Mushroom Coral

An example of a mushroom coral at the Natural History Museum.

This unusual coral is a Ctenactis Echinata, a species of mushroom coral, so named due to their similarity to the cap of a mushroom and I saw it at the Secret Cities of the Sea exhibition. Most mushroom corals are free-living rather than colonial and sit by themselves in crevasses and on the edge of kelp forests. Many mushroom corals also looked bleached due to a lack of zooxanthelles, symbiotic algae, in their bodies which is unusual for a coral and as such many people mistake them for dead. Luckily, unlike the coral reefs we are used too, bleaching in many species of mushroom coral is perfectly healthy.

The specimen above is particularly round in shape, ctenactis echinata normally being more of an oval pattern around 20-30cm long and roughly half that in width. Like most mushroom coral, this coral has a single mouth opening on the top of its body, through which polyps will emerge at night in order to feed. The edged plates that make up the radius of the coral are sharply edged with tiny teeth, that can badly cut attackers although, other than specialised coral eaters, this species doesn’t have much to fear except from attacks by other coral. This species does not appear bleached, instead having a dark brown colour while alive, that makes it look similar to the rocks it nestles amongst.

The Ctenactis Echinata can both reproduce with the use of spawning, in which all corals simultaneously release eggs and sperm into water, or by sprouting off smaller versions of itself to create genetically identical clone corals. Asexual reproduction like this is often done when the current coral is to badly injured to continue living for long, and such a measure is required to ensure the corals genes continue to exist. Fortunately for the coral, its genetics do not seem under threat, being rated as one of the least concerning species in terms of its rarity. This is perhaps due both to its enormous distribution, across most of the Pacific from China to the Red Sea to Australia, and the lengths to which it will go in order to survive.

It is almost impossible to go diving in the Pacific ocean without coming across on of these corals or one of its mushroom coral cousins. If I am able to pursue diving in those areas I’m sure I will see it.

Australian Trumpet

The shell of a (deceased) Australian Trumpet.

One of the more eye-catching exhibits at the Secret Cities of the Sea exhibition at the Natural History Museum was this shell of the Australian Trumpet or Syrinx Aruanus. This spectacular shell belongs to the largest shelled mollusc in the world, and one of the biggest gastropods, extinct animals not included. Measuring in at around 90cm at its largest length and nearly 20kg in weight this monster is known mainly for its tremendous size and is often hunted both for the amazing shell and the flesh, which is edible and used for food and fish bait. The shell is typically a faded yellow colour, but on a living specimen a thin skin will cover the majority of the shell, making it look more of a brown muddy colour, much in the same way that land snails have greyish shells while alive, but empty shells soon become a magnolia colour. The proboscis, a sucking mouthpiece used by many invertebrate predators to drain fluids from their prey, is a full inch long and is used to catch its extremely large food.

Living, as the Trumpet’s name suggests, in the northern parts of Australia and areas above it such as southern Indonesia and much of Oceania, it is fairly common along the sandy sea bottom around 20-30m underwater. In some areas it is fished heavily and far less common, but generally it is a common animal and not unusual to see while diving. Using its large proboscis the Trumpet reaches under sandy banks and into rocky crevasse in search of gigantic tubular worms that can measure over a metre long, making the perfect enormous meal for another enormous predator. It will suck up its prey whole through its mouthpiece, rather than rasping against its food like non-predatory snails that we are used to in Britain.

This is a very interesting snail, and if I get the chance to go diving in the waters of Oceania (which would be truly amazing) I hope that I will have a chance to see this behemoth in the flesh.

Sea Fan

A preserved sea fan on display at the museum.

In the Secret Cities of the Sea exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London, which I discovered while listening to an Inside Science program, there were various displays about the inhabitants of the reefs. One such example was this stunningly preserved sea fan. The sea fan is a type of coral that grows out of the continental shelves at the edge of tropical and subtropical reefs. They build out into large fan-like structures that help them to catch plankton and other tiny organisms that are brought up from the deep waters of the Twilight Zone by strong currents. These same currents are what feed the reef and keep a large supply of nutrients available to the creatures that live there, and the sea fan is simply seating itself closer to the source.

