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- Long Island Sound
At The Maritime Aquarium more than 500,000 people every year get a peek under the waves at the amazing biodiversity (variety of life) found in Long Island Sound.
Click on the name of your favorite animal below to learn even more.
Common Name: American eel
Latin Name: Anguilla rostrata
Size/weight: Females average 2 to 3 feet but may grow to 5 to 6 feet long. Males are generally half as big.
Range: American eels range from Greenland to South America, occurring in all major streams along the Atlantic coastline. The females migrate far inland, and have been documented in nearly all states east of the Rocky Mountains. This is possible because eels are able to live out of water for short periods of time. Their ability to slither up a moist slope allows them to circumnavigate major obstructions (e.g. dams and waterfalls) along their routes.
Habitat: Varies by life stage. See “Description” below.
Diet: insects, smaller fish, fish eggs, crustaceans, worms, frogs.
Predators: At sea: fish, birds. In inland waters: fish, turtles, birds, raccoons.
Description: This is a fish – and eels are fish, by the way – that lives a life of several amazing metamorphisms that take it from sea water to fresh water and then back out to the salty ocean again. (That’s something few fish can do.)
An eel’s life stages are:
• “leaf fish” – These larvae look sort of like a clear flat willow leaf. Hatching in the Atlantic’s Sargasso Sea (SE of Bermuda), they ride the Gulf Stream currents for about a year.
• “glass eel” – Nearing the East Coast, leaf fish morph into the familiar eel shape. Tiny glass eels are still transparent but can now actively swim toward land.
• “elver” – Entering estuaries, they take on a brownish pigment.
• “yellow eel” – As elvers feed and grow, they turn olive-green with a yellow underside. They’ll stay in this adult stage for 5 to 20 years. Females swim upstream into fresh water and may even wriggle across land to ponds and lakes. Males tend to stay in more brackish waters.
• “silver eel” – In the fall, yellow eels that are ready to reproduce will stop eating, take on a silvery hue and their digestive systems shrink away to make room for new reproductive organs. Fueled only by their fat reserves, they swim back out to the Sargasso Sea to mate, lay eggs and die.
Conservation Note: Eel “landings” peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s when record quantities of eels were caught and shipped to Asia, where folks have a taste for juvenile eels called elvers. But we caught too many eels too quickly. The number of eels harvested since then has dropped dramatically.
According to estimates from the International Council for Exploration of the Seas (ICES), the “recruitment level” (that is, the baby eels produced each year) is only 1 percent of what it was before the 1980s. Populations may be at record-low levels. In 2000, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) issued an eel management plan. As eel “landings” continued to decline, the commission approved further protections in 2004. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is reviewing whether eels need protection as a threatened or endangered species.
Besides overfishing, eel issues identified by the ASMFC include:
• dams have blocked eels from their migrations up rivers and streams.
• climate change may raise sea levels, which could affect the Sargasso Sea, a huge area south of Bermuda that is the American eel’s only mating spot/hatchery.
• climate change also could alter the Gulf Stream, hindering the migration of glass eels toward land.
• pollutants collect in eels’ fat reserves. That’s bad news for both the eels and anyone who eats them.
Although it may be hard to rally public support around an animal that is slimy and snake-like, things are being done to help eels. It’s now illegal to ship eels into or out of Europe. In the U.S., recent changes in size regulations have eliminated the elvers fishery in all states except Maine and Florida. And in Connecticut, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Nature Conservancy, municipal conservation groups and the Aquarion Water Co., which supplies water to 39 cities and towns, all have been working on ways to help eels get around dams.
See them in their own exhibit in the Rivers to the Sound watershed gallery.
Common Name: Green sea turtle
Latin Name: Chelonia mydas
Size/weight: Green turtles are the largest of all the hard-shelled sea turtles. They can grow up to 4 feet long and 400+ pounds.
Range: Tropical and sub-tropical waters around the world. In the western Atlantic, as far north as Massachusetts (including Long Island Sound) in summers. Nesting occurs in over 80 countries.
Habitat: Primarily coastal areas, where they’ll find the plants they eat.
Diet: Adult green turtles are unique among sea turtles in that they eat only plants; they are herbivorous, feeding primarily on seagrasses and algae. This diet is thought to give them greenish-colored fat, from which they take their name.
