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Social Behavior of the Sharptail Snake Eel (Myrichthys breviceps) on a Southern Reef of Bonaire
David L. Haskins, John J. Enz, and David E. Unger

Caribbean Naturalist, No. 44

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Caribbean Naturalist 1 D.L. Haskins, J.J. Enz, and D.E. Unger 22001177 CARIBBEAN NATURALIST No. 4N4o:1. –444 Social Behavior of the Sharptail Snake Eel (Myrichthys breviceps) on a Southern Reef of Bonaire David L. Haskins1,*, John J. Enz2, and David E. Unger3 Abstract - Snake eels are a family of fishes that are found throughout the western Atlantic. Although many species are common, little is known of their social or reproductive behaviors due to their secretive lifestyles. Myrichthys breviceps (Sharptail Eel) are considered locally common in the Caribbean, but like other snake eel species, observations of social and reproductive behaviors are rare. Here we describe a novel sighting of several adult Sharptail Eels engaging in spawning behavior on a resort house reef in Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles. Snake and worm eels (Anguilliformes: Ophichthidae) comprise the largest and most diverse family of true eels. These eels inhabit a large variety of habitats including coral reefs, deep ocean environments, rivers, and estuaries (McCosker et al. 1989). Despite their global range, little is actually known about the life history of many of these cryptic species. Many snake eels exhibit burrowing behavior and have nocturnal tendencies, making observation of their behaviors challenging (Mc- Cosker et al. 1989). Myrichthys breviceps (J. Richardson) (Sharptail Eel) inhabits the western Atlantic and has been found along the coasts of North and South America (Gasparini and Floeter 2001, McCosker et al. 1989). These eels are colored light brown to grayish brown and are covered in pale spots. Sharptail Eels and other sympatric species (i.e., Myrichthys ocellatus (Lesueur) [Goldspotted Eel]) are typically found in shallow water (0–10 m) in coral reef habitats and are thought to mainly feed on crabs (Smith 1997). There are many observations that describe behaviors among Myrichthys spp. and other reef fishes. For example, most available studies report a “nuclear-follower” foraging system between M. ocellatus and a variety reef fishes (Araújo et al. 2009, Sazima et al. 2007). While observations that describe foraging strategies are useful, very little is known about social and mating behaviors in Myrichthys spp. (D. Smith, Smithsonian National Museum of History, Washington, DC, USA, pers. comm.). Nunes et al. (2007) described “friendly behavior” between M. breviceps and M. ocellatus that appeared to be utilizing the same rock crevices for cover as well as the same foraging grounds on a Brazilian reef. The only reported claim of spawning activity in Myrichthys spp. was off the coast of North Carolina, where multiple Ophichthid eel species (Ahlia egmontis (Jordan) [Key Worm Eel], M. breviceps, M. ocellatus, and Ophichthus puncticeps (Kaup) [Palespotted Eel]) 1Savannah River Ecology Lab, University of Georgia, Drawer E, Aiken, SC 29802, USA. 2Department of Biology and Marine Science, Jacksonville University, Jacksonville, FL 32211, USA. 3Deprtment of Biology, Maryville College, Maryville, TN 37804, USA. *Corresponding author - Manuscript Editor: Kathleen Sullivan Sealey Caribbean Naturalist D.L. Haskins, J.J. Enz, and D.E. Unger 2017 No. 44 2 were assumed to be in reproductive or pre-spawning activity (Ross and Rohde 2003). However, spawning activity was not actually observed in any of these species, and only 1 female M. breviceps was collected. In this report, we describe a rare observation of M. breviceps engaging in social behavior that is suggestive of spawning activity taking place on the fringe reef of Bonaire, Municipality of the Netherlands. Observations in this report occurred on a resort house reef, Buddy’s Reef (see for map of all Bonaire dive sites), north of Kralendijk, Bonaire, Municipality of the Netherlands (12°10'14.0"N 68°17'18.8"W). Like most areas in the Caribbean, Bonaire is surrounded by the common fringing type of reef, which is considered relatively narrow around the island (Alevizon 2015). At Buddy’s Reef particularly, this area is characterized by a shallow (5–8 m), sandy, and