Monday, March 27, 2017

Our Spotfin Butterfly fish: As Lively as His Name Sounds

By Rebecca Proulx, communications intern

The spotfin butterflyfish is a mouthful to say, a handful to take care of and a wonder to observe. Two years ago, our beautiful tropical fish (let’s call him Spotty for short) was brought to the Save The Bay Exploration Center and Aquarium by Emo, one of our organization’s volunteer snorkelers. But that’s not as uncommon as one might think. In fact, snorkelers and fisherman often bring stray tropical fish to Save The Bay’s Exploration Center so they can live a long life.

You see, while Spotty has called the Exploration Center his home now for a while, he is far from his place of origin. Fish like Spotty are known as Gulf Stream orphans. Native to the Caribbean seas, they are frequently swept up in the gulf stream and deposited in Long Island waters. Many make their way to Rhode Island Sound and Narragansett Bay. But they wouldn’t live long in our cold northern winter waters, so in order to protect these tropical species, and teach our community about them, Save The Bay cares for them in our Exploration Center.

In the beginning, Spotty was a finicky eater and difficult to please. “At first, we had to wean him off of shrimp and onto anemones. This took a long time, but he eventually adjusted,” said Exploration Center and Aquarium Manager Adam Kovarsky. Spotty was quite the busybody while I visited and enjoyed darting all around the tank to complicate my photo-taking process. Typical to his species, he loved ducking behind little cave and coral formations in the tank but never stayed in one place for long. Like many tropical fish, Spotty sports bright colors. Though a small fish, Spotty is a sight to behold sporting vibrant yellow fins and unique black markings to contrast nicely with his white body. His colors are entrancing and always draw in many visitors to the tank.

He’s the lone spotfin butterflyfish in his tank of other tropicals. I learned from Adam that this species of fish gets along fine with all other types in the tank, but can never be kept in close quarters with others of his kind. Despite their meek size and pretty colors, spotfin butterflyfish are very aggressive toward their own species and will kill each other when they are put together in any context other than mating. This aggressive trait certainly isn’t one I would pair with such a petite and beautiful fish, but looks can be deceiving.
Speaking of deception, spotfin butterflyfish are crafty and masters of using their outer beauty to trick predators. The dark spot acting as a fake eye on Spotty’s dorsal fin and the vertical black bar running through his eye confuse predators so they have trouble honing in on which end of the fish to attack. Spotty also goes through an interesting transformation once night falls. In the evening, the dark spot grows larger and dark bands appear more prominent on his body. This ruse is to further muddle nocturnal predators in the mood for a late-night snack.

The bright colors that mark a spotfin butterflyfish are not only a cunning disguise, but are also beautiful to look at, making them a consistent staple of aquarium trade. But they’re needed outside, too. Spotfin butterflyfish contribute to their native ecosystems by consuming populations of coral, tubeworms, and many small invertebrates, keeping these populations in check so they don’t grow beyond the capacity of their environment and encroach on other species.

While, for the most part, fish like Spotty aren’t yet making huge waves being swept into our Bay ecosystem, many of the tropical strays are showing up earlier and surviving longer, an indication of changing climate conditions. We don’t know how tropical fish will eventually interact with our native populations when warming waters bring more tropical travelers here by choice, but they present another important potential consequence for climate change discussions.

Come visit the Save The Bay Exploration Center and Aquarium to say hello to Spotty and other incredible species soon! Our winter (Labor Day-Memorial Day) hours are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. We are located at 175 Memorial Blvd, Newport, RI 02840. You can even feed our friend and see him in action along with sharks, octopuses, and many more at our Feeding Frenzy event. Feeding Frenzies are held on the third Thursday of each month, 5–6 p.m. General admission is $10; call 401-324-6020 to register.