The title of this week’s DKHQ Marine Fact sounds like a sci-fi animal; the visual being half coral, half octopus. Although not a sci-fi creature, this animal is a coral.
When I use the word coral in conversation it often elicits responses such as, “Oh, you mean the coral in the Great Barrier Reef?” Yes, the Great Barrier Reef does have a diversity of beautiful corals, but you don’t have to travel to the tropics to see corals. The corals I am discussing today are found in the cooler temperate waters of Southern Australia. You may need to put on a thicker wetsuit to view them, but they are just as beautiful and colourful as their tropical cousins.
Here are some incredibly interesting facts about octocorals:
Fact 1: The ‘octo’ in octocoral represents the eight feathery tentacles found on each polyp that form the coral. The feathery tentacles are attached to the stomach.
Fact 2: Octocorals are filter feeders, meaning they eat microscopic organisms floating in the water column. The feathery tentacles, as described above, act like fingers swaying in the water current, capturing organisms such as plankton (microscopic animals) and phytoplankton (microscopic algae). Each tentacle is hollow, allowing the organisms to travel from the feathery tips down to the stomach.
Fact 3: Octocorals form colonies that are attached to the seabed or other hard structures such as large rocks.
Fact 4: To see octocorals you will need to SCUBA as they prefer to live at depths between 4-50m.
Fact 5: Octocorals are in the scientific Order Alcyonacea and consist of soft corals, gorgonians and sea whips.
Most people associate cuttlefish with domesticated budgies (the bird, not the male swimsuit). This is because budgies are given cuttlebone, a long ovulated white structure, to sharpen their beaks. This beautiful cuttlebone is an important feature of the cuttlefish; it controls their buoyancy while swimming in the ocean at various depths.
Cuttlefish can be found across the globe. They belong to a group of animals termed cephalopods, which also includes the octopus, squid, chambered nautilus and argonauts. Scientifically, cuttlefish belong to the Class Cephalopoda in the Phylum Mollusca. This means cuttlefish are invertebrates and have no backbone.
Cephalopods are considered amongst scientists to be the most intelligent out of all invertebrates; they learn quickly, are able to solve problems, communicate via complex visual communication and can quickly adapt to their local environment. Like chameleons on land, cuttlefish are experts at adapting to the colour and patterns of the environment around them.
Cuttlefish, as well as the octopus, contain special organs in their skin termed chromatophores which are little elastic bags filled with colour pigment. By expanding and contracting, chromatophores display a particular colour. They can be turned on and off which allows the cuttlefish to create a particular set of colours and patterns with its skin. Additionally, skin flaps, termed papillae, can be pushed or shaped to mimic their surroundings, for example, seaweed or coral. These colour and pattern changes are used for: mating and courting rituals, mate-guarding and camouflage to hide from predators.
Here are some more fascinating facts about cuttlefish:
Fact 1:Cuttlefish have very well developed eyes and acute vision. They are colour blind but respond to differences in light intensity rather than differences in wave length (which vertebrates, like humans, use to determine colour).
Fact 2:Cuttlefish are carnivores, that is, they eat meat. They are active nighttime predators feeding on fish, crustaceans, shellfish and worms.
Fact 3: During mating, the male passes packets of sperm to the female using its modified arm termed the hectocotylus. The females can immediately fertilise their eggs or are able to store the sperm in special receptacles inside their body for periods of time until they want to fertilise their eggs.
Fact 4:Females attach the fertilised eggs to the seafloor either on or under hard surfaces such as rocks. Young cuttlefish develop with no parental assistance and many hatchings are carried around in surface ocean currents over long distances.
Fact 5:Cuttlefish have 8 arms and 2 feeding tentacles. All arms have suckers along the length of the arm except for the feeding tentacles which have suckers only on the tip, termed clubs. The feeding tentacles can be pulled back into the mouth.