relatively barren entry area that runs from the bank (dock) outward a distance of 20 m where the drop off Figure 1. Snapshot from video of Myrichthys breviceps (Sharptail Eel) social interaction on a reef at Buddy’s Dive in Kralendijk, Bonaire, Municipality of the Netherlands. Caribbean Naturalist 3 D.L. Haskins, J.J. Enz, and D.E. Unger 2017 No. 44 begins and continues to a maximum depth of 40 m (Otten 2012). During a night dive (2100–0000 hours) in March of 2014, we observed and recorded social interactions among several individuals (6–7) of M. breviceps at a depth of ~9–11 m (Fig. 1; also, for video of event, see Supplemental File 1, available online at https://www. All photographs and footage of this observation were recording using a GoPro Hero 3+ ( Observations of M. breviceps on Buddy’s Reef are not very common, as their sighting frequency on the reef is ~24% (REEF 2017). In our video, eels were grouped together on the reef bed and 5–6 individuals were gently prodding one eel’s face and body. Some eels were partially buried in sand during the interaction, while others were fully exposed. This behavior continued for the entirety of the short clip. After a brief observation, our dive group moved on and left the eels to continue their interaction. Although it is difficult to ascertain the true intentions of the behavior that we recorded, our observation is the first reported intraspecific social interaction for this cryptic eel species. To our knowledge, there are only 2 reports (ours and another later in 2014 that is unpublished) suggestive of spawning behavior in M. breviceps. In the other report (Muller 2016), the M. breviceps behaved very similarly to our observation prior to rising off of the bed into swimming behavior. Our observation could be the first documented record of spawning behavior for M. breviceps. Our present report suggests that, on Bonaire’s reefs, M. breviceps may congregate at night to engage in group spawning. Acknowledgments We would like to thank Maryville College’s Center for International Education for providing Mr. Haskins with the Sustainabiliy Airfare Grant that supported his trip to Bonaire. We also would like to thank the Maryville College Division of Natural Sciences and the 2014 Bonaire dive crew that participated in these dives. Literature Cited Alevizon, S.W., and J.W. Porter. 2015. Coral loss and fish guild stability on a Caribbean coral reef: 1974–2000. Environmental Biology of Fishes 98:1035– 1045. Araújo, M.E., P.H.C. Pereia, J.L.L. Feitosa, G. Gondolo, D. Pimenta, and M.C. Nottingham. 2009. Feeding behavior and follower fishes of Myrichthys occelatus (Anguilliformes: Ophichthidae) in the western Atlantic. Neotropical Ichthyology doi:10.1590/S1679- 62252009000300019. Gasparini, J.L., and S.R. Floeter. 2001. The shore fishes of Trindade Island, western South Atlantic. Journal of Natural History 35(11):1639–1656. McCosker, J.E., Böhlke, E.B., and J.E. Böhlke. 1989. Family Ophichthidae. Pp 254–412, In E.B. Böhlke (Ed.). Fishes of the western North Atlantic. Sears Foundation for Marine Research, New Haven, CT, USA. Muller, E. 2016. Video—Sharptail Eels mating. Available online at imagine/image/155853864. Accessed 17 September 1917. Nunes, J.A.C.C., R. Maia-Nogueira, and C.L.S. Sampajo. 2007. “Friendly behavior” between two species of Myrichthys in Brazilian Waters. Coral Reefs 26:199. Caribbean Naturalist D.L. Haskins, J.J. Enz, and D.E. Unger 2017 No. 44 4 Otten, M. 2012. Dive Guide Bonaire. 1st Edition. Dolphins, Brouwershaven Netherlands. 260 pp. REEF. 2017. Distribution report for Sharptail Eel (Myrichthys breviceps) in TWA. Available online at 09-12. Accessed 17 September 1917. Ross, S.W., and F.C. Rohde. 2003. Collections of Ophichthid Eels on the surface at night off North Carolina. Bulletin of Marine Science 72(1):241–246. Sazima, C., J.P. Krajewski, R.M. Bonaldo, and I. Sazima. 2007. Nuclear-follower foraging associations of reef fishes and other animals at an oceanic archipelago. Environmental Biology of Fishes. doi:10.1007/s10641-006-9123-3. Smith, C.L. 1997. Sharptail Eel. Pp. 321–324, In K. Clark and K. Lucenko (Eds.). National Audubon Society Field Guide to Tropical Marine Fishes of the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Bahamas, and Bermuda. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, NY, USA.