Guestblog: Frogfish history

IMG_0737This is the second guestblog by Daniel Geary, resident marine biologist  and frogfish-enthusiast at Atmosphere Resort in Dauin, Philippines. You can read his first blog here. In this new guestblog Daniel explores the history of frogfish research and provides an introduction to a few common and not-so-common frogfish species.


There are many places across the globe where divers can see frogfish, but the Philippines (especially the Dauin area) is one of the best frogfish destinations of them all. I have personally seen thirteen species in this country, including 11 species here in Dauin. Sometimes we will see over 30 individuals on a single dive! It is not uncommon for some of the frogfish to stay on the same site for over a year, especially Giant Frogfish. Another great destination for frogfish is Indonesia, especially Lembeh, Ambon, and also some places in Komodo. Generally, if there is good muck diving, there is good potential for frogfish action. Australia also has some unique frogfish species, as well as the Caribbean, where there are a few places with reliable frogfish sightings.

Although frogfish are relatively well known critters to divers in the Indo-Pacific, this has not always been the case. Stories of frogfish and their accompanying drawings and sketches have existed for hundreds of years, with encounters spanning the globe. The first ever documented frogfish comes from Brazil. At some point before 1630, a drawing was given to the director of the Dutch West India Company. A woodcut was made from this drawing, and that woodcut was published in 1633. The first color drawing appeared in 1719, published by Louis Renard, an agent to King George I of England. He published a collection of color drawings of Indo-Pacific fish and other organisms and some of these represent the earliest published figures of Indo-Pacific frogfish. One was called Sambia or Loop-visch which translates directly to “walking fish.”

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First colour drawing of a frogfish – Louis Renard 1719

Albertus Seba and Philibert Commerson were two important scientists in the 1700s when it comes to frogfish. Seba believed frogfish were amphibians and tried very hard -incorrectly of course – to prove that they were the link between tadpoles and frogs, although anyone who has seen a baby frogfish knows this to be false. Even though he incorrectly identified a few nudibranchs as juvenile frogfish, he was still able to identify two species, the Hairy Frogfish (Antennarius striatus) and the Sargassumfish (Histrio histrio) during his studies. Commerson was the first scientist to focus solely on frogfish. He was a botanist and naturalist employed by the King of France and he described three species from Mauritius (Painted Frogfish – Antennarius pictus, Giant frogfish – Antennarius commerson, Hairy Frogfish – Antennarius striatus).

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Commerson’s drawing of the hairy frogfish – Antennarius striatus

There have been plenty of identification problems when it comes to frogfish, even today.  Frogfish colorations and patterns are highly variable, so it is nice to know people have been struggling with frogfish identification for hundreds of years. Albert Gunther, a scientist who attempted describe the different species of frogfish, said in 1861 that “[their] variability is so great, that scarcely two specimens will be found which are exactly alike…although I have not the slightest doubt that more than one-half of [the species] will prove to be individual varieties”. He listed over 30 species, but only 9 of those species are still accepted today. Since 1758 there have been over 165 species described and over 350 combinations of names. Currently there are around 50 accepted species, roughly one third of the total species described.

FROGFISH SPECIES PROFILES

Painted Frogfish – Antennarius pictus

This is the most abundant frogfish species in the Indo-Pacific. They can be identified by having 3 distinctive spots on their tail. They prefer to live near sponges, rocks, ropes, mooring blocks, and car tires. They can grow to a maximum size of around 15 cm.

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Painted frogfish (Antennarius pictus) with its typical three tail spots

Sargassumfish – Histrio histrio

This is the species with the largest distribution. They can be found in floating seaweed or debris as well as anchored seaweed and other marine plants. They can reach a maximum size of around 15 cm and are often sold in the marine aquarium trade.

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Sargassumfish (Histrio histrio), a surprisingly good swimmer that lives on floating seaweed

Psychedelic Frogfish – Histiophryne psychedelica

This is one of the rarest frogfish species. They are only found in Ambon, Indonesia at a handful of dive sites, usually at around 2-3m hidden in rock crevices or in coral rubble.

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“Snooted” picture of a psychedelic frogfish (Histiophryne psychedelica)

Giant Frogfish – Antennarius commerson

This is the biggest frogfish species, reaching lengths of more than 40 cm. They prefer to live on sponges and have two large spots on their tail, as well as lines coming from the eye and enlarged dorsal spines.

