Saturday, August 20, 2011

Snorkeling in a hard-bottom gulf community...

Snorkeling in the gulf in a rocky bottom area brought some new animals and some old... The beach itself was more peopled and it was mostly a sandy bottom habitat with a man-made break wall. It was that break wall that was the object of my snorkeling activities.

There were many more types of fish in the rock areas than in the sandy-bottom area that I had previously visited. The rocks provided an excellent surface for algae to grow. Which in turn, provided excellent foraging opportunities for many fish, like these sergeant major fish.

There were also some predatory fish, like the mini-barracuda which I spotted, but did not get a good photo of, and this large sheephead (not to be confused with the California sheephead) with its attendant remora.

There were also some fish that were present in both spots, like flatfish and this toadfish. Although I did not see the toadfish in the sandy-bottom area, I knew it must have been present because I could hear it. It drove me nuts trying to pinpoint the noise coming from this fish. It was so loud that if I was swimming over it, I could feel it vibrate through my body.

There were also many invertebrates, most noticeably crabs. But unlike the sandy-bottom habitat, most of these crabs did not decorate themselves, nor did they bury themselves in the sand. Instead they hid in rocky crevices. You can also see some of the large colonies of compound tunicates in this shot...

There were some snails, which were laying eggs on the rocks...

and some blennies that were living in the holes of the rocks.

Of course there were also some soft corals at the base of the rocks, many compound tunicates, and urchins... But my favorite find of the day was these beautiful jellyfish.

They had a very mild sting, but I did not know that at the time so I kept my distance. If I had known, I probably would have gotten closer. At times, some individuals played host to fish, and I found out that there may have been crabs living in their bell as well.

My final critter of the day was this octopus, which was caught by a fisherman on the break wall. He let it go and I was able to grab this shot before it scuttled off.

Pretty neat, and definitely a higher diversity of fish than in the sandy-bottom area. I can't wait to compare it to a more natural hard-bottom habitat, such as a coral reef habitat!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Snorkeling in the gulf...

I went snorkeling a few days ago, in a nice sandy-bottom habitat. Unlike the west coast, the gulf sandy-bottoms are very shallow for a long way out... and warm!

I saw some large sand dollars, a ton of snail tracks, and worm castings. All evidence of a thriving infaunal community.

There were even many egg masses, like this, poking up from the sand.

Most of the life was focused in and around patches of sea grass. It was here you had a lot of the megafauna, like this blue crab, hanging out.

I also saw this puffer fish, and a couple of stingrays...

Of course, I did not really see the stingrays until they moved and swam away from me!

There was a lot of crazy interactions happening all around me too. Like these snails... I don't quite know what's going on here, but I think the one snail is being eaten by the other!

And of course, the obligatory battle between fiddler crabs on land...

All and all a good time... and surprising too. While I expected to see the stingrays, sanddollars, worms, and snails. I did not expect to see urchins, tunicates, and mussels which generally prefer harder, rocky substrates. Many of them were nestled in the sea grass. Perhaps the mussels had settled in the root system of the sea grass, and the tunicates settled on them.

I can't wait to see what a rocky-bottom habitat holds in store!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Florida Museum of Natural History

I went to the Florida Museum of Natural History not knowing quite what to expect. On one hand, the website was very well managed and made it look like a decent-sized museum with all the trimmings. On the other hand, I knew it was part of the University of Florida campus, and many other campus 'museums' are generally one room affairs with minimal signage and virtually no learning opportunities.

I was happy to learn that the museum lived up to the website's promises more than my expectations of a campus museum. It is housed in its own building, surrounded by a couple of art museums in the corner of campus. It had three main exhibits, a Florida fossil exhibit, peoples of Florida, and a rotating exhibit which happened to be on canoes. There was also a discovery center for the kids and another hands on display about 'wild music'. As the wild music cost extra and there was a day camp in the discovery center, I did not hit either of these two sites.

The Florida's Fossils section was well laid out, first taking you through a series of picture timelines showing generally what flora and fauna dominated which era, then you got to get an idea of what animals could be found in Florida by viewing the fossils. Each animal plaque was topped with a miniature bronze statue depicting how the animal would have looked in life, making it easy to pick out the animals you want to read more about and compare the skeleton to the fleshed-out version.

There was an amazing giant sloth, much larger than anything I had seen at the Page museum, and a glyptodont (a giant armadillo-like creature), which I absolutely adore!

I also learned that there were many cats found in the Florida region including American Lions [err... I mean Jaguars], the smaller precursor to the saber-tooth cat found in CA, Dirk-toothed cats, and Nimravids. Nimravids look just like dirk tooth cats but one of the bones in their skull (the post-orbital process) is solid, unlike 'true' cats.

The peoples of Florida exhibit was a little more chaotic. This could have been due to the fact that we may have entered it backwards, but since we could not tell for sure... well, I guess that was part of the problem. Either way, in the middle of the exhibit there was a corridor filled with larger than life models of common sea animals of Florida.

It was very fun, and I think I may have spotted my future research animal there... I was confused as to why this exhibit was in the middle of a hall devoted to the peoples of Florida, though.

The rest of the hall focused on some of the main native groups of Florida. The Seminoles were one group, and the other was a group called the Calusa. The Calusa lived in southern Florida and were excellent wood workers. Their wood carvings and art really impressed me. I loved their style.

In addition to the main building, we also went to the butterfly rainforest, which costs extra, but was so worth it. The butterfly rainforest, unlike many other butterfly pavilions was a permanent display, and because of that, the habitat was wonderfully lush.

There were many different types of butterflies... all fluttering around.

My biggest gripe was that there was no good guide for them. They had some hand held deals which did not even have a 4th of the butterflies picture on them. Their website has an excellent guide, however, so I was able to id these beauties after the fact fairly easily.

In addition to butterflies, they also had some birds flying about, like this orange weaver finch... which made Carlos happy. It's definitely a beautiful place to sit and watch. Since the entrance to the main halls were free, I felt okay spending the cash to get into the butterfly rainforest and I am glad I did!

All and all a good place to go and see some things unique to the Florida area. You can decide what you want to see based on what you want to pay for. They also have discounts for Florida residents and students (but only Florida college students).

Friday, August 12, 2011


So I ran across these crazy animals called pyrosomes a while back and I have been completely fascinated by them. When I was first presented with them, I could not figure out what they were! It turns out that they are a type of tunicate... and indeed looking at them under a microscope does help point that out.

Here you can see an individual of the tunicate colony, making a u shape, and surrounded by a clear tunic. The left side of the U is most likely the endostyle, a structure which gives support. On the right side of the U, the thicker side, is the pharynx, which they use to filter their food. Below that, the thick, pinkish structure is most likely the gut.

Each of those pyrosome colonies were made up of hundreds of these individual zooids, each of which captured its own food by filtering water through its pharynx. However unlike regular tunicate colonies, where the filtered water comes out somewhere along the surface of the colony, in pyrosomes (which are shaped like a cone with the smaller end closed off) the filtered water is shuttled to the inside and then comes out the large end. This allows them to swim!

It's hard to imagine these very dense, hard colonies swimming, but that's just what they do. Additionally, their name (pyrosomes = fire body) comes from one other unique feature that they possess. At the tip of each of the zooids they have a light producing organ, which allows the colony to light up like a christmas tree. I would love to see one drifting along, shining gently in the dark sea...