Predators: Newly hatched turtles are vulnerable to everything from raccoons and gulls to crabs and large fish. Some sharks may prey on adult sea turtles.
Description: Heart-shaped shell, small head and single-clawed flippers. Color will vary. The top shell (or carapace) is smooth with shades of black, gray, green, brown, and yellow; the bottom shell (or plastron) is yellowish white. Oxygen reserves allow them to dive without surfacing for 30 minutes and even sleep underwater for more than two hours without breathing.
Conservation Note: Breeding populations in Florida & on Mexico’s Pacific coast are endangered. All other populations are threatened. Despite conservation agreements around the globe, the main threats remain the over-harvesting of eggs and adults, and from accidental mortality in the nets and long-lines of fishing and shrimping fleets.Artificial lights confuse the ocean-bound babies, causing them to lose their way. Real estate development eliminates their nesting habitat. And cast-off plastic bags, fishing line and other trash can suffocate, strangle or otherwise harm the animals.
Common Name: Harbor seal
Latin Name: Phoca vitulina
Size/weight: Between 5 and 6 feet long; 175 – 225 pounds. Males are sometimes larger.
Range: Harbor seals can be found throughout the northern Atlantic, along both coasts.
Habitat: Harbor seals “haul out” on offshore rocks and sand bars in the Sound that are exposed during low tide. The term “haul out” refers both to the location like a rock where the seal is resting (the “haul out” site) and to the action of a seal climbing out of the water onto land (to “haul out”).
Diet: Varies regionally, but generally consists of fish, crabs, lobster and squid.
Predators: Main predators include killer whales and sharks. Large eagles, coyotes and gulls have been known to prey on seal pups.
Description: Harbor seals range in color from brown, tan, light grey and silver with dark spots. Their thick short coat is made of coarse guard hairs and finer, but denser under hairs.
Conservation Note: Since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, harbor seal populations have been rebounding from depletion by hunting and other threats. The generally improving health of Long Island Sound also seems to be a factor in the seals’ return.
Common Name: Loggerhead sea turtle
Latin Name: Caretta caretta
Size/weight: Up to 38 inches long and 400 pounds when fully grown.
Range: Found in warmer waters in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. In the western Atlantic, loggerheads can be found from Newfoundland to Argentina. Juvenile loggerheads sometimes visit Long Island Sound during the summer.
Habitat: Loggerheads can be found throughout their range anywhere from shoreline lagoons, bays and river mouths to thousands of miles out to sea. Nests are typically dug on sandy beaches between the high tide line and the beginning of dunes or vegetation.
Diet: Mollusks, crustaceans, fish, etc.
Predators: Loggerheads are at greatest risk from a variety of human and animal predators who disturb the nest sites, eating and taking eggs. Many hatchlings are also eaten as they try to make their way from the nest into the water. Seagoing adults are often trapped and drown in long-line fishing nets.
Description: Loggerheads are so named for their large, seemingly over-sized head. They have a sharp beak, a large reddish-brown carapace and yellowish skin. Unlike land turtles, a sea turtle can’t tuck its head or flippers into its shell.
Conservation Note: Although loggerhead sea turtles are the most abundant sea turtle in U.S. waters, their population is still low enough to list them as “threatened” on the Endangered Species List. Newer “turtle exclusion devices” on fishing nets may be reducing turtle deaths.
Common Name: North American river otter
Latin Name: Lontra canadensis
Size/weight: Adult size is about 2.5 – 5 feet long (with tail) and 10 – 30 pounds.
Range: Throughout North America (Alaska, Canada and the lower 48 United States).
Habitat: River otters can be found in or near fresh water (lakes, streams, marshes, etc…) and in brackish waters. They build their dens (or take over abandoned dens of other animals) in riverbanks or in a natural hollow near the water.
Diet: North American river otters find most of their food in the water; amphibians, fish, turtles, crayfish, crabs and other invertebrates are favorites. Birds, eggs, aquatic plants, and small land mammals are sometimes on a river otter’s menu.
Predators: Bobcats, coyotes, birds of prey, dogs. Hunting.
Description: With their long, streamlined bodies and thick, tapered tails North American River otters are well suited to a life around the water. (Although they run with a distinctive "humpbacked" gait, they can run even faster than they can swim.) Otter fur is thick and dark brown, lighter on the underside. Long, sensitive whiskers help them find food under water.