Like other corals, often contain zooxanthellae, tiny algae that are allows to grow inside and around the coral giving them protection in return for photosynthesising for the coral. This symbiotic relationship is essential for keeping reefs alive, since most reefs are fairly near the surface. These algae are also what give the coral its colour, which is why coral bleaching occurs when a reef is sick, since the stress of illness makes the coral jettison its cargo of zooxanthellae. With changes in acidity and temperature in coral reefs across the globe (mainly due to what humans are doing to the ocean) more and more reefs are beginning to bleach and turn white, which will eventually kill them. Some sea fans, that live deeper down in the shelf wall do not have zooxanthellae, since it is no longer beneficial due to the lack of light, and so they must rely entirely on capturing enough plankton to eat.

Many species live in the winding mazes that sea fans create, jutting out of the shelf walls, including starfish, kinds of pipefish, and colonies of bryozoan, which are actually several zooids living together. Bargibant’s Pygmy Seahorse and Denise’s Pygmy Seahorse are two species of the tiny pygmy seahorse that live especially on sea fans and their relatives. They are perfectly camouflaged to the coral, coloured and with bumps and knobs in lighter colours over them. Large groups of these seahorses can be found over a sea fan, where they eat the plankton that filter through from the deeps. The Bargibant’s Seahorse will likely never leave the coral that they were born on, leading to large families of seahorses living in the same place for generations.

These sea fans are extremely interesting, now being looked into by the medical industry for the chemicals they produce, and I am glad that I saw them here at the museum.

Bottle Palm

A rare and endangered species stands proudly amongst the other foliage.

The Bottle Palm is one of the most threatened species of palm in the world, native only to the small and secluded Round Island, and incredibly difficult to grow elsewhere. The Eden Project contains two of these rare species, which are nigh on impossible to grow without the use of climate control in this country. The palms are several feet tall, with a few palm fronds (about 4 -6) and a set of flowers that will sprout from under the crown. The most recognisable feature of this plant is the strange warping on the bottom of the trunk, which is similar to a bottle and has given rise to the rumour that it stores water in this part of its trunk. These rumours are nothing more than folktales, and there is no need to chop them down to get at their water.

The Bottle plant is immensely endangered due to the fact that prior to being exported to America it only grew on Round Island, which lies just off the coast of Mauritius. Its detachment from any mainland for so long, along with the fact that even a slight frost is capable of killing it, means that at the present time the only place it can grow without any aid are in the tropics, where it has been planted to prevent it from dying out. The Bottle Palms still living on Round Island are under threat from forest destruction, but these specimens assure its survival for the future.

It’s one of the most endangered species of palms in the wild, and I am always in favour of the preservation of any species for future generations. It is heartening to see that measures have been taken to prevent its extinction.

Fish Poison Plant

The fallen flowers of a Fish Poison Tree.

These beautiful pink flowers belong to a strange plant known as the Fish Poison Tree, or the Barringtonia Asiatica, which is native to the Philippines and other oceanic islands. It is particularly associated with a small Polynesian island, named Futuna after the native name for the plant futu. I saw on of these plants in bloom at the Eden project, where its fluffy pink-white flowers had just begun to drop off the tree. As its name suggests, every part of this tree is poisonous and although it is not poisonous enough to kill a human in small quantities, grinding the square fruits of the plant can produce a powder capable of stunning or killing fish. It was used by indigenous peoples in order to help feed their groups, although it is rarely used today.

These plants are easy to recognise, either by their cuboid fruit or the sweet smelling pom-pom like flowers. A fully grown tree will reach about 20 meters into the air, and has a large area of coverage from the branches, which causes it to be planted in some countries as shade and decoration. In India this tree is often used for such purposes. The fruit, which is sometimes called a Box Fruit on account of its shape, is light and buoyant, allowing it to float easily on water. In this way it disperses in the same way as the Sea Bean and the Coconut, floating across the ocean until it washes up on land suitable for it to grow. Like the coconut, the seeds in the fruit can remain dormant for nearly 15 years, waiting for the right moment to begin sprouting. This means that the plant is widely dispersed over any area that it is able to grow, and is often one of the first plants to arrive on newly formed islands.

The plant was certainly beautiful, if somewhat dangerous to eat, and its method of distributing seeds is interesting. In particular it reminds me of the Sea Bean Pod, which is one of my favourite plants for the same reasons. Now that I know what this plant is, perhaps I will recognise it next time I see one.

Traveller’s Palm

A travelling palm stands proudly above the rest of the rainforest.

