2014-09-11 / Nature

Surprise Swimmers

By Jack Kelly

Sargassum fish at the Exploration Center. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Sargassum fish at the Exploration Center. (Photo by Jack Kelly) The Save The Bay Exploration Center and Aquarium, located at Newport’s Easton’s Beach, has welcomed a number of locally caught tropical fish to its exhibit tanks. According to Adam Kovarsky, the center’s director, “All of these fish were captured in the local waters of Narragansett Bay, from the shores of Fort Wetherill in Jamestown, up the bay near Wickford, to the shores of Third Beach in Middletown. These marine animals have been gathered by volunteer snorkelers and scuba divers, and some were gathered in nets during seining projects by Save The Bay or other conservation groups. They are summer residents of the bay.”

One of the most intriguing and strange species is the pair of sargassum fish that was given to the center recently. “One of these creatures was captured by an unidentified volunteer snorkeler, and the other was netted by the naturalist Charles Avenengo, during a seining project at Third Beach,” Kovarsky said. Sargassum fish reside in sub-tropical waters and are found among the seaweed of the Sargasso Sea. The pair at the center measures three and five inches, but adults can reach a length of eight inches.

The sargassum fish is an ambush predator that uses its fins and body spines to attach itself to seaweed. The fish has body colors of yellow, green, and brown on a paler background, but it has the ability to adjust its coloring.

The body of the fish is covered in spines and weed-like protrusions that camouflage this creature perfectly. It has a front spine on its upper lip that is tipped with a fleshy lump called an esca, which it uses as a lure for small fish, shrimp and other invertebrates. When unsuspecting targets come within striking distance, the sargassum will dart quickly forward by expelling air forcibly from its gills, expand its mouth many times the original size, and draw its prey in by suction. It is capable of eating creatures larger than itself. This unique marine animal can escape predators by leaping from the water and seeking shelter on floating rafts of seaweed, but the exact length of time it can survive out of the ocean is unknown.

A number of other tropical species including Atlantic moonfish, Crevalle Jacks, and three different breeds of small, juvenile groupers can also be seen at the aquarium. The Exploration Center is an interactive family oriented facility that specializes in education and conservation. For information visit savebay.org or call 401-272-3540.

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