Ophioderma Rubicundum

Hawaiian Reef Creatures Art

A Personal Journey and a New Approach to

Captive Reef Keeping

The hustle and glare of miami faded quickly behind us. We were headed south, beyond the reach of the Florida Turnpike, stopping only briefly in the farming town of Florida City for gas and produce. I marveled that the tomatoes, vine ripe in early May, tasted no better than those trucked to the grocery shelves back home in Tennessee. Rolling south on AlA, we crossed the bridge over Card Sound and were in the Keys. Dense tangles of mangroves edged the road, osprey nests perched on the tops of telephone poles, the ocean was visible on either side of us. We were barely two miles from the mainland and life was different already.

The Florida Keys stretch from Biscayne Bay, curving south and west nearly 400 miles to terminate in the uninhabited Dry Tortugas. About

Florida Keys reef scene with gorgonians, sponges, and a Rock Beauty Angel (Holacanthus tricolor). Top: Hawaiian Potter's Angel (Centropyge potteri).

Gorgonian Fan Coral Structure

Ruby Brittle Star (.Ophioderma rubicundum), a nocturnal scavenger and desirable aquarium species, draped over a sea fan on a Cayman Islands fore reef.

midway along this thread of coral rock outcrops — with that day in 1977 with 20 other students, a couple of gradu-the Gulf of Mexico on our right and the Atlantic Ocean ate assistants, and Dr. Sue Reichert, Professor of Zoology at the University of Tennessee. The course was Invertebrate Zoology. I hardly suspected that my dormant fascination with the sea and its rreiifiires would waken to shane mv fii-

barely 50 yards to our left — lies the old Seven Mile Bridge. This motorway bridge, built on the trestle after the original railroad bridge was destroyed in the great hurricane of with the sea and its creatures would waken to shape my fu-1935, spans the broad, shallow channel that separates the ture. The expanse of coral rock dotted with Australian pines, Upper and Lower Keys. At the northern end is the town with the sea visible from every direction, held for me then of Marathon; to the south lies Big Pine Key. And smack un- nothing more exciting than the anticipated week of field der the middle of the Seven Mile Bridge is Pigeon Key. This work requisite for completion of the course.

dot, scarcely two acres in size, held our destination, the University of Miami marine laboratory.

Our accommodations could charitably be called "basic." The barracks, built of whitewashed wood and elevated a

The dozen or so white clapboard buildings scattered few feet off the coral rubble, had a porch at each end. Bed-about the island had been constructed as barracks for the rooms with military-style cots and bunk beds flanked the crew that built the railroad in the early 1900s. I arrived there central hallway. Bathroom facilities were unisex. My colleagues and I avoided most difficulties that might have arisen from these arrangements by showering in two shifts, according to gender. Other minor details of coed living were dealt with by signs left there by generations of students before us. Identical 3x5 cards above each sink said, "Rinse sink or don't shave." The door to the water closet was marked in capital letters on the peeling paint: "KNOCK

FIRST, DAMN IT!" Another sign was posted in the hallway by the back door of our barracks, next to the pay phone: "On July 12, 1857, this structure received the distinction of being the first building in North America to be condemned."

Ruby Brittle Star (.Ophioderma rubicundum), a nocturnal scavenger and desirable aquarium species, draped over a sea fan on a Cayman Islands fore reef.

The ramshackle nature of Pigeon Key s fading physical plant enhanced the feeling that the Keys were a rustic wilderness not yet invaded by the

West Miami Reef

hordes of tourists that thronged to Orlando and Miami. This string of islands, thrusting out from the tip of the Florida peninsula like a giant sense organ extended to sample the warm waters to the south, is as rich in history as it is in subtropical flora and fauna. Pirates, gunrunners, and dope smugglers, who in succession had plied the Straits of Florida, all had left their marks on the local culture. There were seedy little taverns near the docks in Marathon full of old sailors: brown leather faces, gray stubble, and endless talk of Cuba or fishing or how America had gone to hell since Ike left office.

