Puddles and Lil’ Booger

Puddles is what we have decided to name our new friend. He’s not as dear to me as Nacho (see one of my posts from Monteverde for the story of Nacho the Science Dog) and he was not as lingering a companion, but Puddles is very beautiful nonetheless.

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See why we call him Puddles? Tyler found him under a giant lump of dead coral, and we coaxed him into one of our sampling buckets to get a better look at him. He was obviously unhappy, so we didn’t hold on to him for too long- just long enough to watch him change from bright turquoise to green and red and back again.

Puddles might have been the reason we didn’t find any mantis shrimp in that section of the beach, though- octopuses are listed as major predators of the formidable mantis shrimp. Seems like “squishy” would not be the best strategy for tackling the smashers and spearers of the stomatopod world, but cephalopods are supposed to be very smart, so maybe there are some secret plans and clever tricks involved…

I still doubted, however, that this little lady could take on our mantis shrimp:

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BABY OCTOPUS

 

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She was just so weensy, and so floppy that it wasn’t, in fact, difficult to imagine that Tyler had just sneezed her right out. Hence her nickname, Booger.

When they’re that young, it’s hard to ID them to species, but she (it, he, I don’t really know…) is likely the same type of Caribbean Reef Octopus as Puddles. Which is good, because that species is not known to be venomous, and this little Booger bit Tyler quite hard with her teeny little beak. 

Booger actually managed to escape captivity all by herself, but not before I got this shot of her post-battle pose:

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If I were a witch (I totally am not, please do not be suspicious in any way because IT’S NOT TRUE I SWEAR) my familiar would definitely be an octopus. The inconvenience of carrying around a bucket of seawater would be far outweighed by the awesomeness of their square pupils, the wiggliness and versatility of their soft bodies and extendo-sucker-arms, and the constant reminder of the Beatles’ song “Octopus’ Garden,” which I have loved since I was small. Plus according to Zak, one of our TAs, they’re GREAT conversationalists.

 

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Turning Over Rocks

You know how sometimes you really need to go looking for the good stuff? Like, the best and cutest hostel on Cape Cod, or the tastiest hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant in San Francisco, or the awesome snarky humor that your quiet friend can express just with eyebrows and three-word sentences: none of this stuff is flying banners or running newspaper ads or leaping out of the water to attract your gaze (dolphins are SUCH attention-seekers…). But you have to take the time to peek into the little jewel-boxes of the world, and you have to pay close attention to the AWESOME STUFF that lives in and under the algae-encrusted rocks right at the waves’ edge.

Seriously, there is a ton of stuff down there! At first glance it looks like just a pile of moldy rocks- cast-off and dead coral chunks, bits of limestone, and old cracked conch shells- but under all the rocks there’s a zoo and a half of biota. Everything from sneaky hidden anemones to sea urchins, flatworms to crabs and suckerfish and sea stars… 

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I was a big fan of this little guy- we found him on the underside of a big slab of limestone. I think he’s a Stippled Clingfish- an algae grazer. 

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This one wasn’t technically under a rock, but more washing over them in the edges of the waves. I honestly have no idea what it is, beyond the vague inkling that it’s a cnidarian (jellyfish) of some kind. It didn’t seem to sting me, but its tentacles were very delicate.

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This last pretty lady was inside of a conch shell- when I picked it up, all these legs came wriggling out into my hand.

Don’t miss the little stuff! Go and pick up some rocks, and look behind those doors you’ve always wondered about. There could be some pretty schweet stuff in there. 

Mantis Shrimp Are Super Weird

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A mantis shrimp is not actually either a mantis (insect) or a shrimp (decapod) but is, in fact, an arthropod. They are referred to in science as “stomatopods,” which as far as I can tell means “mouth-foot” (don’t ask me why… I do not know). They’re pretty much filled to the brim with wizardry and badassery.

The wizardry comes into play in their two stalked, independently moving eyes. They’ve got 16 photoreceptor pigments (humans I think have three?), twelve of which are for color sensitivity… but that’s not all. Each eye has three parts, and can perceive depth independently of the other… but that’s also not all. At least some mantis shrimp can use those other four photoreceptors to see polarized light, both linear and circular. What even does that mean? It means WIZARD VISION. It also potentially means that mantis shrimp have better vision than anything else in the animal kingdom, and a possible secret language of light in which to send each other signals. What are they up to down there on the seafloor?

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The badassery is derived both from their absurd good looks (that is one handsome arthropod, no?) and their incredibly powerful front legs. Like praying mantises, these guys have nearly rocket-powered striking front legs that they use to stun or kill their prey- stomatopods’ hunting appendages are so powerful that they create cavitation bubbles (spontaneous air) underwater behind their super-fast strikes. The sound you can hear from mantis shrimp hunting is not snapping from hitting their prey- it’s the collapsing air pockets that then exert further force on the hapless, stunned, or killed little edibles. Mantis shrimp are divided into “spearers” and “smashers”- some spear their prey (or invading fingers) with lightning-fast stabby motions, and some use club-shaped elbows to smash open shells or knock out prey (or fingers). Their name in German, “fangschreckenkrebse,” translates to “scary-claw crab.” Fairly accurate… at least as accurate as mantis shrimp.

Moral of the story: Mantis shrimp are super weird and crazy awesome. But keep your hands clear- their wizard vision and rocket-claws will help them mess your fingers right up. 

Conch Eyes are Hilarious

I can’t stop looking at them. They are so bizarre. 

