Seeker Archives

Toxic Red Tide Might Be in Your Fish Tank

The same toxins that wreak havoc along the coasts may be inside your home already. Continue reading →

For people who live in coastal areas, harmful algal blooms, or HABs - sometimes called red tides, because they can turn seawater a deep red - are an increasingly frequent threat, thanks to climate change. HABs produce toxins that cause mass fish kills and make shellfish risky to eat. In rare instances, they can cause life-threatening respiratory illnesses in humans, and also make the surrounding air more difficult to breathe.

But as it turns out, you may be at risk of exposure to the algae that cause red tides even if you don't go anywhere near the beach. The possible point of exposure is a home aquarium.

NEWS: Massive Red Tide Threatens Florida's Gulf Coast

In a study just published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, Italian researchers detected the presence of high levels of the palytoxin and hydroxypalytoxin, two chemicals secreted by HABs, in a saltwater aquarium found in a home where an entire Dutch family of four suffered respiratory distress, fevers, nausea and flu-like symptoms. The toxins were found in soft coral and seawater from the aquarium, according to the study.

The presence of those hazardous chemicals provides an explanation for other anecdotal reports of aquarium owners becoming ill, according to the study. The illnesses occurred after the owners used hot water to clean their tanks. Apparently, hot water making contact with aquarium rocks creates steam that releases the toxins into the room's air, where they can be inhaled by unwary occupants.

NEWS: Algal Bloom Threat to Ohio Tap Water

If there's some good news here, it's that the hazard can now be identified. Lead researcher Carmela Dell'Aversano and colleagues developed a test that can quickly determine if the toxins are present in an aquarium.

A red tide created by chemicals from algae blooms offshore.

It's a fish-eat-fish world, so many fish have evolved unusual body shapes to deter other fish from swallowing them, new research finds. The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, points out that biting off more than one can chew is not an option for most aquatic predators. As a result, thousands of prey species have evolved bodies that are ultra wide, round, narrow, spiked or are otherwise designed not to be the perfect morsel. "Almost every fish that eats other fishes captures their prey with their mouths, and so the prey must fit into their mouth; this is also true for some fish-eating birds, such grebes and herons," lead author Samantha Price of the University of California at Davis' Department of Evolution and Ecology told Discovery News. "Not all predators are gape-limited, but over the history of fishes, it is likely that many of the predators would have been limited by the size of their mouth." This sea devil can be both predator and prey, as its human-like mouth, yet flat body shape, suggest. There are multiple reasons for "misshapen" bodies among fish, but avoiding fitting into a hunter's mouth turns out to be a critical one.

Photos: These Fish Were Made For Walking

Imagine trying to fit this into your mouth. The flying gurnard makes maximum use of body area without investing much energy in fleshy substance. The new study, which looked at over 25,000 living fish species, found that evolution of fish such as this was shaped by gape-limited predators, meaning marine hunters that can only open their mouths so far.

Photos: Sneezing Monkey, Walking Fish Among New Species

In addition to body shape, many fish have evolved bumpy skin, fin spines and other features that deter a predator from simply sucking the fish into their mouth like a smooth piece of sushi. The researchers determined that fish with spines that extend vertically evolve toward "deeper" bodies. Deep in this case means having a more vertical yet narrow, rounded body, sort of like a pancake on its side. The slantbrow batfish is just the opposite. It is considered to be a wider-bodied fish, like a flat, albeit misshapen, pancake floating in the water. These wider-bodied fish often evolve spines that extend horizontally. Price said that the spines and body depth "work together to defend against predators." She continued that if the prey fish "becomes bigger, the predator will not be able to eat it, but increasing the overall size is energetically costly, so it is better just to increase a single dimension: either width or depth."

Half of All Marine Life Lost in Just 40 Years

On the predator side are fish like this giant grouper. Sharks often grab our attention because of their appearance and apex predator status, but groupers like this have been known to eat sharks from time to time using their huge mouths and relentless hunting tactics.

Photos: Mix Of Species Gain Haven In New Marine Reserve

The leafy sea dragon belongs to the marine fish family that also includes seahorses and pipefish. Its small fins not only increase its body surface area, but they are also difficult to view as they subtly undulate while the seadragon moves slowly through the water. Here, camouflage is another benefit of body shape. When in motion, this seadragon looks remarkably like a piece of floating seaweed.

Camouflage Tech Copies Cuttlefish's Disappearing Act

Garden eels, needlefish and spaghetti eels use another tactic to avoid being eaten. Like actual spaghetti, they are extremely thin and tend to slip out of a predator's mouth.

Eels Migrate a Staggering 1,500 Miles

"Fishes display an incredible diversity of body sizes, including lineages that are almost as wide or as deep as they are long," Price said. "Our findings suggest that predation has helped shape this diversity, although many other factors, such as habitat or diet, are also likely to be important drivers of fish body form evolution."

Fish Listen to Music, Prefer Bach

This red lionfish looks to be posing for the camera, displaying its showy colors and fins. Predators would do well to notice and move away, as lionfish are venomous. Spines on such fish therefore are doubly dangerous. "The spines can damage the predator and species that have venom associated with the spines will cause even more problems," Price explained. "There are some rather grisly photos online of some injuries to fishermen and swimmers who have been on the wrong end of fish spines!"

Big Lionfish Found at Disturbing Depths

Moonfish are classic examples of fish that have evolved extremely deep body sizes that the researchers say deter gape-limited predators. The moonfish body is also sharp-edged and covered on the top and bottom with small spines that make handling them challenging. Brian Sidlauskas is an associate professor and curator of fishes at Oregon State University's Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. He told Discovery News that the new study provides "an elegant demonstration" of at least one "critical piece" of fish body form evolution.

First Warm-Blooded Fish Identified

When deflated, puffer fish look like helpless, tiny prey. Once inflated, though, they become deadly mouthfuls for many would-be diners. Prosanta Chakrabarty of Louisiana State University agrees that spines not only work against predators via their sharpness and possible venom, but also because they help certain fish to become wider or deeper bodied. "That might sound intuitive, but it really isn't," he informed Discovery News. "Your bodies are constrained in how deep or wide they can get because these animals still need to try to avoid predators, get their own prey, move around the water column, and find mates." He continued, "The spines, which are not similarly constrained, allow these fishes to reach these depths and widths despite the constraints on the body. That is a microevolutionary solution to a macroevolutionary constraint."

Puffed-Up Blowfish Aren't Holding Their Breath