This towering pillar of bark and leaves is a young Traveller’s Palm, one of the many trees that can be found in the Eden Project. This one is fairly young, with only a few of the large frond leaves that make it so iconic sprouting from the tip. As it matures those leaves will spread out into a fan, the outer leaves of which will fall of to reveal more bark underneath. These trees reach heights of about 7 or 8 metres, and the fan of fronds can reach the same distance across in a large specimen. It’s need for large amounts of nitrates and sunshine mean that the rainforests of Madagascar, of which it is native to, are perfect for it to grow, although many of them are used as decorative plants in the west coast of California, where conditions are also ideal for their growth. They sprout small white flowers with large protective leaves, and produce small, blue pod-like seeds.

It is strange that this plant is called the Traveller’s Palm given that it is neither a palm nor helpful to travellers. It is, in fact, a bird-of-paradise plant similar to those found in central Africa, that are used for ornamental purposes in gardens with hot climates. The idea that it is helpful to travellers comes from the thought that water can be stored in the stems of the fronds, and therefore drunk by thirsty explorers. Sadly, the water in the stems of these plants is cloudy and dangerous to drink without purification, and it is likely that someone who drank it would lose more water from vomiting than they gained from drinking it.

Bizarre as the plant may seem, it certainly strikes an imposing figure in the forests and jungles of Madagascar, where it is thriving. I quite look forward to seeing this plant when it is fully mature.

Roul Roul

A crested partridge, or roul roul, pecks around for small insects.

This Roul Roul, that goes by the ridiculous scientific name of Rollulus Roulroul, was one of the interesting creatures used to populate the rainforest biome at the Eden Project. The Roul Roul is a type of pheasant native to South Asian and Oceanic rainforests, such as Malaysia and Thailand.  They are about 20cm long, with males reaching up to 25cm. The males are distinctive by the bright red crest on their head, as pictured above, which they grow shortly after they are born. They also have a black head and underbelly, where the females have an olive green body and a dark grey head. The Roul Roul will travel in packs of 30 – 50 at the very largest, searching the forest floor for fruit, seeds and small invertebrates that they scratch out with their claws. They have been known to follow herds of wild pigs, such as the Barbirusa native to Indonesia, as they move through the forests in order to eat the leftover fruit.

Roul Roul are ground nesting birds, and build their nests like domes out of leaf litter, created so that it is impossible to see the female from the outside. This gives the birds a serious advantage against predators in the rainforest, such as civets. Once a pair of birds mate and make a nest, they are paired for life, and while the female incubates the eggs, the male will go out hunting and gathering for both of them. The features of young Roul Roul are identical to those of the adults, although their feathers do not yet have the same glossy sheen. These birds young are fairly precocious, but unlike other birds that mature young, Roul Roul will be fed by their parents and live in the nest for a while before joining the group.

These funny little birds really brought the Eden Project’s rainforest area to life, giving the interesting plant life little rustles of movement that kept the wild atmosphere. They are unusual, exceptions to how birds of this kind normally behave, and I feel that there is more to be learnt about them.

Giant Pacific Octopus

The aquariums octopus hides away until feeding time.

One of the most impressive animals at the Plymouth Aquarium is the Giant Pacific Octopus, largest of all the octopuses in the world. Measuring 4 or more metres across the arms on average, and weighing around 10-20kg, these octopuses can be identified by their bulky frame alone. The record for a Giant Pacific is substantially bigger, the current identified record being 9.8m in arm span and 136kg altogether, an absolutely enormous specimen. No octopus has tentacles, a common misconception, since their eight prehensile limbs are actually arms, whereas a tentacle has no muscle control, such as those found on a jellyfish. By pulling in water through their head and jets, these octopus can reach speeds of 20 miles per hour over a short distance when they push the water out of their bodies at high pressure. Since an octopus has no bone in their body other than the beak, they can squeeze through any hole their beak can fit through, allowing them to fit into tiny gaps, like the octopus above. Through the contraction of tiny pigments in the skin, the octopus can change the colour and texture of its skin, blending in with its surroundings to hide from prey and predator. It is a surprisingly effective method of concealment, and it can often be hard to spot and octopus, even in its tank. The brain of the octopus is highly developed, and is tubular in shape. Strangely, the octopus will defecate inside its own head, or mantle, cavity and when there is to much waste inside it can reach into its own head through its jets and remove the unwanted substances.