Fact 6: A cuttlefish’s mouth contains a hard beak, similar to a parrot’s beak. The beak is used to kill and paralyse the prey by injecting a poisonous saliva. The beak also breaks the prey into pieces and then it is further broken down with a row of very small sharp teeth.
Fact 7: When scared or irritated, cuttlefish squirt ink into the water column which can be shaped to be the same size as its body. This ink sac sits inside the body near the anus. Cuttlefish are also able to bury themselves under sand, with only the eyes remaining visible, when they want to hide.
Fact 8: Cuttlefish use their funnel and fins to swim. The fins extend out from its mantle (the back part of its body) enabling rapid or slow propulsion.
Many larger marine animals such as seals, whales and large fish eat cuttlefish, however, they are rarely caught in fisher nets. Perhaps this is indicative of their intelligence and being able to problem solve in difficult situations?
Seaweeds are the plants of our oceans. Similar to land plants, seaweeds play an important role in absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide and turning it into oxygen we all need in order to live.
Most of us view seaweed as that smelly stuff that washes up on the shore, frequently thrown around by rowdy kids and teenagers. A storm or human extractive activities are the root cause for seaweeds to be washed up on the shore. When washed up, seaweeds are dead and decomposing which is why you crinkle your nose to that funny smell.
Seaweeds are beautiful and come in a range of colours, shapes and sizes. They provide homes and protection for many ocean animals. Some seaweeds provide food for animals and are the basis for many food webs. Even humans harvest seaweed for food and other products. Here are some more interesting facts about seaweeds.
Fact 1: Seaweeds are plants, scientifically termed macro(large) algae. They are simple plants without roots, stems, leaves or flowers.
Fact 2: Seaweeds grow on the intertidal shore and in subtidal areas. Like land-based plants, seaweeds harvest sunlight for photosynthesis and will only grow at depths where sunlight can penetrate the water column.
Fact 3: There are three major seaweed groups and they are based on their colour: red seaweeds (Rhodophyta), brown seaweeds (Phaeophyta) and green seaweeds (Chlorophyta).
Fact 4: There is a fourth group of seaweed that is often contested to being a true seaweed amongst marine algae biologists (scientists who study seaweeds). This is the blue-green algae (Cyanophyta).
Fact 5: Some seaweeds are very small and grow on other seaweeds when environmental conditions are opportune. These seaweeds are known as epiphytes.
Fact 6: Some seaweeds have long fronds and can grow up to 10 meters in height creating underwater forests, for example, the large brown kelp Macrocystis angustifolia that grows in southern Australia. Other seaweeds are small, encrust hard structures and often look like lichen.
Fact 7: Seaweeds attach themselves to solid structures such as rock and wood pylons using their holdfasts. Holdfasts are like a whole bunch of fingers tightly gripping onto a solid item. However, seaweeds are smart and go one step further. Holdfasts secrete a chemical that is similar to superglue to ensure the seaweed is permanently stuck to that structure. This allows the seaweed to withstand strong currents, tides, swells and stormy conditions. This super glue like chemical is being researched by chemists as a natural product to be used in human products, e.g. glues that can be used for building houses.
Fact 8: Some seaweeds are harvested globally as food, medicine and as a product for other applications such as toothpaste, ice-cream, soil fertiliser and shampoo.
Fact 9: Port Phillip Bay located in Victoria, Australia has over 200 different types of seaweeds and is one of the most diverse seaweed locations in the world.
While seaweeds might be pretty stinky while decomposing on the shoreline, without them our oceans would be pretty dull and devoid of life.
Every venture into our amazing marine world provides me with an opportunity to learn something new and to interact one-on-one with some wonderful creatures.
During one dive in Port Phillip Bay, located in Victoria, Australia, the Southern Blue Devil’s iridescent blue colours immediately caught my eye. Scientifically known as Paraplesiops meleagris, this beautiful fish is endemic to southern Australia. The Southern Blue Devil can only be found in the beautiful waters between Perth in Western Australia to Port Phillip Bay in Victoria to a depth of up to 45m.
