Abudefduf is Latin for…

If you live in California, the word “gopher” refers to a small rodent with buck teeth that burrows all over your yard, pulling your plants underground by the roots. If you live in Florida, the term refers to an altogether different animal—a land tortoise that is most often found plodding around in the woods. That’s the trouble with common names for animals: there’s no consistence. Lots of animals go by more than one common name and many common names are applied to more than one animal.

But thanks to 18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus there’s a better way. Linnaeus came up with binomial nomenclature, the method universally accepted by scientists to identify all living creatures. You know, Homo sapiens and all that stuff, where the first term specifies the organism’s genus and the second specifies species. The Californian rodent mentioned above is Thomomys bottae, while the Floridian tortoise is Gopherus polyphemus—one of my favorite scientific names. 

The large majority of binomial names are derived from Latin, with a few Greek words thrown in. In fact, “Latin name.” is frequently used interchangeably with binomial nomenclature. If you search Wikipedia for “Latin name” you will be redirected to the binomial nomenclature entry.

But not all “Latin names” are in Latin (or Greek). For instance, a large, pantropical genus of small reef fish commonly known as sergeants goes by the un-Latiny scientific name Abudefduf. The name was coined in 1775 by Peter Forsskäl, a Finnish disciple of Linnaeus while he was on a 1762 expedition to Yemen. It means, in Arabic, “the one with prominent sides.” Not inappropriate:

Juvenile Hawaiian Sergeant, Abudefduf abdominalis at Kawaihae. These superabundant damselfish are endemic to Hawaii. They closely resemble the much more broadly distributed Indo-pacific Sergeant.
Juvenile Blackspot Sergeants, Abudefduf sordidus in the bubbly surge zone at Mahukona. This is the species originally described by Forsskäl from the Red Sea. Why he described the species as sordid is beyond me.

So, not Latin, but rolls off the tongue nicely, don’t you agree?

Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly*…

And both gotta crap. I caught this little Anna’s Hummingbird in the act the other day as it approached one of our backyard feeders.

What I find interesting in this shot is not just the rarity of catching this little bird in the act of elimination, but the nature of what’s being excreted. It looks clear, like urine (click for a better view), but, as I’ve described in a previous post, birds don’t urinate per se. Like all non-mammal vertebrates, they release combined liquid and solid waste though a single orifice—the cloaca. Could be that the little bird has been on an all-liquid diet—sugar water from our feeders plus flower nectar—and therefore has no solid waste to eliminate. (I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether I’ve got an unhealthy fixation on cloacas.)

*This is of course the opening line of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Can’t Help Loving That Man of Mine from the 1927 musical Showboat. Gotta love a love song that begins with the word “fish.”

The Mahukona report

The historic sugar port of Mahukona is a much-beloved recreation spot for North Kohala residents. The old dock now functions as a sizable parking lot with direct, sand-free, access to the ocean. Many users just hang out on the dock drinking beer, watching the sunsets, and maybe letting their kids splash around near the swim ladder. Others take long swims or snorkels, but don’t seem to pay much attention to the reef life below them. And then there are those like us, who spent time closely observing the diverse fish and invertebrate life, noting seasonal and longer term changes to the reefs.

The biggest change that’s occurred in the roughly fifteen years Marla and I’ve been watching Big Island reefs was the coral bleaching event of 2015. Beginning in the fall of that year excessively warm water throughout Hawaii, but especially along the west coast of the Island of Hawaii, resulted in the loss of over ninety percent of Kohala’s branching coral and much of its mound coral. With the loss of coral came the loss of fish, but the impact on fish was not as extreme.

We made a lot of admittedly rather subjective observations of coral and fish populations both before and after the bleaching event. Observations were mostly done while snorkeling, so they only apply to the nearshore reefs—depths of thirty feet or less.

Branching coral (primarily Cauliflower Coral) has been slowly clawing its way back since the bleaching loss. We see many small colonies these days, but nothing approaching pre-bleaching populations.

Several fish species that we’d see fairly frequently prior to the bleaching—notably Cigar Wrasses and Shortnose Wrasses— seem to have disappeared. Others, including most of the butterflyfish, were reduced in number but were still present. Populations of surgeonfish—a group that comprises a large portion of fish biomass on the reefs—appeared unchanged. Rather surprisingly, overall parrotfish populations did not change much, but it seemed that there were fewer Ember Parrots and more Stareye and Bullethead Parrots after the bleaching.

A few observations from our recent trip:

Scarface Blennies have flourished at Mahukona since the 2015 coral bleaching event. This is not necessarily a good sign, since these fish are common in degraded, coral-depauperate habitats.
Redbarred Hawkfish are another species that seems to have gotten more abundant recently. Hoover says they’re among the most common hawkfish on Hawaiian reefs, but I haven’t found that to be the case at Mahukona until the last couple of years .
Pyramid Butterflyfish populations appear to have remained stable over the years. We have never failed to locate these mid-water schoolers when we looked for them at Mahukona.
Shortnose Wrasses were fairly common prior to 2015, but we haven’t seen any at Mahukona for several years. However, our friend Wendy, who spends a lot more time in the water than we do, reports seeing them this year.

