Underwater Highlights of Belize (2009)

The royal gramma (Gramma loreto) is sometimes also known as the fairy basslet.   It's one of the prettiest little fish in the Caribbean, so it's not surprising that it's very popular in the aquarium trade.

There are ten species in the family Grammatidae, all of which live in the Caribbean Ocean and adjacent areas.   The royal gramma is easily the best looking, but the black-cap gramma, with an entirely blue body and black stripe along its top is also collected by aquarists.

The royal gramma makes an appearance in Finding Nemo, which is a bit weird, since that movie was set in Australia.

Royal grammas sometimes align themselves upside-down along the roofs of small crevasses or caves, which seems odd to us but really makes perfect sense in their weightless underwater environment.   It presumably also makes it easier for them to look for food items on the roof.

This is a spotted drum, another cute little fish only found in the Caribbean.   Its scientific name Equetus punctatus means "spotted horse".   That might seem strange for a fish with stripes but no spots, however that's because the fish you see here is a juvenile - the adult does indeed have spots on its tail and dorsal fin.

Both the juvenile and the adult are well-known for swimming in a very erratic way within a very small territory.   This probably protects them from predators, but also makes them tricky to photograph.   As adults they can reach a length of almost one foot.

At first glance the shy hamlet (Hypoplectrus guttavarius) looks a bit like the anemonefishes of the Indo-Pacific ocean, but it actually belongs to the same family as groupers.

There can be quite a bit of variation in the electric-blue markings around this species' snout, however it's still a very distinctive fish which is easily distinguished from other hamlets such as the yellow-belly hamlet or the barred hamlet.

Like the shy hamlet, the indigo hamlet (Hypoplectrus indigo) is also fairly popular in the aquarium trade, and both of them are fairly easy to keep, because they behave well towards most tank-mates, they eat without too much fuss, and they're very resistant to diseases and parasites.

Many types of fish such as anemonefishes and wrasses are hermaphrodites, some starting out as female and then becoming male, and others starting as male and then becoming female.   Indigo hamlets are one of a much smaller number of simultaneous hermaphrodites which can produce eggs or sperm as circumstances demand.

The beautiful little harlequin bass (Serranus tigrinus) is found all around the Caribbean Sea.

It gets its Latin species name tigrinus because of the vertical black stripes along the length of its body, but it's got leopard spots too, on its body and its fins.

The shape of its body makes it look a lot like a wrasse, but it actually belongs to the same family as the hamlets.

There are about 200 types of butterflyfish around the world, but only 7 of them are found in the Caribbean.

This one is a four-eye butterflyfish (Chaetodon capistratus), which can sometimes be found all the way north to Massachusetts.

It has the typically tiny mouth of all butterflyfishes, which it uses to eat coral polyps and other small stationary critters such as tunicates.

The flat shape is also typical of this family of fish, allowing them to maneuver into tight spots in the reef when they need to avoid predators.   The large eye-spot which gives this species its name is thought to act as a distraction for predators, providing a brief opportunity for the fish to escape.

The spotfin butterflyfish (Chaetodon ocellatus) is named for the black spot on the dorsal fin, above its tail.

As with many butterflyfishes, this one has a dark line running through its eye, which hides the location of the eye, making it harder for a predator to figure out which end is the front and which the rear and, therefore, to figure out which direction the butterflyfish will try to escape.   Even a brief confusion can make the difference between life and death for the butterflyfish.

There are 86 different types of angelfish in the world, 7 of which live in the Caribbean.   They have the same basic shape as butterflyfishes, but they all have a spine on their gill cover.

This is a juvenile French angelfish (Pomacanthus paru), one of the 4 angelfish species commonly found in Belize.   When they're very small, French angelfish act as cleaners for other fish on the reef, staying in one location which becomes known throughout the area, attracting regular visitors who are cleaned of parasites, which provide food for the young fish.

This is the grey angelfish (Pomacanthus arcuatus), which is the largest of all the world's species, reaching two feet in length.

Angelfishes are very unusual because most of their diet consists of sponges.   Although some other creatures such as sea slugs eat sponges, most fish avoid them because they have a tough skin and their flesh is filled with sharp slivers composed of crystals of silica or calcium compounds.   Angelfishes get around these defenses by exuding mucus within their digestive tract which coats the pieces of sponge and prevents them from damaging the fish's gut.

Unlike many fish, grey angelfishes aren't shy around people, so it's relatively easy to get good photographs of them.

The queen triggerfish (Balistes vetula) is one of the most spectacular of the 40 members of this family found worldwide.

Like other triggerfishes, it can be quite aggressive, even towards humans.

They're also fairly daring in their eating habits, eating sea urchins by blowing water at them to overturn them, then attacking them underneath where the spines are short.

This blue-headed wrasse (Thalassoma bifasciatum) is one of about 500 wrasse species.

Many wrasses start life as female and later become male, the females being called "initial-phase" fish and the males "terminal-phase".   However, many initial-phase blue-headed wrasses are male, and some of them later change to become terminal-phase males.   Terminal-phase males keep groups of females in a harem, but the initial-phase males pretend to be female, and mate when the terminal-phase males aren't looking!