Conservation Note: Once heavily hunted for their fur, North American river otter populations continue to rebound. In Connecticut, the population is large and stable enough to have a legal trapping season. Threats come from development and pollution, as otters prefer quiet areas with clean water.
Common Name: Sand tiger shark
Latin Name: Carcharias taurus
Size/weight: Up to 10 or 11 feet long, though usually not that long. Weight is up to 350 pounds.
Range: Most warmer oceans, except the Eastern Pacific, including Long Island Sound. They're the largest of the native species of sharks in the Sound.
Habitat: Found most often in coastal waters, though sand tiger sharks can sometimes be found in deeper offshore waters.
Diet: What’s not on the sand tiger shark’s menu? Although they will eat almost anything (fish, crustaceans, etc…), because they are a slow-moving shark they tend to eat very little (in proportion to their body size).
Predators: Humans and other sharks.
Description: Sand tiger sharks are light brown to grey in color, with lighter shading on their undersides. This “countershading” is a sort of camouflage that makes the animal more difficult for its prey to see. A distinguishing factor is that, unlike most other sharks, the sand tiger shark’s two dorsal fins are about the same size. And its teeth are visible at all times.
Of Interest: Sand tiger shark pups practice in vitro cannibalism. While still inside its mother, pups consume each other and any unhatched eggs until only one survives. And with only one pup born at a time, the sand tiger shark recovers slowly from population setbacks.
Common Name: Bluefish
Latin Name: Pomatomus saltatrix
Size/weight: Rarely seen larger than 20 pounds and 40 inches long.
Range: Western Atlantic populations range from Canada in the north to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico in the south (depending on season).
Habitat: Adults inhabit coastal waters and are, at times, found in estuaries, harbors and off sandy beaches.
Diet: The bluefish’s diet includes squid, crabs, butterfish, menhaden, shad, herring, hake and smaller bluefish. Bluefish are known as very aggressive fish and will often leave partially eaten or maimed prey behind.
Predators: Sharks, tuna, striped bass, swordfish and humans.
Description: Actually more green than blue, bluefish have strong, streamlined bodies and sharp, conical teeth.
Conservation Note: Many fisheries managers believe that bluefish are being over-fished; populations may be on the brink of decline. However, Seafood Watch still lists bluefish as a Good Alternative, but consumers should limit consumption due to concerns about mercury or other contaminants.
Common Name: Atlantic cod
Latin Name: Gadus morhua
Size/weight: Up to 51 inches long and 77 pounds.
Range: Found on both sides of the North Atlantic, on our side from Greenland to Cape Hatteras.
Habitat: Near the bottom of the water column in areas range from near shore to the edge of the continental shelf.
Diet: Cod are omnivorous, feeding on a wide variety of fish and invertebrates.
Predators: Humans, larger fish.
Description: Greenish, brown or grey dorsally, lighter shading ventrally. Prominent barbel on chin. Spots on back and sides. Three dorsal fins and two anal fins.
Conservation Note: Although fishing for cod was once a dominant part of the New England economy, in recent decades overfishing has severely depleted cod stocks. Thus, Seafood Watch lists Atlantic cod as a seafood to Avoid, except for cod obtained through hook-and-line fishing in the Gulf of Maine.
Common Name: Cownose ray
Latin Name: Rhinoptera bonasus
Size/weight: Up to 45 inches wide (wing tip to wing tip) and 50 pounds.
Range: Massachusetts to Brazil
Habitat: Sandy, soft bottom areas.
Diet: Clams, oysters and bottom-dwelling invertebrates.
Predators: Sharks are the cownose ray’s main predators. Humans; disc-shaped cutouts of ray wings are sometimes passed off as scallop. Cownose rays are also sometimes cut up as bait for other fish.
Description: Grey on top and white on bottom, cownose rays have broad wings, a long thin tail, and a notched head that some say resembles a cow’s muzzle (hence the name “cownose” ray). Sharp, venomous spine (stinger) at the base of the tail. A relative of sharks and skates, the cownose ray’s skeleton is made up of cartilage, not bones.
Conservation Note: Not listed as endangered or vulnerable.
Common Name: Portly spider crab
Latin Name: Libinia emarginata
Size/weight: Body can be up to 4 inches in diameter with long legs extended outward increasing their overall size.