Slummin’ at Pauoa Bay

I’ve posted several times about Pauoa Bay, the dent in the coast at the Fairmont Orchid resort. When we were there the other day the water was stirred up and turbid everywhere except in the little man-made lagoon directly in front of the resort. This small lagoon is shallow, lacks coral, and is often crowded with tourists walking all over the bottom. Despite this, the lagoon is home to a surprising variety of fish. Apparently the advantage of calm, sheltered water—not all that common on this coast—outweighs the negatives of human feet and a relatively lifeless bottom.

The lagoon at Pauoa Bay. There are often many more people in the water than shown here.
This Zebra Blenny—about four inches long—peeked out from a hole in one of the rocks at the lagoon’s edge. From time to time it would dart out of its stronghold to grab something floating by. These fish are often found in tidepools, and almost never go below a few feet. This one was so shallow that its head came out of the water between each of the tiny swells that made it into the lagoon. (It wasn’t easy to get in close enough to get this photo.) The species is a Hawaii endemic.
Bullethead Blenny, another shallow water species. This one was about three inches long.
A small Snowflake Moray prowling the the lagoon’s rubble floor. These handsome eels eat mostly hard-shelled invertebrates. To this end they have platelike teeth rather than the sharp fangs that make many other moray species look so menacing.
A large Day Octopus doing a little cooperative hunting with a small Bluefin Trevally (right) and Manybar Goatfish.

A trembling nudi stretches out

We’ve been back in Hawaii for about a week now. Of course we’ve snorkeling in the harbor at Kawaihae. Marla spotted a big (~1.5 inch) Trembling Nudibranch on one of the concrete platform supports that I’ve mentioned in previous posts. We’ve seen Tremblings here several times, but they’ve always been in a relatively quiescent state, showing mantle (check out the very nice diagram at the end of this post), rhinophores, gills, and nothing else. This one was stretched out and traveling, exposing foot and oral tentacles. Okay, not that thrilling, but an excuse to post this photo:

This guy was really moving—for a nudibranch. The front edge of the mantle swept slowly up and down as the animal crept forward. The species name (both popular and scientific—Goniobranchus vibratus) comes from their habit of constantly vibrating their gills. I’ve never been able to see the vibration though.
A small individual photographed in 2019. This is our usual, boring view.
Borrowed from this twitter post: https://twitter.com/eveninghawk/status/1139559437205757952/photo/1. Hope they don’t mind.

The other hummer

Beginning each July and running into late fall we have hoards of Anna’s Hummingbirds in our yard. It’s fun, but a little disquieting, to watch these highly territorial little birds fight over the four feeders Marla keeps in the yard. Despite all the fighting, they somehow seem to work things out, and sometimes as many as five hummers share a single feeder.

Occasionally there’s a different feeder patron—a Rufous Hummingbird. The Rufous is reputed to be the fiercest of North American hummer species, and our observations bear this out—Anna’s tend to give the smaller and much less common Rufous a wide berth.

A female or immature male (It’s almost impossible to tell the two apart) Rufous approaches our feeder. These birds, in contrast to the Anna’s, are long distance migrators, breeding from Oregon to to Alaska and wintering in Mexico and the US Gulf states.
Having a sip. Rufous are a bit smaller than Anna’s, but I have trouble recognizing them by size. Instead, I look for the rust-colored (rufous) side and tail coloration. The conspicuous cottony-white lower abdomen of the Rufous also helps.
Flared tails signify aggression—this little guy is threatening an Anna’s that’s approaching the feeder. The yellowish stuff (click for a better view) on the Rufous’s bill and face is pollen.
An immature male (or maybe female) Anna’s. Again, the Anna’s are supposed to be a bit more robust, with a bigger head than most other hummers, but I have trouble perceiving this.

Anna’s Hummingbirds were named after the nineteenth century French courtier Anna Messéna. Rufous Hummingbirds were named after musician Rufous Wainwright. Just kidding—it’s Rufus Wainwright, and rufous means reddish-brown.

Puffer love

Snorkeling at Mahukona a couple weeks ago I came upon a pair of Spotted Puffers that appeared to be engaging in oral sex:

This pair of Spotted Puffers swam slowly and aimlessly in this position for several minutes while I watched. I’d never seen this kind of behavior before. Since fish behavior is almost always focused on either eating, fighting, or reproduction, I figured I was witnessing some sort of mating behavior. A little online research revealed that male puffers often bite and hold onto females like this as part of their mating activities. But the bite is generally directed at some random part of the female. It was apparently just a coincidence that the male that I saw was hanging on very close to the female’s cloaca*. So not as kinky as I’d thought.
Another view. While Hoover calls this species Spotted Puffer, it’s also commonly referred to as Guineafowl Puffer. The latter name reflects the resemblance of this species’ spots to those of the domestic guineafowl. The scientific name is Arothron meleagris.