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Giant frogfish (Antennarius commerson) resting on a sponge. Note the two tail spots

Ocellated Frogfish – Nudiantennarius subteres

This frogfish species is the “newest” frogfish species. Originally thought to be a new species, it turns out this species is the previously described, relatively unknown “Deepwater Frogfish”, although the lure is incorrect in the original drawing. It was thought that the adults lived deep and only the juveniles were found in the shallows, but  adult mating pairs of this species have been seen at less than 10m depth. They grow to around 5 cm.

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Typical coloration of the Ocellated frogfish (Nudiantennarius subteres)

Fluo time

If this isn’t the first time you’ve read this blog, you probably know I am interested in the phenomenon of biofluorescence. I’ve previously talked written about what it is and what it might be used for. In the near future I’ll be tell you all about the details what I was actually doing. But I realized I haven’t shared any pictures recently that show just how beautiful and otherworldly it can be. So here is a random selection of fluo shots I took over the last two years. Enjoy!

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A bubble snail (Hydatina physis) photographed in Lembeh Strait, Indonesia

 

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Thorny seahorse (Hippocampus histrix) in Bima Bay, Indonesia

 

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West Australian Seahorse (Hippocampus subelongatus) in Perth, Australia

 

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Amazing coral in Raja Ampat, Indonesia

 

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Reptilian Snake Eel (Brachysomophis henshawi) in Amed, Indonesia

 

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Lizardfish (Synodus sp.) in Lembeh Strait, Indonesia

 

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Cockatoo Waspfish (Ablabys sp.) in Lembeh Strait, Indonesia

 

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Sea spider (Pycnogonid sp.) in Tulamben, Indonesia

 

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Painted frogfish (Antennarius pictus) in Lembeh Strait, Indonesia

 

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Juvenile Painted frogfish (Antennarius pictus) in Dauin, Philippines)

 

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Barred moray (Echidna polyzona) in Nusa Kode, Indonesia

 

Keeping seahorses

The last two months I have been running an experiment that involves keeping more than 30 seahorses in aquaria. Not because I am trying to become a marine aquarium expert or because I like seeing fish in tanks. On a personal level I think there are too many environmental issues with aquarium trade to get into it myself. Overfishing of species like Banggai Cardinalfish and Mandarinfish are two examples that come to mind. But this post is not about the aquarium trade, so I will leave those particular issues for another time. While I prefer seeing seahorses in the ocean, for this experiment it was necessary to bring them to the “Curtin Aquatic Research Laboratories” (CARL). This blog explains some of the challenges that come with keeping seahorses healthy in an aquarium. If you are considering ever keeping seahorses yourself, please read this blog carefully.

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West Australian Seahorses (Hippocampus subelongatus) in their artificial seagrass home

DISCLAIMER: This blog describes scientific research, catching seahorses as a private person is NOT allowed in Australia. If you have any questions about keeping seahorses, feel free to contact me in the comments section.

First challenge: Permits. It takes a lots of paperwork to be allowed to do research on seahorses in captivity. Seahorses are on Appendix II of CITES (Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species), which means they cannot be traded internationally if they are smaller than 10cm. But it does not mean that seahorses cannot be fished. As a matter of fact, they are caught in their millions for traditional Chinese medicine! For this experiment it was crucial to use wild-caught West Australian seahorses (Hippocampus subelongatus), which meant applying for permits from the Department of Fisheries and seeking approval from the Department of Parks And Wildlife. Besides government paperwork, doing any kind of research with animals means writing up extensive application (close to 40 pages) for the universities’ ethics committee to ensure proper treatment of the animals while in my care.

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Seahorse tag with red elastomer so it can be identified later

Second challenge: Catching seahorses. As anyone who has ever looked for seahorses can attest to, they are hard to find. There are a few sites around Perth where there are plenty of seahorses to be found, but getting all seahorses from one location would have a huge impact on that particular site. To limit the impact of my collecting, I spread out my fish-catching over multiple sites. To further reduce impact, I did not take any pregnant males or any seahorses that were clearly couples ready to mate. Since I needed a variety of sizes and a similar amount of males and females, collecting enough seahorses took a lot of dives spread out over a few weeks. Once seahorses were caught, they also needed to be transported safely to our facility, which meant not going too far, and using specialised tools to  (sturdy catch bags, coolers, oxygen, etc.) to reduce stress for the animals during transport.

Third challenge: High quality aquaria. Seahorses  are notoriously difficult to keep in tanks. They are very sensitive to bad water quality, which can lead to all kinds of issues. Preparing the aquaria started 6 weeks ahead of catching the seahorses. This is  done to ensure that the biofilters that ensure good water quality get properly established. The tanks themselves need to be large and high enough to house seahorses, and they need hold-fasts that mimic seagrass so the seahorses have something to cling on to.

