10 Sea Creatures You Gotta Get Your Hands On

BY Richard Leder

When the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher opens for business at 9 o’clock in the morning and busloads of happy laughing excited children pour through the doors there’s one destination they all seem to run for at once: the touch pool.

Fashioned after the exposed coquina outcrop found offshore at Fort Fisher — 12 000-year-old sedimentary rock made of shell fragments and sand grains held together by calcite part of a mile-wide larger band that runs north-south for five miles — the aquarium touch pool is home to 10 sensational sea creatures kids and grown-ups can two-finger touch to their hearts’ content.

Awesome aquarist Samantha Johnson took time out to tell us that the animals and fish found in the touch pool are representative of the creatures living in our local rocky outcrop. While the wild coquina provides shelter and food and its denizens adapt to living in the turbulent waves the aquarium coquina touch pool provides a safe and sound environment where visitors can be introduced up close to some very cool creatures.

So who’s cool in the pool? Here are ten you just have to touch!

1) Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus)

Generally found in shallow water over sandy or muddy bottoms the horseshoe crab has 10 eyes located in various places over its body so no sneaking up on them. Actually despite all those eyes the horseshoe has poor vision. It also has blue blood. Literally the color blue. Oxygen is carried in its blood by a molecule that contains copper causing its blood to turn blue when exposed to air. The middle segment of each leg is covered with spines used to masticate food before passing it into the mouth located at the base of the legs so locomotion and feeding go hand-in-hand since the horseshoe can only chew when it moves. Yum! Although it appears to be and is named a crab it is not. It’s a distant relative of crustaceans and is more closely related to arachnids. It has existed almost completely unchanged for 250 million years. A long time to be misnamed.

2) Southern Stingrays (Dasyatis americana)

There are 118 species of rays found worldwide but only seven of those are found in N.C. Easily recognized they are flattened cartilaginous fish closely related to sharks. They swim by undulating the pectoral fins. The body remains still while the fins move the fish forward. Most are marine while some enter freshwater and others live only in freshwater. Ancient folklore has it that Nei de Tuahine was a mythical goddess from Tahiti in the form of a stingray who would save lost fishermen from sharks by loading them on her back and swimming them to shore. Way to go Nei!

3) Forbes Sea Stars (Asterias forbesi)

Two thousand species of sea stars are found from the polar oceans to the tropics in shallow tide pools to 3.75 miles deep in the ocean as tiny as less than an inch to more than 2 feet across and in colors ranging from scarlets oranges and purples to all shades of rusts and yellows. Most have five arms or a multiple of five and some have up to 50 arms. Each arm contains a branch of the digestive tract the reproductive organs and a primitive eye. Talk about delegating responsibility! Among the mellowest of all the touch poolers sea stars move at the blistering rate of 5 inches per minute. Slow down buddy. What’s the rush?

4) Warty Anemone (Bunodosoma cavernatum)

Old warty is an animal not a fish. It’s usually attached to the rocks and eats shrimp. It looks a little like a cup and saucer with tentacles sticking out of the cup. Not exactly a ferocious presentation. So how does it hunt down the shrimp it calls dinner? The tentacles have special cells called cnidocytes that contain stinging structures called nematocysts. These tentacles help the anemone capture and bring the food to its mouth. The message here if you’re a shrimp? Appearances can be deceiving.

5) Brown Spiny Sea Star (Echinaster spinulosus)

Like its sea star brothers and sisters the Brown Spiny is an aggressive nocturnal carnivore feeding on gastropods barnacles sea anemones sea snails sea urchins and shellfish. It’s how it eats a clam that needs discussing. The sea star positions its mouth on the tight seam between the shells and then pulls the shells apart with its suctioning tube feet on the undersides of its arms. When the shell opens the sea star inserts its stomach into the clam and digests the fleshy fellow inside the shell. When the sea star is done eating it returns its stomach through its mouth back into its body. Talk about dining out!

6) Short-spined Sea Urchin (Lytechinus variegatus)

Sea urchins are common critters found in almost every major marine habitat from the poles to the equator from the rocky sea floor in shallow water to depths of more than 5 000 meters. They have long spines – radiating out from their globular body – that they use for protection locomotion and trapping drifting algae to eat. Feeling a sudden urge of daring culinary adventure? In Japan sea urchin reproductive organs are eaten as a delicacy.

7) Giant Hermit Crab (Petrochirus diogenes)

The 500 or so species of hermit crabs spend their lives in the littoral zone the area between the highest and lowest tidemarks on the seashore. They live in empty shells that they find or shells from which they first evict the current resident before taking occupancy themselves. Hermit crabs have been known to fight over the same shell not unlike New Yorkers arguing over the same apartment. With their one large pincer though it can be one deadly dispute. It’s called a hermit because it lives in solitude inside its chosen shell much like the pious men of ancient days who withdrew into caves to commune with the universe. These men were called hermits based on the Greek word for desert eremos.

8) Channeled Whelk (Busycotypus canaliculatus)

This gastropod whelk a type of sea snail is native to the eastern U.S. coast and is found from Cape Cod to northern Florida. Its shell typically reaches 5 to 8 inches in length and is smooth and generally pear-shaped with a large body whorl and a straight siphonal canal. It lives in the sand just below the level of the low tide and more or less does nothing much at all. In fact what could be more docile than a whelk right? Not if you’re a clam. Whelks eat clams like nobody’s business surrounding the little suckers with its muscular foot prying open the shells and sending in its proboscis and toothed tongue-like radula to rasp and eat the little clam guys. And you thought you knew whelks.

9) Pencil Urchin (Eucidaris tribuloides)

The pencil urchin gets its name for two reasons: Its blunt solid spines not only resemble pencil stubs but they were also used by ancient Egyptians to write on slate or stone tablets. No doubt the Egyptians captured them carefully however because those spines provide an effective defense against attackers. They are among the many types of echinoderms that live in the world’s oceans. Echinoderm means “spine skin” and describes the way many of these animals look and feel. Echinoderms have no head or brain an odd concept that they will never grasp.

 10) Thin Stripe Hermit (Clibanarius vittatus)

This dapper crustacean has tastefully thin white pinstripes running up and down its spindly legs giving it the appearance of a hermit in a suit a banker by any measure. As befits such a well-dressed crab its behavior and natural history have been widely studied. It can live out of water for days is a vigorous incorrigible feeder has excellent visual responses and is the hardiest of all species known in Gulf waters. It lives in the uppermost tidal horizons often crawling up seawalls and tree stumps and is a close relative of the shrimp lobster and blue crab for whom it no doubt makes loans at low cost.