The Southern Blue Devil loves to live under ledges and in crevices and caves. They are fiercely protective of their territory, especially during breeding season. My first encounter with the Southern Blue Devil was during breeding season. The male of this species can be a little aggressive if you get too close to their territory, especially if you have any blue colours on your SCUBA kit or wetsuit. My SCUBA mask at the time was made of clear perspex and rubber lined with bright blue rims around the eyes. Thinking I was a competitor for it’s territory, this male Southern Blue Devil told my SCUBA mask in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t welcome.
Southern Blue Devil 1: Dalton Koss HQ SCUBA mask 0.
Although quite a visually funny story, here are some other interesting facts about the Southern Blue Devil.
Fact 1. Similar to human finger prints, adult Southern Blue Devils can be individually identified and monitored due to their unique pattern of markings on the lower part of their gill cover.
Fact 2: Adult pairs will stay together during the breeding season, protecting their eggs that are usually laid on rock surfaces in narrow crevices.
Fact 3:The Southern Blue Devil is protected by law across Australia as they are endemic, that is, they are not found anywhere else in the world.
Fact 4: Known to be curious, the Southern Blue Devil will usually interact with SCUBA divers even during non-breeding season.
Fact 5: The Southern Blue Devil loves to eat small crustaceans, snails, worms and sometimes other small fishes.
If you ever have an opportunity to SCUBA across Australia’s southern oceans, look out for the Southern Blue Devil. In fact, it will probably find you first.
Taking inspiration from my paper that was published this week, this week’s Dalton Koss HQ Marine Fact takes a look at estuaries.
Estuaries are fascinating systems that are often forgotten natural spaces. This is because they are neither freshwater nor seawater, rather they are a mix of the two. One of Dalton Koss HQ’s favourite sayings is to be in a liminalstate meaning that the subject is never in one state of being. This is true for estuaries where saltwater from the open sea mixes with freshwater that flows down from uprivers and streams. As the chemical makeup of saltwater is more dense compared to freshwater, the saltwater will sit under the freshwater layer. This saltwater layer usually decreases in depth as you move up the estuary away from the ocean. Additionally, sediments from both land and ocean meet and mix in the estuary.
Due to this unique combination of water and sediments, estuaries are incredibly naturally productive places that provide protection from the rough seas. Fish use estuaries for migrating and reproduction, birds feed and nest on the side of estuaries and there is even documented evidence that suggests larger mammals such as whales and larger fish species such as sharks use estuaries as reproductive areas.
As estuaries are directly linked with the ocean they are often influenced by tides. Some estuaries are devoid of water at low tide making it very easy to walk across from one side to the other. Estuaries provide humans with a number of services that contribute to our health and wellbeing. In the field of environmental economics this is called ecosystem services as the natural system (ecosystem) is providing us (humans) some type of service that contributes to our health and wellbeing. Here are some examples of estuary ecosystem services:
1. Humans take out fish and shellfish from estuaries as food to eat.
2. Many of the mangroves, coastal shrub and salt marsh that grow along estuary shores remove pollutants from the air providing us cleaner air to breathe. These same plants can trap sediments amongst their roots which decreases erosion and soil run off into the water. This in turn provides stability to houses and human made infrastructure built along the estuary.
3. For those who visit or live along an estuary, looking and experiencing beautiful natural landscapes can create feelings of relaxation, pleasure, peace and enjoyment.
4. Estuaries contribute to the traditions and cultures of Indigenous peoples across the globe.
Within Australia, there are over 1000 estuaries of different forms and types. In fact, over 60% of Australia’s population live along estuaries, for example, Melbourne and Port Phillip Bay, Hobart and the Derwent River Estuary and Fremantle and the Swan River Estuary. Globally, there are thousands more. As human populations continue to grow, greater pressure will be placed on our estuaries. How to balance population growth, city planning and impacts on our natural environment needs in depth consideration by governments and citizens across the globe.
