All set for a pajama party on the reef?

by B. N. Sullivan

The common name for this little creature is Striped Pajama Nudibranch. Its scientific name is Chromodoris quadricolor. These nudies are small -- less than two inches (5 cm) in length -- but their bright colors make them easy to spot.

This species is very common in the Red Sea. In fact it is probably safe to say that this is the nudibranch seen most frequently by Red Sea divers. C. quadricolor also is found elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region. They are sponge eaters.

Those two orange structures sticking up from the forward end of the creature are its rhinophores - sensory organs that help it navigate and find food. The rhinophores sense chemical molecules in the water similarly to how we sense smells in the air.

The bunch of feathery-looking things protruding from the tail end of the nudibranch are its gills, used for respiration. The gills can be retracted into a tiny pouch on the nudibranch's back. If you see one of these guys and it appears to have no gills, look for a little bump where the gills should be. That's where they are hidden.

Like many of its colorful cousins of the same genus, the Striped Pajama Nudibranch is a favorite photo subject for underwater macro photographers. No surprise there: it is colorful, photogenic -- and like most snails, it doesn't move very quickly. (Photographers are particularly fond of brightly colored critters that will hold still long enough to focus the lens!)

I photographed the individual on this page in the Red Sea at a place called Shark Bay, which is not far from Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. [Click on the photo to enlarge.]

Whale sharks, mantas, stingrays, barracuda, jacks...

What else can you identify in this wonderful video shot at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in Japan?

Said to be the second largest aquarium tank in the world*, Jon Rawlinson, the videographer, explains:
The main tank called the 'Kuroshio Sea' holds 7,500-cubic meters (1,981,290 gallons) of water and features the world's second largest acrylic glass panel, measuring 8.2 meters by 22.5 meters with a thickness of 60 centimeters. Whale sharks and manta rays are kept amongst many other fish species in the main tank.
Visit Jon Rawlinson's website to see more of his work.

If the video does not play or display properly above, click here to view it on YouTube.

* The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta is billed as the world's largest aquarium - more than 8 million gallons.

Regional color variation in a marine crab species

by B. N. Sullivan

Carpilius convexusLast month we talked about some fishes that have color phases that change with developmental stage. We pointed out that these variations sometimes make it difficult to identify a species by color alone.

The same can be said for some kinds of marine invertebrates. In fact, some invertebrate species also vary in color from one location to another.

The crabs pictured on this page resemble each other in shape and size. Each is red with a carapace about three inches (8 cm) across. The shape of their bodies, appendages and claws are virtually identical; so is the spacing and positioning of the retractable eyestalks.

You could guess straightaway that they belonged to the same family (Xanthidae). Their similarity also might prompt you to surmise that they belonged to the same genus; but if you hesitated to identify the two as the same species, you would be forgiven. Although they both are red, the first crab has a much richer color, and a more striking pattern of spots on its carapace and legs, while the second crab is considerably paler, and is mottled with light grayish spots that look quite different than the darker spots on the first crab.

I photographed the first crab years ago in the Red Sea. By poring through published reference books, I was able to identify the species as Carpilius convexus.

Carpilius convexusMuch later, and thousands of miles away, I photographed the second crab in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii. When we first looked at the photo, we commented that it resembled Carpilius convexus from the Red Sea, so we assumed it must be a relative. What we did not realize at first was that the second, lighter colored crab was indeed a member of the same species.

It turns out that the coloration of each of these crabs is typical of the species in each location. If you look at reference photos from the Red Sea, you will see pictures of the darker red version with the well-defined spots. If you look at reference photos from Hawaii, you will see the paler colored crab with the grayish mottling.

These color variations are quite consistent within the populations at each location, but what we don't know is why the species developed these external differences. If you believe, as we do, that these kinds of characteristics evolve over time and become prevalent for reasons that relate to survival, then you have to wonder what those reasons might be.

Could it be that the richer coloration of the Red Sea variant somehow reflects its colorful environment? In the Red Sea, this crab species lives among very colorful Nephtheid soft corals, so perhaps its brighter coloration helps it to 'blend' better with its surroundings.

Conversely, the paler color variant may be more suited to living -- and hiding -- among the drabber hard corals that predominate on Hawaii's reefs. Here in Hawaii we have no brightly colored soft corals like the Nephtheids in the Red Sea.

This is conjecture on our part, of course. There may be other explanations for the regional color variation: diet perhaps? Maybe one day we will know the answer.

About the photos: Both photos show adult crabs of the same species, Carpilius convexus. The photo at the top of the page was taken in the Red Sea at Ras Um Sid, near Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. And yes, the poor critter has lost one cheliped (arm). The second photo was taken in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii's Big Island, near Puako.

Lunartail Grouper (Variola louti)

What: Lunartail Grouper (Variola louti). Length: about 38 cm (15 in).
Also called Lyretail Grouper, both common names refer to the pale crescent on the tail fin.

Where: I took this photo in the Red Sea, off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula.
This species also lives in the Indian Ocean.

Variola louti
Click on the photo to enlarge.

Fire Coral Redux

Our readers ask us a lot of questions about diving, about locations we have visited, and about marine life. Fire Coral is among the topics asked about most frequently. People want to know where it is, what it looks like, and what to do if they are stung by Fire Coral.

Back in late 2007, we posted two articles about Fire Coral, along with some photos of examples of the kinds of Fire Corals most commonly encountered by divers and snorkelers in the Caribbean Sea and the Red Sea. Although those articles receive a lot of traffic from search engines, we decided to post the links to both for the benefit of our newer readers who might not have known about them.

Fire Coral: Look, but do not touch gives an overview of Fire Coral, and how its nematocysts work to sting whoever brushes up against them. The article includes a photo of Millepora alcicornis, a Caribbean species of Fire Coral, and a macro photo that shows the dactylozooids, the tiny hair-like structures that contain the Fire Coral's stinging nematocysts.

Fire coral: Another view displays a wide-angle image of Millepora dichotoma, the Fire Coral species encountered most frequently in the Red Sea.

For those of you who prefer to listen rather than read, here is a video about Fire Coral, produced and narrated by Don Stark of

If the video does not play or display properly above, click here to view it on YouTube.

Ghost Shrimp (Stenopus pyrsonotus)

What: Ghost Shrimp (Stenopus pyrsonotus)
Also called Flameback Coral Shrimp.

Where: I took this photo at Puako, Hawaii.

Stenopus pyrsonotus
Click in the photo to enlarge.