Range: Nova Scotia to Florida or Texas.
Habitat: Variety of bottom habitats in shallow and relatively deep water.
Diet: A scavenger, the spider crab finds a variety of food on the ocean floor, including dead fish and attached animals (like sea squirts), sometimes even sea stars.
Predators: Gulls and other shore birds.
Description: Brown to dull yellow with white claws; small, round, spiny body with pointy beak and long, thin legs ending in pincers of equal size and shape. Sometimes called the “decorator crab” for its habit of covering itself with seaweed, algae and other objects as a means of camouflage.
Conservation Note: Not listed as endangered or vulnerable.
Common Name: Flatclaw hermit Crab
Latin Name: Pagurus pollicaris and p. longicarpus
Size/weight: About 1⁄2 inch long & wide for P. longicarpus, one inch or more for P. pollicaris
Range: Gulf of Maine to Gulf of Mexico
Habitat: Sandy and other bottom habitats in depths up to 150 feet.
Diet: Food (detritus and algae) scavenged off the bottom and within the sand and mud.
Description: The hermit crab is famous for borrowing the shells or snails or other animals as their own home. Inside the shell, their hermit crab’s body is long, soft and roughly cylindrical with small appendages, antennae and prominent eye stalks.
Conservation Note: Not listed as endangered or vulnerable.
Common Name: Horseshoe crab
Latin Name: Limulus polyphemus
Size/weight: Up to 24 inches long and 12 inches wide; 3 or 4 pounds.
Range: Found from Maine to the Yucatan (Mexico).
Habitat: Estuaries to continental shelf
Diet: Worms, bivalves and other bottom dwelling creatures.
Predators: Migratory shorebirds, humans (fishing bait).
Description: The horseshoe crab’s name is somewhat misleading. Although it is shaped like a horseshoe, it’s no crab. The horseshoe crab is an arachnid, a class of arthropods that also includes scorpions, spiders, mites and ticks. With two main eyes, two simple (light sensing only) eyes and a mouth on the bottom, the horseshoe crab is well suited to life on the bottom. A brownish segmented shell offers protection and a pointed tail helps the animal right itself; it’s not used for attacking or even self-defense.
Conservation Note: After surviving on Earth for 300 million years, horseshoe crab numbers are declining. A local study, in which The Maritime Aquarium participates, is looking to find out the health and habits of the horseshoe crab population in Long Island Sound.
Common Name: Moon jelly
Latin Name: Aurelia aurita
Size/weight: Up to 16 inches in diameter
Range: Arctic to Florida or Mexican; in the Pacific from Alaska to southern California
Habitat: Floats near surface in offshore waters.
Diet: Small plankton, fish eggs, occasionally other developing jellies.
Predators: Sea turtles, sunfish.
Description: Translucent; recognizable for the four horseshoe-shaped organs in their center and a single row of short, hair-like tentacles around the bell. Since they’re not really fish, it is more proper now to call them “jellies,” instead of jellyfish. Moon jellies are only mildly toxic to most people; the sting is likely to cause nothing more than a persistent, itchy rash. But some folks may have more severe reactions.
Conservation Note: An abundant, non-threatened species.
Common Name: American or Northern lobster
Latin Name: Homarus americanus
Size/weight: Extreme cases: up to 40 pounds and 3 feet long
Range: Labrador to Cape Hatteras; most common from Nova Scotia to New York
Habitat: Crevices or burrows in rocky reefs and muddy bottom habitats
Diet: Fish, mollusks and other crustaceans scavenged on or near the bottom.
Predators: Sharks, cod, wolfish, goosefish, striped bass, and people with bowls of melted butter.
Description: Most common coloration is greenish brown, but genetic and other factors can produce lobsters of a wide variety of colors. Two large front claws, one for grabbing and crushing, the other for ripping and tearing. Eight legs extend from the carapace, segmented abdomen and wide tail.
Conservation Note: Lobster populations have not rebounded since a devastating die-off in Long Island Sound in 1999. Warming waters due to climate change threaten the lobster's long-term prospects in the Sound.
Common Name: Atlantic menhaden; also known as bunker
Latin Name: Brevoortia tyrannus
Size/weight: Up to one foot in length.