Visits to the coastline are often filled with feelings of enjoyment, relaxation and excitement through discovery and exploration. At Dalton Koss HQ we often see young children and teenagers having fun exploring the beach, especially when they find sea squirts exposed at low tide. The name giveaway here is the squirt of seawater that comes out of this animal when lightly squeezed.
Sea squirts live on the lower areas of intertidal zone (see this link), from rock platforms to human made structures such as groynes and seawalls.
Aside from the amusement they provide when squeezed, here are some interesting facts about sea squirts:
FACT 1: Sea squirts, in the adult form, are individual animals that permanently attach themselves to hard structures, such as rock platforms, groynes and sea walls.
FACT 2: Sea squirts are filter feeders meaning they filter their food and oxygen out of the water column. To do this sea squirts have two siphons, one for bringing in the water and one for getting rid of the water. The walls of the siphons are lined with cilia (think of cilia as microscopic arms that wave and move together) that grab plankton and absorb oxygen as the water passes through the intake siphons. Any unwanted matter and carbon dioxide is released from the outtake siphon
FACT 3: Sea squirts along Australia’s southern shoreline have a brown outer colour and a beautiful orange/red inner colour. This brown outer colour allows them to blend in with the seaweeds and hard structures they are attached to.
FACT 4: At low tide sea squirts close their siphons so water cannot escape while providing protection against predators and the elements (e.g. sun and air).
FACT 5: Sea squirts are also referred to as cunjevoi or ascidians (as they belong in the scientific class Ascidiacea).
FACT 6: Sea squirts are mostly hermaphrodites meaning they possess both male and female reproduction organs.
FACT 7: The larvae of sea squirts look like small tadpoles that can swim around in the water. They only stay in this form for a few hours before settling on a hard surface, which signals the start of its transformation into the adult form.
Perhaps one of the most interesting facts about sea squirts is their evolutionary link between animals without a backbone (think sea stars, sea jellies, sea snails) to animals with a backbone (such as fish, birds, humans). In the larval stage sea squirts have a notochord, which looks like a rod. The notochord eventually forms into the backbone. However, sea squirts do not form a backbone. When the sea squirt larvae settle onto hard structures, the notochord disappears. This is an interesting phenomenon for evolutionary scientists who study how animals and plants evolve over time.
Sea squirts have a few predators including humans who cut up the sea squirt and use the red part of its body as fish bait. Although we often see how much fun everyone has from squeezing and squirting each other with water from sea squirts, it does cause them a lot of stress while they are exposed to the sun and air at low tide. So while it is tempting to squeeze sea squirts, it is best to leave them in peace as they wait out the turn in tides.
Over the past few weeks, quite a number of the Dalton Koss HQ Marine Facts have referred to the intertidal zone. Many DKHQ readers have curiously responded with the questions:
Where is the intertidal zone located?
Exactly what is the intertidal zone?
At Dalton Koss HQ we are more than happy to answer these two questions.
The intertidal zone is located along our coastlines, specifically where the sea meets the land. This zone varies all across the globe. It can be made up of rocky shores with many fun rockpools, mudflats or sandflats, mangroves, salt marsh and seagrass beds, sandy beaches and coral reefs. The intertidal zone can be exposed to the rough and tumble of open oceans or located in sheltered places such as bays and inlets. Some scientists refer to the intertidal zone as the littoral zone.
At Dalton Koss HQ we often refer to the intertidal zone being in a liminal state. This is because the intertidal zone is either covered with ocean waters or exposed to the sun and air due to the constant movement of tides. It is never in one state of being within a 24 hour period; rather it is in continuous flux.
Being exposed to two completely different types of conditions means that as an animal or plant living in this zone, one needs to have some incredibly amazing adaptations to survive. Intertidal plants and animals need to be resilient to wave wash, tides and currents, sun exposure, predators and drying out all while trying to photosynthesise/eat and reproduce.
