains several bristles. The bobbit worm comes in an array of colors, from black to purple to metallic. The body appears to have this shimmery rainbow effect to it, especially in photographs.

The bobbit worm is an ambush predator. It conceals its body, all 3‒10 feet of it, beneath the sand of the seafloor, except for its antennae. When a fish or crustacean brushes up against the antennae, the bobbit worm emerges from the sand to grab its prey and pull it under.

What make this creature appear nightmarish are its powerful mandibles protruding from its mouth and the speed at which it grabs its prey. The mandibles are scissor-like appendages that extend far from the mouth, and they’re used to grab prey. On occasion, the bobbit worm has been seen cutting its prey in half with the mandibles.

The bobbit worm is found in tropical waters, mostly in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Not much is known about its reproduction. They are considered rare, and these worms are hard to find because of how they bury themselves beneath the sand.

Eunice aphroditis supposedly gets their common name from the Bobbitt Case in the 1990s involving a married couple with the last name Bobbitt. It’s a disturbing case to read about, so learn about it at your own risk; it involved domestic abuse and violence between the couple.

Despite its nightmarish appearance, the bobbit worm was pretty interesting to look into. There’s still room for research, so if you’re looking for something to focus on, look into polychaetas and the bobbit worm! If you want an idea for a freaky yet colorful horror thriller, I think this worm might give you an idea or two.

Sources and links:
Ocean the Definitive Visual Guide made by the American Natural History Museum
http://www.marinespecies.org/aphia.php?p=taxdetails&id=130053#links
https://eol.org/pages/404312
https://www.ourbreathingplanet.com/bobbit-worm/

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

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!

Mermaid’s Wineglass

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Chlorophyta
Class: Dasycladophyceae
Genus: Acetabularia
Species: Acetabularia acetabulum

Have you ever wondered what kind of glasses Atlanteans drank their wine from? I mean, they were Greek, so they had to love wine. Am I right, Dionysus? Would you say that they’d drink from a Mermaid’s Wineglass?

I know, I know that was a terrible lead in but for some reason I couldn’t resist!

No, Atlanteans would not have drunk wine out of Acetabularia acetabulum (Mermaid’s Wineglass) because the whole species is a little over an inch tall. Though if they could have, that would be the ultimate recyclable glassware—or would that be grassware?

Okay, seriously, I’ll stop.

Mermaid’s wineglass is not a grass, it’s a species of algae that can be found in the Mediterranean, Red Sea, in the Eastern Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Africa, and in the Indian Ocean. Their preferred habitat is around shallow subtidal rocks submerged in water that’s about 50−77°F, so you can spot them if you’re off diving in the Mediterranean Sea.

The Mermaid’s wineglass is aptly named because it’s shaped like a crude wine glass. The stem on the wineglass appears white, kept standing by the encrusting calcium carbonate on the outside, and a small cup like structure sits at the top. This single-celled alga reproduces by creating cysts in the cup. Once the individual dies and everything else decays, the cysts are released into the water to find a nice, dark place to sit for a bit. After napping for a time, they begin to germinate and grow more wineglasses.

I couldn’t find much more information on this species. I mistook it for a different alga that I came across while diving in Jamaica for one of my college courses. The alga I was thinking of is actually called Mermaid’s Tea Cup, which I’ll talk about in a future post.

There is more than one style of wineglass in the Mermaid line, and you can get it in white or green!

In the Atlantic around Florida and the Caribbean, there are two species of Mermaid Wineglasses. Honestly, they look very similar to me but are different for sure on the genetic level. There’s the White Mermaid’s Wineglass (Acetabularia crenulata) and the Green Mermaid’s Wineglass (Acetabularia caliculus) both of which have the same general shape as Acetabularia acetabulum but have different colors. A.caliculus is greener than A. acetabulum.

Sources:
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide made by the American Museum of Natural History
Reef Coral Identification: Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas 3rd edition by Paul Humann and Ned DeLoach