We all know the term ‘Crazy Cat Lady’, but have we heard of the Crazy Crustacean Queen? My self-appointed title has been brought to the foreground as the amount of invertebrates on the Caymanian reefs has blown me away. Invertebrates include any animal without a backbone, from wriggly worms to the flamboyant octopus and make up 95% of animal species globally.
Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you fish aren’t cool, I’m simply going to tell you invertebrates are cooler. The amount of adaptation an organism needs to undergo to sustain a structurally sound and complex anatomy without the usefulness of bones is, in scientific terms, insane. Being able to work on multiple challenges over their 1 billion year evolutionary history has led to some being able to survive in space, live on hydrothermal vents at 750° F and resist freezing below -4° F!
I’ve been fortunate enough to find and share some highly adapted worms, the colourful christmas tree and feather duster worms. Hanging their feeding and breathing appendages out of a calcareous tube, it’s easy to swim past these worms assuming their colourful radioles are merely plants. Upon closer inspection, they swiftly retract their beautiful feather-like gills shutting their tubes with a horned cover. Oh yes, I forgot they can also SEE OUT OF THEIR GILLS. Call me when a fish can do that.
Now we enter the realm of Crustaceans, defined as having exoskeletons and pincers. The first creatures to pop into your mind will most likely be crabs, as the terrestrial and intertidal species are highly visible. There are multitudes of crabs hiding within the crevices of the reef but the highly evolved yellowline arrow crab is easily my favourite. The spider-like appearance, coupled with the constant feeding and triangular body makes every encounter an entertaining one. Their inquisitive nature always surprises me – try to stop one from jumping onto you if you pass too close.
We now surpass the creepy crawlies to the downright cute Crustaceans known as hermit crabs. Evolving over 100 million years ago, these cutie patooties lost their ability to create their own shells so they seek out old snail shells. As they grow out of their commandeered shells, they must move into a new one, preferably with no holes and enough space to grow big and strong. When I look at hermit crabs I get a flash of my little brother’s first day of school, his school hat to be grown into and was slipping down his forehead. If that doesn’t warm your cold heart then the vacancy chains should, as the crabs gather in large groups to swap shells as they try to find the perfect fit.
We’ve spoken about the cute and creepy but how about the cleaners? Cleaner shrimp are abundant on most reefs around the world and play a huge role in reef health. That’s great and all but did you know they dance better than the Backstreet Boys? The pincered boy-band wave their long, white antennae around the reef advertising their cleaning services, hopping onto larger client fish to pick off any parasites that may be hitching a ride. In return, these client fish don’t eat the shrimp, a delicate relationship founded on fear. The banded boxer shrimp is a common cleaner shrimp that would fight you and everyone you care about. Well maybe not, but they hold their heavy arms and pincers out to the side like they’re thinking about it, dancing in pairs like boxers sparring in a ring.
These are merely a few of my favourite invertebrate characters on the reef, but I can’t wait to show you the colourful appendages and charisma they frequently flash for the camera. I hope the fan club I now dub Crustacean Crew expands to include more than just one Crazy Crustacean Queen.
Written by: Simone Herrmannsen