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First arrivals in the tanks

Seahorses live in salt water, so getting seawater is another issue. Our labs are not directly by the ocean, so we need to import seawater. This then gets sterilised (using UV filters) before we use it. Water quality needs to be monitored daily and adjustments made where needed. This means no weekends off since minor problems could mean dead seahorses. While we have the aquaria and equipment available at CARL, the costs of this would be considerable for a private person.

Fourth challenge: Food. This is probably the biggest challenge of them all. Wild-caught seahorses only eat live food and will not eat dry or frozen fish food. So we need small shrimp to feed them. In our case we are using artemia (= sea monkeys = brine shrimp). Artemia are tiny (less than 1mm) when they hatch, but our seahorses will only eat them when they are about 1cm in size, which means  they have to be grown out for a few weeks before feeding. So we prepared 3 different artemia cultures, each one set up 2 weeks apart to ensure a constant supply of right-sized food. The artemia also need to be fed, in their case with algae. This means 5 cultures of different species of algae to make sure our seahorse-food stayed healthy and fat. Both algae and artemia water quality also need to be monitored, since dead algae/artemia would ultimately mean starving seahorses. To top it off, artemia are not naturally nutritious enough to be the only food source for seahorses. So we added an artemia enrichment-tank (where we add a fatty mix of all nutrients needed for healthy seahorses), which needs to be set up, cleaned, and harvested every day.  The result is that for 3 tanks with seahorses, we have 9 tanks for their food preparation. I’m not sure if you have enough space for that at home?

Fifth challenge: Feeding. As if breeding the food was not hard enough already, feeding them makes it even more complicated. Seahorses have no real stomach to speak of, so they are lousy at digesting their food properly. Because of this they need to eat almost constantly, which is possible in the wild, but harder in an aquarium where too much food will lead to bad water quality. In our case it means feeding them three times per day, every day (bye bye weekends or late nights!). Since our guys have been caught so recently, we can’t just drop the food in the tank and leave it. What works best is hand feeding them with a pipette to make sure they see the food and eat it. Each feeding session takes about 30 minutes, with longer sessions (90 minutes) in the morning, since food has to be harvested first and then a new culture prepared for the next day.

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Feeding the seahorses using a pippette

Sixth challenge: Keeping them healthy. Seahorses kept in aquaria are prone to infections, so besides good water quality  it is important to keep everything clean. This means sterilizing all the equipment we use, only handling seahorses with surgical gloves on, keeping workspaces clean, etc. Regardless of this, infections can still happen. So far I have had to treat one infection with freshwater baths. Earlier this week two males had bubbles in their pouch (common in tank-kept seahorses), which needed to be removed using syringes and gentle pouch-massaging. You read that correctly, my PhD involves giving belly-rubs to seahorses.

All of this is needed just to keep our seahorses alive. I won’t go into what it means to actually run the experiments as well. But if you managed to read this entire post, it should be clear that keeping seahorses means a LOT of work. I am only able to do this because I can use the great facilities at Curtin University and because I have the support of experienced lab technicians, dedicated volunteers, and supervisors with experience in aquaculture. After 2 months of caring for my seahorses, I feel even more strongly than before that seahorses should be in the ocean and not in a small aquarium. If you do want to keep them yourself, think it through before you begin. Make sure you have the right setup BEFORE buying seahorses, only buy captive bred animals and be prepared to sacrifice a lot of your free time for your seahorses.

To finish, here is a short video of one of our seahorses eating artemia:

 

 

 

Cleaning mutualism on the reef: It’s a Hip-Hop World!

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Dr. Simon Gingins

This month’s guestblog is by Dr. Simon Gingins, who currently does research on damselfish at the department of Collective Behaviour in the Max Planck Institute, in Konstanz (Germany). Simon and I met a few years ago at the Lizard Island Research Station, where he was doing research on the behaviour of cleaner wrasses. His blog describes some of his cleaner wrasse research….and hiphop. Besides being a good researcher, Simon is also a great photographer, so make sure to have a look at his site.