Like most wrasses, this one has very well-developed lips which it uses to pick items up when it's searching for food.

After seeing the blue-headed wrasse, it shouldn't be too surprising to learn that this fish is called a yellow-headed wrasse (Halichoeres garnoti)!

Very occasionally, blue-headed wrasses and yellow-headed wrasses produce hybrid fish with coloration having characteristics of both parents.

This is an initial-phase yellow-headed wrasse, illustrating just how different the initial-phase and terminal-phase can be.   In the early days of classification, there were many instances in which the initial-phase and terminal-phase of the same wrasse were identified as two different species.

The juvenile yellow-headed wrasse has a blue stripe down its side, at least before it attains the initial-phase coloration.

The Spanish hogfish (Bodianus rufus) is another type of wrasse.   In spite of its name, it's only found in the western Atlantic, not Europe.

It's a larger fish than the blue-headed or yellow-headed wrasse, typically reaching a foot in length and occasionally sixteen inches.

Like juvenile French angelfish, juvenile Spanish hogfishes act as cleaner fishes for other species.

Here's a pair of plain old hogfishes (Lachnolaimus maximus), one of which is displaying its three lengthened dorsal spines, which are very distinctive to this species.

They're wrasses, but they lack the torpedo-shaped body typical of most other members of this family.   They also grow much larger than most other wrasses, sometimes reaching three feet in length.   As you can see, their color can vary, but they all have a dark spot near the base of the dorsal fin.

They get their name from the way they use their lips to root around in the sand looking for food, which usually consists of crustaceans and mollusks.   They have very strong canine teeth to allow them to crush their prey.   The mouth is huge, extending to a position well behind the eye.

The longspine squirrelfish (Holocentrus rufus) is one of sixty-five species of squirrelfish found around the world.

The huge goggle eyes indicate that this is a nocturnal fish, preying on crustaceans, slugs, snails and brittle stars.

Like grunts and other fish, this species can make noises underwater.   It does this by vibrating its swim bladder using muscles attached to some of its ribs.   They are thought to do this for territorial reasons, when mating or if grabbed by a predator, perhaps to startle it into letting go.

Like wrasses, most parrotfishes like this stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride) change sex from female to male as they mature.

This one shown swimming above a brain coral is an initial-phase fish, which is probably female but could also be male.

The spotlight parrotfish gets its common name from the large yellow spot at the base of the tail of the terminal-phase fishes.   The viride part of its scientific name means "green", which is obviously also only true of the terminal-phase.

The confusion caused by seeing different color phases caused early biologists to think that there were about 350 different types of parrotfish, but it's now known that there are only about 80 species.

This is an initial-phase red-band parrotfish (Sparisoma aurofrenatum).

Parrotfishes get their name from their parrot-like beak which is composed of teeth which are fused together.   They use this beak to break off pieces of coral, which they crush and swallow.   The coral they excrete after digestion is a major source of the sand found in the tropics - it's been estimated that typical parrotfishes create one ton of sand each year for each acre of reef.

And this is the terminal-phase red-band parrotfish!

Although parrotfishes eat corals, they also do them a service by eating algae from their surface.   If these algae were allowed to grow unimpeded then they could smother the corals and eventually kill them.

The white grunt (Haemulon plumieri) is one of a family of 150 fish which gets its name from its members' ability to make grunting noises by grinding their teeth together.   The sound is then amplified using the swim bladder.

There are several grunt species which look similar to this one, but it can be distinguished by the bluish lines on its head.

This white grunt is on its own, but they often form large schools which are easily approached by divers or snorkelers.   Males are sometimes seen in territorial contests where two fish open their mouths as wide as possible and then lock together and push against each other.   The inside of their mouths are bright red, but the genus name Haemulon means "red lips".

White grunts are often used for the traditional Florida dish called "grits and grunts".

The Atlantic porkfish (Anisotremus virginicus) is another type of grunt commonly found in Belize.

It's closely related to the burrito grunt found in the Pacific Ocean.   It's thought that they were once a single species with two populations which were separated when the Panama Isthmus arose, joining North America to South America.   They then started developing new features and became distinct species.

The dog snapper (Lutjanus jocu) is a major predator of the white grunts we saw earlier.

The dog snapper gets its name from its large and very sharp canine teeth, which protrude even when its mouth is closed, but its most distinctive feature is the triangular white bar below its eye.

Young dog snappers have a horizontal blue line below their eye, which becomes a row of blue dots in adults like this one, which can reach 25 or 30 pounds.

The coney (Cephalopholis fulva) is a grouper, a type of fish also known as a hind or bass.   The coney is a much more "typical" grouper than other members of the same family such as the shy hamlet and harlequin bass, which are much smaller and also less "grouper-like" in their shape.

Young coneys are all female and become male when they get to about eight inches long.   Juvenile fish are yellow, but there's quite a bit of color variation amongst adult fish, some of which are red all over, or brown all over with small blue spots, or brown above and white below.   However all coneys have two dark spots on their bottom lip, and another two just in front of their tail.