This makes the intertidal zone a fascinating area to explore and discover the spectacular range of marine animals and plants. To conserve this amazing zone while you explore, please be careful where you tread/snorkel, place rocks back to their original positions when you examine what is beneath and keep all rockpool animals and plants fully immersed in water to reduce their stress.
At Dalton Koss HQ we can already hear the arachnophobes fearfully exclaiming, “Sea Spiders! Will they bite me if I go for a swim? Are they poisonous?”
The answer to both questions is no. Sea Spiders are not interested in devouring humans.
Sea Spiders are scientifically known as pycnogonids. You can see in the image below, that sea spiders are not as chunky looking as their land dwelling cousins and are quite small in size (the Sea Spider in this image was no bigger than a $1 Australian coin).
This is because Sea Spiders have developed a number of really interesting body features over a long period of time. Here are just a few interesting feature facts:
Fact 1: The abdomen of the sea spider is very small and located towards the back of the body, while some of the gut is located in its legs. Their waste products are released directly into the seawater via a diffusion process across their cell walls.
Fact 2: Sea spiders use the same cell wall diffusion process to obtain oxygen, i.e. they have no lungs or respiratory system to breathe oxygen like many other animals.
Fact 3: Due to their very small body size, the sea spider’s reproductive system is found in their legs.
Fact 4: Female sea spiders deposit their fertilised eggs, which are then picked up and looked after by the male sea spider.
Fact 5: Most sea spider legs end in very small claws.
Fact 6: At each growth stage, starting from the larval phase, the sea spider develops a new set of legs until it reaches adulthood.
Fact 7. Sea spiders have a proboscis (think of it as their mouth and tongue rolled into one) so that they can suck out the fluids of animals they eat, for example, anemones, hydroids and bryozoans, but NOT humans.
Fact 8: Sea Spiders live in cool and warm water oceans at all depths.
How can I spot a Sea Spider?
Dalton Koss HQ’s tip for spotting a sea spider is to use a snorkel and mask and slowly drift over rocky reefs at high tide (for safety, always snorkel with a buddy). Sea Spiders are quite small so you need to look closely between seaweed tufts, anemones and other hydroids that grow on the rock.
Amongst Dalton Koss HQ’s favourite animals and plants are the enigmatic seahorses and seadragons.
“Are they real? Do they really exist?”, DKHQ is often asked.
Yes, they are real and live in both tropical and cooler oceans across the globe.
Regarded by most as resembling half horse half fish, these gentle oceanic creatures spend their time slowly cruising amongst seagrass meadows, seaweed gardens and coral looking for small shrimp to eat.
Both seahorses and seadragons belong to the bony fish family, Syngnathidae, which also includes pipefish and pipehorses (a DKHQ marine fact for another day) .
Seahorses tend to have an upright vertical position while stationary or moving, while seadragons tend to have a horizontal stationary and moving position. Although seahorses and seadragons look different, they are closely related.
There are some AMAZING facts about seahorses and seadragons.
FACT 1: The seahorse and the seadragon are the only animals in the world where the malegives birth to the babies. Yes, you read correctly! The only animals in the world where the male gives birth. Female seahorses deposit their eggs into the male seahorse pouch where they are then fertilised. The male seahorse will carry the growing babies in the pouch until they are born, which is why some male seahorses look like they have a very big belly. This reproduction approach is very similar for seadragons, however, the male seadragon will carry the babies in pouches that are attached to their tail rather than in their belly.
FACT 2:Seadragons can only be found in the cooler waters across southern Australia and no where else in the world. The Weedy seadragon is Victoria’s marine state emblem, while the Leafy seadragon is South Australia’s marine state emblem.
FACT 3: If you have an opportunity to dive amongst the tropical reefs of South East Asia, keep your eye out for the pygmy seahorse. No bigger than an average sized thumb, pygmy seahorses will only live on specific types of coral.
The next time you are snorkelling or diving amongst seaweed gardens, seagrass meadows or coral reefs, keep your eyes open for a beautiful seahorse or seadragon.