Range: Nova Scotia to Florida
Habitat: Nearshore waters.
Diet: They’re filter-feeders, swimming with their mouths open to consume plankton.
Predators: Bluefish, striped bass, weakfish, mackerel, bluefin tuna and sharks. Also some whales and porpoises. We don’t eat menhaden (they’re too oily) but bluefish and striped bass love them so fishermen catch menhaden to use as bait.
Description: Menhaden are a member of the herring family with silvery sides and a black spot behind the gills. Fins lack spines.
Conservation Note: Vulnerable in some areas.
Common Name: Atlantic salmon (East Coast)
Latin Name: Salmo salar
Size/weight: Up to 4.5 feet and 80 pounds
Range: Arctic Circle to Delaware River, also some landlocked populations.
Habitat: Coastal waters, as well as freshwater rivers and lakes.
Diet: Herring, capelin, sand eels and large plankton.
Predators: Seals, sharks, pollack, tuna, skates, halibut, cod, striped bass, bluefish; humans.
Description: Long body, brownish above with silvery sides featuring black spots. Lower jaw hooked up in breeding males, who may also feature red areas on their sides. Spawns in fresh water, but spends most of its life at sea.
Conservation Note: Listed on the U.S. Endangered Species List due to overfishing, disease, interaction with hatchery populations, and dammed and polluted spawning rivers. Seafood Watch lists farmed Atlantic salmon as a seafood to Avoid, and says Alaskan wild salmon is the Best Choice.
Common Name: Lined seahorse
Latin Name: Hippocampus erectus
Size/weight: Up to 5 inches
Range: Nova Scotia to Argentina; Bermuda and Gulf of Mexico
Habitat: Found in shallow waters among grasses
Diet: Brine shrimp and other live zooplankton.
Predators: Crabs, skates and rays; humans.
Description: Body is upright with a head (shaped liked a horse head) perpendicular to body. Dorsal fin is fan shaped. Tail is prehensile and lacks a caudal fin. Color varies from light brown to almost black and can change depending on the background. It is the male of the species that gives birth.
Conservation Note: Considered a vulnerable species due to pollution, habitat destruction and overfishing (with a high demand from the Asian market for use in traditional medicines, and as a desirable fish for home aquariums).
Common Name: Forbes sea star
Latin Name: Asterias forbesi
Size/weight: Five or so inches in diameter
Range: Gulf of Maine to Texas
Habitat: Low tide line to depths of 160 feet; rock, gravel or sandy bottom.
Diet: Clams, scallops and oysters. Stomach is everted into the prey animal, where it digests the tissue.
Predators: Spider crabs and, occasionally, lobsters.
Description: Five arms radiating from a central core with an eye at the end of each arm, thousands of tiny tube feet, and a mouth on bottom. Tough, almost spiny skin; color brownish red or orange. The sea star is able to regenerate severed arms.
Conservation Note: Not listed as threatened or endangered.
Common Name: Atlantic wolffish
Latin Name: Anarhichas lupus
Size/weight: Up to five feet long and 40 pounds; average is 3 feet and 15 pounds.
Range: From Greenland to New Jersey
Habitat: Hard bottoms from near shore down to 500 feet.
Diet: Mollusks, echinoderms and crustaceans.
Predators: Humans, cod and some marine mammals.
Description: Long body that tapers down to a slender tail; blueish grey with irregular vertical bars on its sides. Long dorsal fin and protruding teeth.
Conservation Note: Not listed as threatened or endangered.
Common Name: Gray Tree Frog
Latin Name: Hyla veriscolor
Size/weight: Small (1.5 to 2 inches)
Range: Most of the eastern half of the U.S., and north into Canada.
Habitat: Woods near swamps, ponds and rivers.
Diet: They are nocturnal hunters of flies, moths, caterpillars, beetles, ants, spiders, crickets and other invertebrates.
Predators: Birds, snakes, other larger frogs. (Fish eat the tadpoles.)
Description: Usually blotchy gray but also shades of brown and green. They can change their color to match their surroundings. Few frogs can do this. Whatever color a gray tree frog is at the moment, its inner thighs will always be yellowish-orange. Backs are warty in appearance, although of course those aren't warts.Conservation Note: Not considered to be threatened or endangered. However, habitat destruction and human pollutants are contributing to the overall decline of amphibians.