If a school of herbivorous brown chromises approaches the reef, a juvenile coney will sometimes pretend to be one of them, in order to get close enough to other fish to eat them.   Those other fish are often too wary to allow a carnivorous coney to approach, but they're more relaxed if they think that only herbivores are around.   Coneys also indulge in other naughty behavior, eating cleaner wrasses which benefit the reef community.   Not surprisingly, these wrasses don't clean coneys because they're too afraid of being eaten.

The black grouper (Mycteroperca bonaci) can grow to be a seriously big fish, up to five feet in length!   It's big around, too, so it can weigh in at 220 pounds.

With their large size, and large mouth, they're one of the top predators on the reef, using their canine teeth to eat all sorts of fish and crustaceans.   This one might look threatening, but it's just doing the fish equivalent of yawning, possibly shaking food particles out of its gills and mouth.   This is even more important for fish which filter their food out of the water, so even very large fish like whale sharks do the same behavior.

Like many wrasses and angelfishes, black groupers are protogynous, starting life as females and only becoming male when they've grown to three feet or larger.   When a female spawns she will lay around 500,000 eggs, but almost all of them are eaten by predators, or the young fish are eaten.

A school of horse-eye jacks (Caranx latus), also known as big-eye jacks, is a sight which would bring great delight to game fishermen, because they're good fighters and can reach over three feet in length.

Some of those same fishermen are less happy after they've eaten their catch, because this species sometimes causes ciguatera poisoning because of toxins accumulated from fish that the jacks ate.

Nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum) are very common in Belize and are frequently seen even by snorkelers.

They have a nice typical shark shape, but they're really pussycats in disguise.   Although they can reach 14 feet in length and 330 pounds in weight, they're very docile and would have to be very severely provoked before they'd bite a person.   They have lots of small teeth which they use to crush prey like crustaceans and mollusks, though they'll also eat cephalopods and stingrays.   They can create a powerful suction with their large throats, which allows them to catch small fish hiding within the reef, and even to suck large conch snails right out of their shells!

Unusually, this species is found in the eastern Pacific from Baja California to Peru, in the western Atlantic from Rhode Island to southern Brazil, and also in the eastern Atlantic from Cameroon to Gabon.   It's not common to find the same species in the Pacific and Atlantic, and many fish found in the Caribbean Sea aren't found along the coast of Africa.

Although this one was swimming during the daytime off the coast of Belize, its small eyes indicate that it's mainly a nocturnal animal, rooting around on the bottom until it finds something to eat.   During the daytime they return to a favorite cavern or other hiding place, where they rest, sometimes with others close by - one group of 40 was recorded.   Unlike some sharks, they don't have to keep moving to maintain the flow of water over their gills, so they're able to stop in one place for hours.

The skin of the nurse shark is valued as a source of very tough leather; the skin of many sharks is so rough that it's even been used as sandpaper.

The green moray (Gymnothorax funebris) lives in the western Atlantic Ocean from New Jersey all the way through the Caribbean and down to Brazil.

As the name suggests, it usually has a greenish tinge but some individuals are bright yellow all over.   Its color comes from a combination of the skin color and a slimy mucus that the eel is covered in.   Some moray eels have toxic mucus, which might protect them from being attacked.   Others live in sand burrows and have skin which produces mucus that makes the sand stick together, preventing the walls of the burrow from collapsing.

Moray eels don't have many predators, but sometimes a barracuda, large groupers or another moray will attack them.   They all leave people alone unless provoked, but their sharp teeth certainly give them a fearsome appearance!   Most of them can easily remove a diver's finger, but this is extremely rare and usually happens when the diver starts harassing the eel and puts a hand too close.   Green morays and some of the other species are also sometimes caught and eaten by people, so they have more to fear from us than we do from them.

The spotted moray eel (Gymnothorax moringa) is found in the western and Mid Atlantic Ocean, from North Carolina down to Brazil.

Moray eels need to keep moving their jaws open and closed in order to pump water over their gills.   Since they spend so much of their time with their mouth open, the camouflage pattern on a moray's body often extends into their mouth, too.

The little tubes sticking out the front of its nose are its nostrils; they use their excellent sense of smell to hunt at night, so it's not common to see them out of their hiding places during the daytime.

This Belize trip was the first time I've seen a hawksbill turtle and a loggerhead turtle, but it was also a chance to catch up with more familiar species like this green turtle (Chelonia mydas).

The green turtle used to be hunted extensively, and its common name was given to it because of the green fat under its shell, which was used to make soup.   Green turtles look very similar to hawksbill turtles, but the former belongs to its own genus.   The babies are carnivorous but, unlike the two other types of turtle I saw here, adult green turtles are herbivores, mostly eating seagrass.

In the wild they can reach 80 years of age and attain a length of up to 5 feet and a weight of 870 pounds; however most adults are much smaller than that.

See more underwater animals on the Belize wildlife page, or see the highlights of Belize.