Foreword: Reef Life

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Look Closer

“In the biting honesty of salt, the sea makes her secrets known to those who care to listen.” Sandra Benitez, A Place Where the Sea Remembers (1993)

On every reef trip there are at least two and very occasionally three distinct kinds of divers and snorkelers. First, most of us have encountered those whose primary goal underwater is to go from Point A to Point B—as fast as possible. As a marine zoologist, I have coined a scientific classification for these folks: “scooby divers.” Their sole purpose in diving seems to be the thrill of swimming underwater. When they do occasionally take note of an animal and recognize it as such, they will make the statement that goes something like, “Oh yeah, I saw a fish.”

Another type of underwater visitor, probably constituting the majority of all scuba divers and snorkelers, is genuinely interested in looking at all sorts of things underwater. However, this diver or snorkeler has, at best, a rudimentary understanding of the natural history and biology of a reef and has never been taught the basic observational skills needed to appreciate the world that he or she is swimming in.

The final type of diver is really quite rare, and I put myself and the authors of this book in that category. This last class of reef explorers encompasses those rare human fish who have the patience and the desire to see—really see—their underwater surroundings. These are the folks who can spend their entire dive exploring a single coral outcropping for the minute details and the unique plants and animals that actually create the wonderful world of a coral reef. The underlying mission of this extraordinary book, as I see it, is to coax a new generation of amateur naturalists into the classification of true students and explorers of the reef.

Predator Watch

Coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse habitats on our planet, and they harbor examples of virtually all types of organisms, with the blessed exception of insects. Quite a few of the myriad species found on reefs are large and obvious, but many, many more are small, obscure, or reclusive.

Close and careful observation of smaller things in underwater marine habitats will often tell you a great deal about the habitat that isn’t obvious from a distance. Human beings are large animals, and we tend to overlook the small and the seemingly insignificant, but the struggle of life on a coral reef is waged on the scale of things large and small, and is often more frequently seen and more intense in the smaller size ranges.

Looking closely at the plants and animals of a small area can provide many surprises and telltale signs about the life of the larger system. Predation is one of the most intense biological interactions, and yet actual observations by humans of natural predation in many ecosystems are very rare. Ask yourself, how many times in nature have you seen an animal kill and eat another animal? Unless you have been diving or snorkeling, such observations are often vanishingly few. However, this is not the case in most underwater habitats. Here, you just have to slow down and look closely to see predatory events all around you.

Observing the Niches

Some years ago, I was doing research in an area dominated by hydroids. To a casual observer, these animals appear to be a reasonably permanent feature of the substrate; they are colonial, rather plantlike in appearance, and seemingly untouchable because of their known stinging abilities. From a distance of several feet away, these reef fixtures might not merit a second look. However, I found during one close inspection that there were more than 5,000 predatory nudibranchs per square meter eating the hydroids. Each nudibranch was a few millimeters long, and from a short distance away, they were unnoticeable. Nonetheless, this sort of intensive predatory pressure is an underpinning of the whole ecological community. But you don’t have to be out on a reef to appreciate the value of being a better observer. Like divers, many of my fellow marine aquarists are equally guilty of never slowing down and truly seeing the captive worlds sitting before their eyes. Just as many divers are intently focused on spotting a barracuda or other large pelagic species, many aquarium keepers have eyes only for bigger fishes and centerpiece corals.

However, some of the most fascinating scenes ever played out in a marine aquarium take place in the niches of minireefs that so many hobbyists are now maintaining in their home systems. A perfect example is the Peppermint Shrimp (Lysmata wurdemanni) that is often introduced into an aquarium to eat pests such as the glass anemone, Aiptasia pallida. The shrimp are rather small and tricky to watch; it takes some degree of stealth and close observation. However, if this is done, you will see that the “beneficial” shrimp are continually picking at the surface of rocks, eating small Aiptasia, to be sure, but also nipping the polyps of various prized corals, as well as small snails, small crustaceans, and even the tentacles of larger corals. If aquarists have the patience to sit and watch, and take the time to train themselves to observe, all of this is visible.

Reef Primer

Throughout this eye-opening book, Denise and Larry Tackett show the results of this sort of patient observation and inspire all of us to “look closer” at reef life.

This is a volume to whet the appetite of a naturalist—whether a diver, snorkeler, marine aquarist, or armchair adventurer. If I am not mistaken, it will make you want to get to the reef and see if you, too, can witness some of the animals and interactions shown here. It will certainly make you a more informed observer and allow a fuller appreciation of the next reef you visit. If the authors succeed in simplifying marine biology concepts and basic terminology for more divers and aquarists, they will have done a yeoman’s service to all of us who care about the future of these threatened environments.

Coral reefs will need all the friends we can muster in the century ahead, and books such as this can help generate them. Full of beautiful and uncommon organisms and important-to-know behaviors, Reef Life is an obvious labor of love and a highly commendable primer on reef life. —Ronald L. Shimek, Ph.D. Wilsall, Montana

From: Reef Life