Pretty or Purposeful? Coloration in Reef Fishes (Draft 3a)

This topic submitted by at 4:23 PM on 6/6/02.

Jeremy touches a sea turtle at the wall break, 25 m deep, San Salvador, Bahamas.

Tropical Field Courses -Western Program-Miami University


Often the first thing one notices when visiting the world of the coral reef is the amazing variety of colors and patterns of the fish that live there. The question is, why all the variation? What advantages do the various combination bring to their owners? I hope to address these and other questions relative to fish coloration in a unit for my biology I students. This unit could fit one of two places in the curriculum. It could easily be used as a component of either the evolution unit or an ecology unit.

A. Counter Shading
Which fish are counter shaded (dark on top and light on the bottom) and why?

B. Solids vs. Patterns
Is there an advantage for some to be solid colors while others are striped
or spotted?

C. Eye Spots
What are the theories behind eye spots and the advantages they give to
their owners?

D. Warning Coloration
Some fish want to be seen--how do they send their warning messages?

E. Camouflage
Other fish blend so well they are lost to their predators (or is it their prey?)--how do they
match textures and colors?

F. Color Changers
How do these color magicians instantly change their colors? And why?

References

Donavel, David F. “Playing Dead and Other Defense Tactics,” Sea Frontiers, 56: 24-31, Spring 1996.

Ellis, Y. (Producer), & Robbins, A. (Director). (1994) Eyewitness Video: Shark [Videotape]. Dorling Kindersley LTD. and BBC Lionheart Television Intl. Inc.

Environmental Media Corporation/ Marine Graphics. (1996) Oceans Alive! (Part One)[Videotape]. Environmental Media Corporation/ Marine Graphics.

Environmental Media Corporation/ Marine Graphics. (1996) Oceans Alive! (Part Four)[Videotape]. Environmental Media Corporation/ Marine Graphics.

Hutt, D. (Producer), & Robbins, A. (Director). (1994) Eyewitness Video: Fish [Videotape]. Dorling Kindersley LTD. and BBC Lionheart Television Intl. Inc.

Larkins, Grover. (1997) The Nature Gallery, [online]. Available: http://www.fiu.edu/~larkinsg/nature_gallery_20.htm [2002, June 1].

Levine, Joseph S. “In living colors,” Natural History, 108: 40-47, Spring 1999.

Levine, Joseph S. and Jeffery L. Rotman. “Coral reef fishes use riotous colors to communicate,” Smithsonian, 21: 98-104, November 1990.

Levine, Joseph S. and Jeffery L. Rotman. “Skins and fins and emperor tails,” Sea Frontiers, 40: 40-49, May-June 1994.

Lipkin, Richard. “Sight in the sea: exploring light and color in coral reef ecosystems,” Science News, 148: 184-186, September 16, 1995.

Niesen, Thomas M. The Marine Biology Coloring Book. New York: HarperPerennial, 1982.

Singapore Zoological Gardens Docents. (2000) CORAL REEFS: Why are reef creatures so colourful? and strangely shaped?, [online]. Available:http://wwww.szgdocent.org/ff/f-reef3.htm (2002, June 2).

WCB McGraw-Hill. An Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life. Boston, 1999, pp.291-294.

WCB McGraw-Hill. Marine Biology. Boston, 1997, 149-150,


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