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I keep staring at their googlyness. 

What are they thinking about behind those googly, googly eyes?

A bit of natural history: The Queen Conch (Strombus gigas) is a really big mollusk that eats mostly plants (turtle grass, algae of various kinds) and occasionally some poor sessile animal that can’t get out of the way of the conch’s ever-questing mouthparts. They’re harvested commercially for food and for their incredible shells, over a foot in length at maturity. And their eyes are SUPER GOOGLY.

Doing Science- Marine Biology is Hard

In part because of this little guy: 

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It’s a turtle grass anemone, growing on (you guessed it) turtle grass, in the big lagoon where we were surveying conch and algae populations. Any attempt to walk through the turtle grass with any exposed leg skin resulted in many unknown (and very painful) sting marks and even blisters… the less painful stings were usually from hydroids also growing as epiphytes on the seaweed. Meanwhile, if we weren’t walking through the grass towing all our gear, we were swimming, clearing masks, clearing ears, diving for conches, taking notes, swallowing water, losing fins, and floundering away from alarmingly large tarpons and barracudas. 

People did not evolve in the oceans. It’s a foreign environment for so many reasons, but a compelling and attractive one for many of the same; so much is left to be explored, and so much is left that is still new to individuals and to humanity in general. There aren’t any answers for so many of the questions I have about underwater systems yet. And there’s so much neat stuff to see!

During our marathon 5-hour lagoon research session (don’t worry, we drank lots of non-salty water afterwards to make up for any losses sustained in the morning), we ran into a number of exciting creatures, among them the aforementioned tarpon and barracuda. Similar-sized fishes (aka HUGE), the tarpon and barracuda are both solitary predators that were cruising the lagoon presumably in search of some mid-sized fishes to chomp on. While startling, these guys didn’t present as much of a threat to us as the spiny sea urchins and stinging anemones in the grass.

Almost as surprising as the appearance of a six-foot-long fish in a five-foot-deep lagoon was the banded coral shrimp, a cleaner of larger fishes (like Jaques from Finding Nemo, anyone?). It had set up its cleaning station on a small bit of rock surrounded by sand and turtle grass, and was working on a two-year-old Nassau grouper when we swam by and scared off its client. They’re so cute! This one came out to play with me:

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Worth it? I think so. I’m exhausted, many in our group are sunburnt or dehydrated or both, and we’ve all felt the stings of the anemones and hydroids along with the more mental sting of knowing that we’re ill-suited for our study environment especially in comparison to the sleek predators sharing space with us… but the adventure, as always, continues.

Diving Day

I got the go-ahead to bring my camera on our dives today! Apparently I have proven my buoyancy  control and lack-of-flailing underwater to a sufficient degree to be granted the opportunity of further distractions. Huzzah! 

It’s not actually that bad. In fact, I think it means I have even more incentive not to use my hands to steer and swim underwater. I also think it’s easier to take photos of things underwater rather than while snorkeling, because there’s so much less wave surge and I’m so much less buoyant. Anyways, it was awesome giving my camera housing a deep-water test drive- no leaks, lots of fun photos!

Turns out some of the most entertaining fishes down there are my fellow divers, who have no end of patience for posing underwater (if only I could get them to do so on land…)

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Some actual fishes also posed, or at least came flying at my camera to investigate its shininess. This one’s a parrotfish- an algae and coral-eater that contributes lots to breaking down marine calcium carbonate structures (like coral heads and algal skeletons) into the lovely white sand we’ve been so lucky to hang out on. You can see it releasing some of this sand in the form of lovely white poops that we have hopefully not been experiencing too directly on the beaches.

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Here’s a brittle star and an awesome sponge (both animals, actually- sponges are very simple-bodied but have complex methods of channelling water through their bodies in order to more effectively filter-feed, and brittle stars are closely related to starfish). 

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It was a pretty awesome day of diving. Everyone comported themselves well, and the sights on the reef were spectacular as always. Can’t wait to spend another nine hours in the water tomorrow! 24/7, salty all over, just the way I like to be. 

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Squidnappers and Octopossies: the Wild Wild Wet

Okay, that title might have been a bit too much, but science puns are fun! Science! Yay?

Anyways, the point is that I went on a night snorkel last night and it was AWESOME. Little tiny blinky lights in the seagrass, the moon full and high above the water, the reef dark and looming ahead of us… We (three of us, me, Molly, and Ellen) swam out into the darkness with our little dive torches, ready to explore the now-familiar reef in front of the LCRC in a completely unfamiliar light (or lack thereof, as it were).

It’s a different place after dark. Coral polyps compete with anemones (invisible or hidden during the day) for the title of “wiggliest sessile animal in these parts here’bouts” and giant spiny lobsters assure one another that the reef is certainly not big enough for all of them. Meanwhile, Billy the Squid is sneaking up from behind with glowing spots and tentacles drawn:

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As the parrotfishes all slept in their warm mucus blankies, the predators were on the prowl, thieving and snatching and generally causing very quiet but very effective mayhem on anything unlucky enough to get caught out after the curfew set by the sun. This octopus is bank robber #1 out on this reef, reaching tentacles into reef hidey-holes and swapping disguises to blend in with the background and escape notice from the good townsfolk of the reef.

IMG_9406The water is dark and the visibility is limited- but the rewards are great for those who dare to venture forth to the frontier of night. Invertebrates galore, bioluminescence, and all kinds of stealthy hunters and skittish prey… never a dull time out in the wild, wild wet.