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Animals in our bays you might not know about... - April 17, 2013

While most residents can name some common animals in our coastal bays such as stripers, blue crabs, flounders and sea bass, there is a multitude of animals many do not know of.

One secret treasure is the lined seahorse, which spends most of its time in SAVs (Submerged Aquatic Vegetation), using the waving grasses as camouflage from predators. These charismatic bony fish use their tails to hold onto grasses and other objects in the water because they are very weak swimmers and need to stay camouflaged within the SAV beds.

The coastal bays also have two species of pipefish: dusky and northern. Pipefish are cousins with the seahorse and also spend most of their time in SAVs. Unlike the seahorse, the pipefish has a finned tail and cannot hold onto grasses, so it must constantly adjust to stay camouflaged.

We have several species of comb jellies in the coastal bays, including the sea walnut and the pink comb jelly. Comb jellies are more numerous in the coastal and Chesapeake bays compared to their stinging counterparts. Lucky for us, comb jellies cannot sting. They are not strong swimmers either and are usually carried by currents. They can, however, adjust their position with rows of cilia on their body, which can also be illuminated when the animal feels stressed or threatened.

The spider crab is another resident of our coastal bays. While it looks like something out of a horror movie, it is harmless. Unlike the blue crab, the spider crab has much smaller and weaker pinchers, which cannot break through our skin. Also, the spider crab lacks the back fin the blue crab has. Because of its slow speed and inability to swim, the spider crab uses sponges and algae as camouflage. It attaches these items to its back in order to mimic its surroundings.

Striped burrfish are common throughout the coastal and Chesapeake bays. These fish are related to blowfish, however, they are weaker swimmers and slower moving. The burrfish has long, extended spines covering its body and a sharp, powerful beak for eating. This fish can hurt you, so handle it with care.

The Northern stargazer is a strange looking fish that spends most of its time buried in the soft mud of the coastal and Chesapeake bays. It hunts by waiting for prey to swim by and then sends out a small electrical pulse which stuns the prey fish. The stargazer then opens its mouth, creating a vacuum which sucks in the stunned and confused prey fish.

The common grass shrimp is plentiful in our coastal bays, usually found in SAVs and close to the shore. Grass shrimp are semi-transparent; while you can see through them, there are still parts like gills and veins that are visible.­

We have four species of seals that visit our coastal bays during the winter: harp, hooded, grey and harbor seals. These seals only visit our coastal bays during the winter, arriving in the fall and heading north during the spring once the water starts to get warmer.

American eels also live in our coastal bays and its tributaries. American eels are not born here but start their lives in the Sargasso Sea. Eventually, the juvenile eels reach the coast and make their way up rivers, streams and bays to mature in fresher water. Hooking an eel on a rod and reel can be problematic because taking them off means dealing with the copious amounts of slime they produce.

We have three species of sea turtles that visit our beaches and coastal bays — the loggerhead, leatherback and green sea turtles. Last year was extremely active for sea turtles around the Shore and was the first time we had a successful hatching by a loggerhead sea turtle on Assateague. Sea turtle activity around the coastal bays has increased within the past few years, leading to speculation that the habitat of the sea turtle has increased due to warming ocean temperatures.

The blue lobster, named Toby, caught in Ocean City last summer is now living in the National Aquarium in Washington, D.C. Lobsters are naturally rust colored, however, they have a one in 2 million chance of being born blue. This abnormality is natural and does not seem to negatively affect the animal in the wild.
 

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