On my first night at Pigeon Key, I wandered alone down to the Gulf side with a flashlight. Wading out into the warm, virtually motionless water, I played the light back and forth across the bottom, anticipating nothing in particular. The clear water and pale-colored coral rock on the floor of The ink-spewing Spotted Sea Hare (Aplysia dactylomela), a the lagoon made visibility perfect. Brittle stars slithered species encountered by the author at Pigeon Key, Florida, away from the light, quintets of arm-legs flailing like Marine recruits belly-crawling under barbed wire and live fire. trunks. Startled, I dropped the creature into the sea. The Eyes shone back at me from dark recesses. Snapping secretion, I later learned, is thought to create an olfactory shrimps fired warning shots, audible even above the sur- smoke screen to thwart the efforts of predators who hunt face. And in a patch of Caulerpa, the largest sea slug I had the sea hare by smell at night. At the time, for all I knew it ever seen undulated along. It was too busy eating seaweed to would raise blisters on my skin. Fearing the worst, I splashed take notice of the terrestrial creature in tennis shoes tower- around frantically, trying to wash the ink away. At length, ing above it. It was a sea hare, Aplysia, a close relative of satisfied that the purple dye was harmless, I mused that the sea slug Tridachia. To find such a fascinating creature this response from the sea hare had been quite effective in at the water's edge, almost without a search, crystallized deterring me from interrupting its evening meal. The ink, my desire to make this path of graduate study successful. I which had for millions of years protected generations of resolved, standing there in the Gulf of Mexico in the mid- sea hares from predators, would perhaps protect it from the die of the night, that this warm, shallow sea would give up ultimate predator — man.

at least a few of its secrets to my inquisitions.

Soaking wet, I waded back to shore and headed for the

Thinking I would take this first discovery up to the lab lab. Over the water table was another of Pigeon Keys ubiq-and put it in one of the water tables for closer observation, uitous signs: "No Aplysia in water table. Ink gums up filters." I scooped up the sea hare in my right hand. At once, a lurid I had so much to learn.

shade of purple ink emerged from its body, trickled be-

The days and nights spent snorkeling, wading, and col-

tween my fingers, and ran down my arm and onto my swim lecting marine life in the waters around Pigeon Key re-

A large Volitans Lionfish (Pterois volitans) hovers over a Pacific reef. Voracious predators like lionfishes are poor choices for reef aquariums with smaller fishes.

onfish that had rapidly grown from a 2-inch baby to a foot-long eating machine and who demonstrated no inclination toward a slowing of its growth rate. Partly because the food bill for this fish was beginning to tax my meager stipend from the university, I gave him to a dentist who had a much bigger tank and presumably a better income. Sultan was replaced by a collection of invertebrates, macroalgae, and rocks collected in the Keys. Over the next ten years, I would make many more visits to Pigeon Key. Each time, I came back with new specimens and new ideas for my aquarium. Looking back, I consider this to have been my first "reef tank," because the goal of its design was to duplicate the natural habitat I had observed in Florida.

warded me repeatedly with new insights about the marine environment. For one, it was apparent that even as small an outcrop as Pigeon Key was encircled by distinct ecological zones. Marine organisms from one area were seldom found in the other. I would go out into the ocean and collect specimens from a certain spot until I had filled two buckets, returning to the lab to empty the contents into their own aquarium or water table. I soon began attempting to arrange each aquarium to mimic what I had seen in the ocean just beyond the door. It wasn't long before it occurred to me to try to take home one of these collections and rework my marine aquarium to reflect what I had seen at Pigeon Key

Like other aquarium hobbyists in the '70s, my marine tank consisted of dead bleached coral skeletons and large, showy fish. Its main attraction was "Sultan," a Volitans Li-

A reef tank is a display of tropical marine invertebrates and, often, fishes that approximates the appearance of a small section of natural coral reef habitat. It is arranged according to its creator's intent to achieve an aesthetically pleasing effect, and its development and management involve both art and science. I will try to provide the science in the chapters on technique that follow. To create art, however, requires an understanding of the reef environment on a level that goes beyond the technical specifications for the life-support system. The art expressed by a reef tank, like that of a Japanese tea garden, results from the juxtaposition of living and nonliving elements in an

A colony of Red Vase or Cup Sponges on a Florida reef above a profusion of macroalgaes growing on a rocky substrate.

Invertebrate Cup Sponge

arrangement that imitates nature, but fits into an unnatu- Baltimore, are discussed at scientific meetings and in the lit-

rally small space. When the gardener is successful, the ob- erature. Given that one benefit of the natural approach can server is unaware of the confinement, and the view seems as be significant maintenance-cost savings, when compared encompassing as a mountain vista. Similarly, aquariums to traditional methods, these natural techniques may con tinue to win converts.

are not real ecosystems; by definition an aquarium is an artificial creation. Yet when thoughtfully executed by an aquarist mindful of ecological relationships, a reef tank deceives the eye into believing it is looking through a window to the sea, teeming with life and awash in color and My approach to keeping marine organisms in

Philosophy of the "Natural" Aquarium flowing movement.

