Surgeonfish-Sharp as a Razor

    Of the spectacular fish found in the sea, there are many that possess intricate color patterns, interesting body shapes, and bizarre behavior. My favorite fish, however, happens to be one of the most common and seemingly ordinary fish found in this area. If you have snorkeled or dove the coral reef of Belize, then you have surely seen the fish I am referring to swim by in a large blur of intense and richly hued blue. These fish, known as Blue Tangs, are striking in their simplicity and for this reason were the first to catch my eye on one of my earliest Caribbean underwater experiences. In addition to their stunning and vibrant beauty, these fish share many interesting traits with other species of the Surgeonfish family.

    Named for extremely sharp and movable spines located on each side of their tail that are thought to resemble a surgeonās scalpel, Surgeonfish inhabit coastal waters in the western Atlantic off of New York and Caribbean waters south to Brazil. The spines of the Surgeonfish usually lie flat in a groove, but if the fish is disturbed the spines become raised and can inflict serious injury on enemies (including unsuspecting fishermen). The most common reason a Surgeonfish would become defensive, though, is when it competes with other fish for its primary source of food: algae.

    As an example of one of the most important interdependent relationships that exist in the coral reef ecosystem, Surgeonfish, as well as other fish such as Damselfish, use their sharp-edged teeth to clean the coral reef of algae. Algae has a tendency to grow quickly and can eventually smother and "choke" a reef to death if it is not kept in check. Grazing fish, such as Surgeonfish, are critical to maintaining the balance of algae cover on the reef, while at the same time, supplying themselves with a source of energy.

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun
    There are over seventy-five species of Surgeonfish and three main members. Aside from the aforementioned Blue Tang, there is also the Ocean Surgeonfish and Doctorfish. Blue Tangs are the most common and easy to identify in all stages of maturity. Juvenile blue tangs are bright yellow and have blue spots near their eyes, while adults appear completely blue and have narrow dark blue lines running the length of the body, as well as a yellow scalpel. When it comes to identifying the other two members of this family, it is much more challenging. Both have a similar body shape and vary in color from light blue to dark green to dark brown. The difference between these fish lies in the pectoral fins. The Ocean Surgeonfish has even body coloration and pectoral fins that are usually pale yellow to orange in color, while the Doctorfish always has distinctly dark pectoral fins.

    Surgeonfish are yet another example of the beautiful and diverse fish that inhabit the coral reef ecosystem. Itās always a good reminder, though, that these fish do not exist purely for their beauty- they also play a critical role in keeping the reef healthy.

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