* Cloaca is the opening of the digestive tract that excretes both waste and reproductive products. Here’s something you’ll surely be glad to learn: Among vertebrates, only mammals have separate openings for waste and reproduction—the rest possess cloacas.

Pauoa Bay revisited

We’re back from our three-week trip to Hawaii. One of the highlights of the trip was a snorkel outing to Pauoa Bay, the tiny bay in front of South Kohala’s Fairmont Orchid resort. This site has always been one of our favorites, but it had been a few years since we’d snorkeled there. It’s the best spot I know of to see Peppered Morays and Lagoon Triggerfish. Turtles, too.

This juvenile Peppered Moray was right in the middle of a small, shallow, partially man-made lagoon in front of the resort. The lagoon—maybe four feet deep at high tide and a couple hundred feet across—is usually loaded with wading or snorkeling tourists. You’d think this would be a turn-off to fish, but Peppered Morays, Lagoon Triggerfish, and many other interesting fish seem to like it there.
Here’s another shot of the little moray, this time showing both eyes. The weird, kind of star-shaped iris is diagnostic of this species. I think the difference between this individual’s left and right eyes may be due to the strong light coming from the animal’s right side, causing the right pupil to contract.
Dense schools of Bigeye Scad (Akule in Hawaiian) and Yellowfin Goatfish hunker in the turbid, surgey shallows adjacent to the jetties that form the outer walls of the lagoon.
Like I said, lots of turtles too—always outside the lagoon.

A colorful invader

We’ve been back in Hawaii for the last couple of weeks. As usual, lots of interesting stuff on the reefs. The other day, snorkeling along a breakwater inside Kawaihae Harbor, I spotted a bright orange mantis shrimp poking its head out of a coral head. I managed a couple of photos before it disappeared down into the reef. Turns out it was a Philippine Mantis Shrimp, a species introduced to Hawaii in the 1940s or ’50s.

This species has apparently displaced the native Ciliated Mantis Shrimp in many parts of the Islands*. It can thus be referred to as an invasive species, as opposed to just an introduced species. The liberal use of the term “invasive species” has come under question in recent years. It has been argued that a stable, “native” ecosystem is no longer achievable, and in the long term has never really existed. Further, some non-native species have been found to enhance the ecosystems into which they’ve been introduced**. I don’t think anyone knows—or will ever know—if the Philippine Mantis Shrimp has a negative or positive effect on Hawaii’s reef ecosystem. They’re pretty though.

Mantis shrimp as a group are fascinating creatures. They have exceptionally keen vision and have been shown to be highly intelligent—at least for arthropods. Some authors have described them as the arthropod version of octopuses. They’re always a treat to run into, but if you do run into one, don’t mess with it. Depending on the species, they possess either spear-like forelegs (“raptorials”) or club-like forelegs, either of which can really hurt you. Despite the formidable weaponry, every mantis shrimp I’ve ever encountered has fled from me.

The Philippine Mantis Shrimp is unmistakable. No other mantis shrimp in Hawaii is this color. Not all individuals of this species are so colorful—many are camo green. This one was between two and three inches long.


**https://www.nature.com/articles/474153a The example given is the tamarisk shrub, introduced to the American Southwest from Eurasia. They were derided as water hogs in the 1930s, but were later found to provide ideal nesting habitat for the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher.

Pollinator Week

Today is the last day of Pollinator Week, an annual celebration of bees, butterflies, and other winged flower-visitors initiated by the nonprofit Pollinator Partnership (https://www.pollinator.org/pollinator-week). I’ve been photographing pollinators in our backyard, our neighborhood, and points beyond. I’m not as skilled at butterfly identification as my good buddy Jeff. (Jeff, if you read this, help me out.) Here are some shots with my best ID guesses:

Bumblebees are pretty much the arch-typical native pollinators. There are many varieties; I have no idea which this is, but these are the dominant bumblebees in our garden. This one’s sure doing her pollination duty—she’s loaded with the stuff.
Although it’s not exactly red, I believe this may be a Red Admiral.
This little beauty is a Variable Checkerspot—I think.
Another checkerspot. Checkerspots are a diverse group, beyond my current identification skills. Hopefully I’ll have them figured out by next year’s Pollinator Week.
Yet another checkerspot.
A Common Buckeye. These are indeed common, and easy to identify.
West Coast Lady. These are apparently quite common—we see a lot of them flitting through our garden.
A California Sister—gorgeous and, as far as I can tell, not that common.
An orangetip—maybe Sara’s?
Some sort of skipper on the violas in our garden.
Pale Swallowtail
And of course these guys are also important pollinators. You can see a bit of pollen on this Anna’s Hummingbird’s bill.