Meet the Animals: Chesapeake Critters

Fishes

Oyster Toadfish (Opsanus Tau): The oyster toadfish is a bottom-dwelling ambush predator that can often be found hiding in oyster reefs.  This fish will eat anything that fits in its mouth – small crustaceans, mollusks, and even other fish if it can catch them.  Don’t judge this “ugly” fish by its appearance – toadfish are actually quite romantic.  Male toadfish court females by “singing” to them, though the sound is more reminiscent of a foghorn than Justin Bieber.  

American Eel (Anguilla rostrate): Our American eel may look like a snake, but it is really a fish.  This eel is catadromous, meaning it lives most of its life in freshwater, but migrates into salt water to reproduce.  During this migration, they slide over rocks, find their way over dams, and even manage to slither through wet grass.

Mummichog (Fundulus heteroclitus): Mummichogs live in the shallow waters of marshes and tidal creeks.  Their name comes from the Native American word for “going in crowds” because this fish is often founds in large schools of as many as 100 individuals.  Mummichogs are hardy fish, surviving in a wide range of salinities and temperatures, and they are even resilient to low oxygen and pollution.  It’s a good thing these little fish are so tough!  One mummichog can eat as many as 2,000 mosquito larvae in a single day, so they are crucial to keeping mosquito populations small.

Arthropods

Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus): Horseshoe crabs are not crabs at all but are actually close relatives of scorpions and spiders.  This not-crab has 12 legs with a mouth in the center, 10 eyes, and blue blood.  Horseshoe crabs have been on this planet longer than dinosaurs – 300 million years, and they are an invaluable link in the Chesapeake Bay food web.  Horseshoe crabs crawl on shore from May-June in order to reproduce, and their eggs and larvae are important food for fishes, sea turtles, and migrating sea birds.

Blue Crab (Callinectes sapidus): The blue crab is a commercially important crustacean in the Chesapeake Bay.  The blue crab fishery in the Bay nearly collapsed in the ‘90s and early 2000s, but is recovering thanks to new legislation.  New laws included setting restrictions on what time of day fishers could collect crabs, restricting fishers to only taking crabs that are above a certain size, and requiring that fishers only take male crabs. Female crabs, called “Sallys,” have red tips on their claws like nail polish. Male crabs, called “Jimmys,” lack the red claw tips.

Black-Fingered Mud Crab (Panopeus herbstii): Black-fingered mud crabs are so-named for the black tips on their claws.  These crabs are a crucial element of Chesapeake Bay food webs because they eat marsh periwinkle snails.  Without mud crabs to keep their population in check, periwinkle snails could destroy wetland ecosystems by eating all the marsh grasses.

Striped Hermit Crab (Clibanarius vittatus): Hermit crabs have soft bodies with curly tails that they protect by wearing snail shells on their backs.  In order to better camouflage, this species of hermit crab has been known to attach sea anemones to its shell.  Just like sea anemones and clownfish, the crab and the anemone have a mutualistic symbiotic relationship: the anemone’s stinging tentacles protect the crab from predators, and the anemone gets a mobile home on which to live.

Mollusks

Eastern Oyster (Crassostera virginica): Oysters are perhaps the most important animal in the Chesapeake Bay.  As filter feeders, they are crucial for removing sediment that prevents seagrasses from getting enough sunlight and other particulate pollution from the Bay.  But oysters are in trouble.  As a result of disease and overfishing, oyster populations are struggling to remain robust.  Scientists, policy makers, and oystermen are all working together to create laws to help oyster populations rebound.

Mud Snail (Tritia obsoleta): Mud snails may look like babies compared to larger whelks and conchs, but these tiny surf zone dwellers are fully grown.  They live on the beach where there is nearly constant wave action, and often these little snails are knocked onto their backs by the rushing water.  But that’s okay!  Mud snails can use their foot to grab the sand and flip themselves right side up.

Knobbed Whelk (Busycon carica): Whelks are giant sea snails.  They have a soft body protected by a hard shell that they make and remain in their entire lives.  A knobbed whelk uses its shell to break off pieces of clam shells, and then sticks its tongue inside to scoop out the clam meat.  The “tongue” of a whelk is called a radula, and it is rough like a cat’s tongue because it is covered in tiny teeth.

***Animals subject to change according to season and availability.  If there is a specific animal you would like to meet, let us know, and we will do our best to accommodate you!***