captivity emphasizes the duplication of nature in as many

Unfortunately, marine aquariums, even large public dis- details as possible. First and foremost, providing a physical plays created at great expense, are often anything but natu- and chemical environment closely similar to that found in ralistic. Big fishes, displayed in population densities that test nature is essential if coral reef organisms are to remain alive the limits of elaborate filtration systems, against a back- for any length of time. In this sense, any aquarium must drop of bleached coral and uniform, shiny white gravel, are duplicate nature to a certain degree. My methods attempt to still around, indeed are often showcased, in hotel lobbies go further than this, seeking to duplicate the biological en-

and doctors' waiting rooms. Such aquariums no more re- vironment found on a real coral reef. This might at first semble a coral reef habitat than a florists arrangement of seem like a difficult task, but it can actually be done rather

Anthuriums resembles a Hawaiian rain forest. Sometimes, easily, if one will pay attention to what is known about the especially in public aquariums, an effort is made to make the biology of the organisms that inhabit the aquarium, exhibit appear more "natural" by replacing dead coral skele- The existence of coral reefs has been known for cen-

tons with plastic reproductions dyed to approximate, with turies, but not until the development of scuba diving meth-

varying degrees of success, the colors of living corals.

ods did we really begin to learn very much about them and

In fairness, I acknowledge that a few public aquariums the organisms they harbor.

are beginning to craft exhibits with living invertebrates and

Reefs develop only in areas of the ocean where specific seaweeds. Dr. Bruce Carlson's stony coral exhibits at the conditions prevail. Light, in particular, must reach the coral

Waikiki Aquarium come to mind, and a similar exhibit for organisms, because all reef-building corals harbor photo-

the National Aquarium in Baltimore is planned. Though synthetic, symbiotic algae. Thus reefs form only where wa-

impressive from the standpoint of sheer size, the best efforts ter clarity is sufficient to allow adequate light penetration, of most public aquariums — if the goal is to create a visu- Sediments, usually transported from the coastline by rivers, ally appealing display that reflects some aspect of reef ecol- not only reduce light penetration but also can smother and ogy — are easily outdone by the majority of home hobbyists destroy coral growths. Clear, sediment-free water is the pri-

whose reef tanks I have observed. marv geological requirement for the development of coral

Perhaps the benefits of the natural approach to aquar- reefs. To a lesser extent, salinity, temperature, the availabil-

ium keeping will be revealed to the public aquarium com- ity of nutrients, water movement, and underwater topogra-

munity as successful exhibits, such as those at Waikiki and phy all play a role.

Waikiki Aquarium

A well-established natural reef aquarium microhabitat displaying a diversity of soft, stony, and encrusting corals growing on a realistic jumble of Pacific live rock.

Understanding that such a complex web of ecological interactions exists on the reef helps to explain why specific conditions have to be met in the aquarium before reef species will survive. Many of the species of marine

Reefs have developed, generally speaking, only in the invertebrates that are offered for sale in aquarium shops do Tropics, because of optimal temperatures, and primarily on not actually come from coral reefs proper. Some species, the eastern coasts of the continents, because of the effects such as Open Brain Coral (Trachyphyllia geojfroyi), occur

A well-established natural reef aquarium microhabitat displaying a diversity of soft, stony, and encrusting corals growing on a realistic jumble of Pacific live rock.

of prevailing currents on water temperature and clarity.

shoreward of the reef in the quieter, more nutrient-laden

While the geographic distribution of reefs is due mostly waters of the lagoon. Tolerant species like this can be into local physical conditions, the biological structure of the eluded in an aquarium designed to duplicate that inshore reef ecosystem is the result o i factors that students of the reef habitat.

have only begun to elucidate. As the noted coral biologist We must accept the fact that we cannot recreate the

J.E.N. Veron has explained: ocean in our living rooms. The best we can hope for is a rep-

"This diversity can only exist after a series of ecological resentation, a display of species that are characteristic of a balances is achieved: not only balances between the corals tiny portion of the ocean realm — a microhabitat. Creating themselves, but between the corals and other organisms, a microhabitat display for invertebrates is a project with a including predators and parasites, and also between other higher chance of success than doing the same for most fishes, organisms that have little to do with corals directly, such as This is because fishes move around, and habitat types over-

the balance between herbivorous fish and macroalgae (the lap, while invertebrates by and large remain fixed in place and latter would rapidly overgrow most coral communities if it often occupy a rather limited range of habitat types.

were not continually held in check).

"As far as the corals themselves are concerned, each species has its own array of growth strategies, food requirements, and reproductive capacities. Each has its own response to disruption by storms or predators, diseases and plagues. Each species competes with others for space, light, and other resources. The net result of all these interactions and balances ... is to make coral communities among the most diverse of any communities on earth."

The Hawaiian Reef Aquarium
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