Saturday, 23 January 2016

21 August 1880 - 'Our Aquarium at the Seaside'

How to bring a bit of the natural world into the sitting-room.

Nothing is more interesting, during a visit to the seaside, than the institution of an aquarium; but, unfortunately, it is not always so popular as it is interesting.

The lodging-house keeper is apt to say that she "don't want them nasty things lol-olloping all over the place, and making a swim everywhere;" and if we are as careless as some young people I have known, who put scratchy shells and damp seaweed on polished tables, and spilt fishy water over new carpets, I do not much wonder at the poor woman's objections. But a little suavity and a good deal of care will probably soon soothe her into resignation, if not acquiescence, and a square of oil or America cloth laid under our aquarium will be a further balm to her suspicious fears.

But if we are to have a successful aquarium, more than this will be required of us.

We must be endowed with some proportion of those useful qualities, patience and perseverance, as our fish will die and our pans become unsavoury mortuaries if we are not both constant and tender in the care of our marine nursery.

And first we must be particular as to the kind of vessel in which we place our aquarium, for fishes and anemones will not live anywhere and anyhow.

The pan or pans must not be of glass, if we are to make the inmates happy, for these little rovers and climbers of the deep love occasional darkness and retirement.  For the same reason they should not be left too long in the sun or before a glaring window.

Then, again, they must not be too deep. A large surface is absolutely necessary for evaporation, and  for the water to absorb sufficient of the oxygen of the air, without which our fishes could not live or breathe. The liquid, again, should be renewed daily. But we need not trudge all the way down to the sands for this. Our bedroom jug, if tolerably fresh, will do, for soft water may be put in without injury, since the salt remains when the water evaporates. Then put in a little sand, a few pebbles, and only the right sort of seaweed.

Green laver - (Ulva latissima), a common seaweed, with a thin green crenellated leaf, like a broad ribbon, is a good kind, as it absorbs the gases given out by the fishes, and itself gives out the oxygen gas which they require. Purple laver is equally good. Now raise a cone of stone or sand - a miniature Mont Blanc - in one part of your aquarium, for your crabs and other animals to "take the air" when they desire it; but take care that your cairn is not near the edge of your vessel, or you will soon have all the crustaceans and shell-fish taking voyages of discovery over your sitting-room floor.

From all this you will see that those showy glass tanks kept in the fashionable shops are not at all the right things to have, and that earthenware pans, though less ornamental, are really far better for your little prisoners. They will by no means disdain a footpan if you are short of better accommodation.

But now  for the inmates themselves.

We will begin with bona fide fishes, for it would never do to have only crabs and anemones (or crustacean and acalepha, as we ought to call them) in our aquarium.

The grey mullet and the basse are both nice fishes, if not too big for us. The grey mullet is specially lively, and thinks nothing of taking a flying leap out of his tank on to the floor, to his own inevitable destruction, so that we must be careful to see that his prison is covered.

The basse is very hardy and very lively, and if we can manage to get a small one out of the fisherman's seine net, his blue back and silver stomach will look well darting about our aquarium.

The pluck, or pogge, is a very queer little fish, with a striped brown body, white underneath, and covered with a quantity of spiked tubercles, that gain for it in some parts of the country the name of the armed bullhead. We must decidedly get a seiner or a shrimper to find a pogge for us in their nets.

Among fishes that we may find for ourselves by hunting among the rock pools is the spotted gunnell. It is a little, dappled brown, eel-like creature, ornamental along the bottom of the dorsal fin with a line of black spots in a white rim, and is so agile and slippery that it requires a wary fisher to entrap it even with the net. It is a little bit large, perhaps, for our collection, being unusually about six inches long, but is hardy and a curious variety.

Montague's Blenny is its cousin, and is another pretty fish that we may capture for ourselves when we clamber over the slippery rocks at low tide.  It is much more highly coloured than its relative, however, wearing a dark green coat, spotted with blue, with a white waistcoat, and orange-dotted fins.

At the same time we may "happen" across a goby, a dark little fish belonging to the same family, but of quaker-like dress, who is distinguished by the rapidity of his motions and by his habit of carrying off his prey, when caught, to some convenient retiring place, where, like a dog with a bone, he devours his prey in private.

It is decidedly worth while, and by no means difficult, to get one of the pipe or bill fishes for our marine happy family. They have most queer, snake-like little bodies, long and thin, and their tails are prehensile. That is to say, they fasten themselves to the seaweed tufts by these appendages, precisely as monkeys do to forest trees. They have a decided predilection, like monkeys, for hanging head downwards; but, unlike monkeys, they show an equal enjoyment in balancing themselves the other way up, upon the tips of their tails! The dorsal fin of the pipe fish is beautifully and delicately formed; and it is by means chiefly of this fin that the owner can perform his acrobatic feats.

The pipe fish, too, has another peculiarity. If he resembles the monkey in his tail, he resembles the kangaroo in his pouch. In this pouch the paternal pipe fish carries about his numerous little family, until they are old enough to be cast adrift and to provide for themselves.

If we have room for another fish in our aquarium, we should not omit to put in one little dab or flounder. The movement of these flat fishes when swimming is the perfection of undulatory grace, and the brown and silver curves rippling through the water, circle in and out like a broad ribbon.