The octopus playfully attacks my camera, perhaps mistaking it for a snack.

The octopuses’ large size does not protect it from predators, and while smaller fish and invertebrates clear the area when it draws near, larger mammals like toothed whales and seals use their fast speeds and keen eyesight to capture these octopuses. A study in Alaska showed that not often seen Pacific Sleeper Sharks are also great predators of these molluscs, with them found almost exclusively in the stomachs of specimens brought in for study. Of course, the octopus also does its fair share of hunting, enjoying mainly a diet of shelled invertebrates, like crabs and lobsters, which are easy to catch for such a fast creature, and can be broken into using the tough beak and shell dissolving toxins. Even sharks have been known to fall prey to these animals, with pieces of them often found around octopus hides, and in one aquarium in America, a tank full of sharks disappearing. The proprietors were baffled at first, wondering who was taking their sharks, until they saw the Giant Pacific Octopus they had in the same tank, capture and suffocate one of the sharks. Needless to say, the octopus was removed to a different tank. National Geographic covered this event in a short video.

Of course, being in a different tank doesn’t always stop an octopus from eating the other denizens of the aquarium. When an octopus is bored of using its mighty brain to open jars and slip through mazes for frozen shrimps, those octopus with a grudge against society and nothing to lose apply their vast intellect to burglary. At Plymouth Aquarium, fish kept on going missing from their tanks. Again, everyone was baffled. Who was stealing these fish? How did they get in undetected? How did they lock the doors behind them when they were done? An overnight camera solved the issue. This octopus had been opening the latch of its tank, slipping out into the aquarium by night, invading other tanks and eating the fish living there. If that isn’t proof of an octopuses brainpower, then no amount of jars and mazes will ever prove anything. Truly they are the criminal masterminds of the ocean.The octopus looms in my direction.

Octopuses are fascinating, and the Giant Pacific Octopus is the big brother of them all. I hope that one day I’ll be able to see the figures of one of these imposing animals in the murky water horizon.

Conger Eel

The tail of a huge Conger Eel sticking out of the rocks.

At the enormous Plymouth Aquarium, located in the centre for Marine Biology in Britain, amongst the more mundane fish of the Plymouth Ocean exhibit there lies a mighty monster of a fish, a huge Conger Eel. This colossal tail is only half of the eel’s actual size, and while it is hard to see in perspective, the largest of these species can reach lengths of up to two metres and 100kg. This European Conger, or Conger Conger in Latin, are therefore the largest type of eel in the world, although the moray eels are nearly as long. Normally grey in colour with a white underbelly and darker snouts, the females will tend to be far larger than the males, often up to half a metre longer. They live across the east Atlantic from Scandinavia to North Africa and will also live in most of the Mediterranean ocean, where they are commonly seen in the shallows. They can live up to enormous depths such as 1000m but are also seen making their pits in shallower waters, such as the Plymouth Harbour.

Like the eel seen above, Congers live much in the same way as any other eel, nesting in eel ‘pits’ in crevasses in the rocks, often with groups of other eels. It has even been known for morays and congers to share the same pit. Being mainly nocturnal, they well stay in their pit for most of the day, coming out at night to hunt and scavenge. Congers will eat large fish, crabs, lobsters and octopuses that they catch, as well as eating any decaying carcasses that they may find. They have sharp teeth to grab their food with, but are not considered especially aggressive, despite their intimidating size.

During the breeding season, the European Conger’s body goes through a massive change, the skin becoming softer and the teeth dropping out of the mouth. Then, a huge migration begins, taking the eels out of cold European waters and into the sub-tropics of the Atlantic, such as the famous Sargasso Sea. The Sargasso is a large gyre by the Gulf of Mexico which is known for its role in the lives of European and American Eels. The sea is sometimes said to be thick with eels, almost as though you could walk out onto them. While this is somewhat an exaggeration, it is certainly true that a huge number of eels exist at one time in that ocean, with each female Conger producing several million larvae.

Large and astounding, and yet so close to home, I hope that I can see some of these eels in the Atlantic and Mediterranean in the future. It was a shame that the eel at Plymouth Aquarium didn’t feel inclined to show themselves while I was there, but then again, it was during the day. They were probably quite sleepy.