christmas tree worms

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A small forest of Christmas tree worms on a stony coral head.

Oh, my — 2019 is almost gone! Where did the time go? I should have seen this coming. I mean, after all, holiday decorations started popping up in stores in October … or was it September? I’m sure I’m not the alone in thinking much too soon.

But here’s a crazy thing: Underwater, there are critters in holiday mode all year long. Some you must travel around the world to see — but a fair number of them can be found right here in Florida.

For instance, most of our real Christmas trees come from farms up north. But underwater, Christmas tree worms adorn many of our natural and artificial reefs. These segmented worms live in calcareous tubes attached to reef structure. They have two beautiful, feathery spirals (which do indeed look like little Christmas trees) that extend into the water column and are used for filter-feeding.

Worms aren’t the only underwater Christmas trees. The Christmas tree hydroid nudibranch — a type of shell-less mollusk — inhabits reef areas around Christmas tree hydroids, which are stinging invertebrates that resemble a fern (or a Christmas tree, if you squint a little). Don’t touch the hydroids; they get kind of Grinchy if you do.

When I was growing up, we used to put candy canes on our Christmas tree. You’d have to travel thousands of miles to the Indo-Pacific Ocean to find a candy cane shrimp or candy cane sponge. But candy canes are often made of peppermint, and in Florida you might find peppermint shrimp (Lysmata wurdemanni), peppermint bass (Liopropoma rubre) and peppermint gobies (Coryphopterus lipernes).

Of course, the holidays are a time for giving, and that usually means presents. And, presents are often wrapped, and decorated with pretty bows and ribbons. Ribbonfish, also called cutlassfish, are voracious predators known for their long slender bodies that taper to the tail and huge mouths full of sharp, needlelike teeth.

Ribbonfish are found in the ocean, including the Gulf of Mexico — but you must go to fresh water to find bowfin. Bowfin are primitive fish that can breathe air, giving them an advantage over some other fish. They are known by many names, including mudfish, cottonfish and dogfish. Neither of these fish are what I’d call pretty, but let’s not tell them.

A couple more holiday symbols are stars and angels. Underwater we have sea stars, stargazers and angelfish. Sea stars usually have five arms and they can regrow them. In fact, in some species a new animal can form from a severed limb.

There are two stargazer fish species that occur in Florida. The northern stargazer occurs on the Atlantic coast north of Palm Beach, and the southern stargazer occurs throughout the state. Both like to lay buried in sand off shallow beaches, and both can give you a pretty good electric shock.

Angelfish mostly occur in clear waters associated with reef habitat. These beautiful fish include the blue, queen, gray, French, and cherubfish. Blue and queen angelfish are known to interbreed, resulting in a fish that shares characteristics of both fish.

Did you know that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer didn’t join the reindeer scene until 1939? Prior to that wintry night, there were only eight reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh. Underwater, we don’t find any reindeer — but we do have plenty of Atlantic deer cowries. These mollusks have beautiful brown shells, covered with white spots.

Reindeer, of course, have antlers, which can also be found on the antler sponge. Antler sponge are pretty uncommon … kind of like reindeer here in Florida. But where they are found is most often in areas of rubble and sand, between and around reefs.

I’ll leave you with a couple of musical instruments synonymous with the holidays — trumpets and drums — and both can be found underwater. Trumpetfish have long slender bodies and are found amongst corals and sponges. These masters of disguise often swim vertically to blend in with the sponges and sea whips.

And several fish in the drum family are found locally, most notably black drum, redfish and spotted seatrout. All of these are known for the drumming sounds they make by contracting and beating muscles against their swim bladder.

Wow! This was exhausting, and I didn’t even make it to decorator crabs or beaded sea cucumbers. Oh, well. Hey, next time you’re out on the water, be sure to spread some cheer to all our underwater friends holding the holiday fort down 365 days a year.

Betty Staugler is the UF/IFAS Extension Charlotte County agent for the Florida Sea Grant Program. Contact her at staugler@ufl.edu or 941-764-4346.

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