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An anthias gets cleaned by a bluestreak cleaner wrasse

I know this is old school, but do you remember Eminem’s song Lose yourself? Well, to my big surprise, I recently realized that the lyrics fit very well with the ecology of cleaners. Let me show you by quoting the relevant parts of this song throughout the text. But first, let me start with the beginning. What is cleaning? Cleaning is a behaviour that implies the removal of parasites or dead tissues off another animal. It is widespread, particularly on coral reefs. Many species engage in cleaning, including shrimps and crabs, but it is mostly performed by fishes, as diverse as surgeonfishes, triggerfishes, jacks, butterflyfishes, gobies, and many more. Most fishes only clean occasionally, mainly as juveniles, and get most of their food by other means. However, a handful of species are “professional cleaners” and get all of their food through cleaning. Here, I will focus on the most studied of these species, the bluestreak cleaner wrasse Labroides dimidiatus. This species can have more than 2000 cleaning sessions per day, and client fishes actively visit their territories, called “cleaning stations”. They also give massages by vibrating their pectoral fins on the body of their clients, which was shown to decrease cortisol levels in client fishes. Cortisol is a proxy to measure stress, and thus this additional service is beneficial for clients as is calms them down.

So the cleaner gets a meal and the client gets its nasty parasites removed and a massage. Sound like everybody’s happy, no? Well, the situation actually gets more complicated because the cleaner wrasse prefers to bite client fishes and get a mouthful of yummy mucus, rather than focus on the parasites. Biting client fishes is cheating, but mucus appears to be like crack for cleaners. Or as Eminem puts it:

If you had, one shot, or one opportunity,
To seize everything you ever wanted. In one moment.
Would you capture it? or just let it slip?”

Well, it depends, because of course client fishes don’t visit cleaners to be exploited, and they’re not really happy when they get cheated. So how do clients respond to cheating cleaners? Imagine a client fish with a large territory. Large enough that it has access to many cleaning stations.

“He’s known as the globetrotter”

If it’s not happy with the service of one cleaner, it can just leave and look for another one. Basically, it can play the competition.

 “They moved on to the next schmoe”

This is what my ex-supervisor Redouan Bshary referred to as “big city life”: If you’re not happy with your hairdresser, just go to another one. But some client species don’t have choice options. The size of their territory is more like a village than a big city, and these fishes often have access to only one cleaning station, if any. Cleaners appear to be aware of these differences, and give priority and a better service to big city clients than to villagers. But the villagers still have one trick up their sleeve to make cleaners more cooperative: they punish. When they get cheated, they often chase the cleaner and try to bite it:

“No more games, I’m a change what you call rage”

And it was shown that the next time they meet, the cleaner will be more cooperative with the individual that punished it.

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Bluestreak  cleaner wrasses cleaning a grouper

Finally, there is one category of clients with whom cleaners behave very, very nicely: predators. A predator striking at a cleaner during a cleaning interaction has never been witnessed so far. Nevertheless, it’s pretty obvious why cheating a predator might not turn out to be a good idea. To quote Eminem again, in interactions with predators:

“Success is my only m*********ing option, failure’s not!”

In summary, when a cleaner is interacting with a client, eating its preferred food has negative consequences. The client might just leave, but it might also try to punish it, or even potentially eat it. Cleaners thus came up with very strategic behaviours in order to determine who they can cheat, and when it’s best to cheat.

“I’ve got to formulate a plot or I end up in jail or shot”

As already mentioned, they vary the quality of the service they provide according to the category of clients. But it doesn’t stop there, they also adjust their behaviour depending on whether they are being observed by potential clients or not. If a client waiting to be inspected witnesses the cleaner cheating other clients, it might decide to leave and search for a more cooperative partner.

“His hoes don’t want him no more, he’s cold product”

As a result, cleaners behave more cooperatively in the presence of an audience. This ability is quite surprising for such a small fish, since thus far the only evidence that the presence of an audience increased cooperation came from humans. While humans benefit from the computing power of a large brain to take decisions, it appears that the cleaner wrasse L. dimidiatus managed to acquire quite sophisticated behaviours without a large brain. Recent evidence suggests that their exceptional performance might be limited to situations linked to cleaning, and fall short outside of their domain of expertise. It seems that the highly social nature of cleaners and the conflicts associated with it drove cleaners to acquire the skills to deal with these specific situations. But it did not select for increased brain size or some kind of general intelligence. So the next time you go on the reef, I invite you to take some time to observe cleaners and to imagine what it’s like to deal with all these clients coming and going.

“This is my life and these times are so hard”

I’d like to conclude by pointing out that for a guy who claims to have read only one book in his entire life, Eminem proved to have great insights when it comes to cooperative behaviour in fishes. And from what he confesses in another song (Without me), he considers himself an important contributor to fish conservation too:

“No matter how many fish in the sea it’d be so empty without me”

Dr. Simon Gingins

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Simon during fieldwork

Postdoctoral Fellow

Department of Collective Behaviour

Max Planck Institute

Twitter: @SimonGingins

Email: simongingins@hotmail.com