But we must begin now to think of shellfish for our aquarium, and of course we must have some crabs, both common crustaceans and hermit crabs. The common green crab is not a very desirable inmate, although he is an amusing and lively fellow. But his voracious appetite and sanguinary proclivities make it advisable for us either to give him a separate establishment of his own, or to choose from his species one young and small enough not to be a very formidable foe. We must also take care to provide him with a dry landing place, remembering that crabs are amphibious creatures. But we must look to his security.

I had, a few years ago, an interesting little crab who met with a most untimely fate. He had attained to intimate and almost affectionate terms with me, when one day, to my sorrow, he disappeared, and my footpan knew him no more.

I had almost forgotten my little crab, when, a week or two latter, happening to remove the sofa cushion against which I had been leaning, I found the stiffened corpse of my friend pressed between it and the sofa back. What induced him to go to such an unsuitable place I never knew; whether curiosity, or desire for warmth, or simple chance. I fear, however, it could scarcely have been affection for myself.

The way the crab eats is very interesting, using his claws like a human hand to hold and to dissever. 

The spider crab is a curious-looking little animal, worth having, and easily obtained at low water; and the velvet fiddler or lady crab is a handsome creature, with soft velvety brown back, and legs striped blue and scarlet. But of all crabs the hermit or soldier crabs will interest us most. They are called hermits, I suppose, because of their solitary lives, and soldiers because of their pugnacious love of warfare.

But they might, with reason, be called cuckoo crabs, too, since, like that dishonest bird, they have the audacious habit of turning their neighbour out of house and home, and appropriating his tenement.

The hermit chiefly affects the whelk's shell; but he is not above putting up with a less suitable one if that is not procurable, and, watching his absurd efforts sometimes to insert the whole of a large body into a very small shell, one is irresistibly reminded of an overgrown schoolboy in last year's trousers.

The hermit crab's excuse for his burglary lies in the fact that nature has not provided a shell for his body, which at one part is soft and defenceless.  At its termination is a sort of T-shaped hook or grasper, by which he clings so tightly to his stolen property that you may tear the animal to pieces before dislodging him. 

The soldier crabs will fight fiercely over an empty shell placed between the two of them, and I had one valiant specimen that used to go out to battle with a cuttlefish six inches long. The opal-coloured cuttlefish blushed all over in crimson patches with anger at the crab's temerity and at his opening nips, but after a minute or two always got the best of it, and persuaded the crab (who scuttled ignominiously away, shell on back), that discretion was the better part of valour.

Belonging to the same family are the shrimps and the prawns, of which we must have one or two. The shrimps we can catch for ourselves in the rock pools, and we shall do well to examine their method of swimming and the delicate shell-plates upon their "tails," so constructed as to enable their possessor to dart through the sea with a marvellous rapidity. The prawns, too, are pretty little creatures in the water, with their glowing eyes and diamond-hued bodies. Perhaps, however, some of my readers may agree with a small friend of mine who, on first seeing a live prawn, exclaimed in disappointment, "O, auntie, I like the pink prawns much better!" 

A minute ago I named the cuttlefish. Mine was a very fine specimen, and rather rare on these coasts, I fancy; but the squid may be procured almost anywhere with a little care, and is a better size for our aquarium. He is a most singular little creature, looking all head, eyes, and suckers, and well worthy of our observation.

We may perhaps hatch our squid from the eggs which are to be found, about June, upon the seashore, and this of course will double our interest in our eccentric little friend. If we have a taste for hatching marine animals, we may do the same with the whelk's eggs, which are found in such countless clusters on the rocks.

The Trochus zisiphinus, or top shell, is a pretty inhabitant for the stones at the bottom of our pan, with its dappled pink, white, and mauve shell; and the dog winkle, also, though we must beware he does not use his long sword-like tongue (with which he perforates the abode of his enemies and devours them) to work too much havoc amongst his companions.

As for limpets, a few of the handsomest common limpets, or fisherman's hats (Patella vulgate), and of the common periwinkle, will be sufficient for us. The latter is a useful member of an aquarium, as he keeps in order for us the too luxuriant, freshly-growing seaweed, with his long scythe-like tongue. This tongue, covered with its numerous teeth, is a most interesting object under a microscope.

If we have our friend with the dredge still at our beck and call, we must get him to try and fish up for us one of those beautiful creatures called Aphrodite aculeate, or the sea mouse. It is not unlike the shape of a mouse, only requiring legs and tail, but is covered all over its sides with spines or hairs of every conceivable shade of brilliant colouring. These spines change their hue with every fresh ray of light, making the sea mouse a thing of rare beauty. 

It seems strange that so fascinating a creature should prefer darkness and retirement, but so it is; and we shall find some difficulty in persuading it to display itself to our admiring eyes. The Aphrodite is essentially a practical-minded animal, and what little energy it possesses, it lends to the cause of gastronomy, eating up many of its more defenceless companions by means of a terrible aggressive proboscis, which it can dart out, when hungry, to a surprising length, but which it keeps almost concealed when not in use.

But (at the risk of mixing up our company without much regard to ties of relationship or rights of precedence), I must remind you that we must not forget to get a sea-cucumber for our aquarium. He is a most curious-looking, though retiring animal, often found in the dredge, and owes his name to his queer shape, which is not unlike that of a cucumber with a bunch of leaves at one end. His skin is spiny and perforated with holes, out of which come curious suckers, used in breathing and digestion. 

This Holathuria, as he and his family are called, has one very odd and unpleasant trick, which is, that he will not only at times turn himself inside out, but will subsequently, if properly nourished, live to replace his ejected inside.

The holathuria differ as to their choice of homes, some living in the deep sea and some burrowing in the sand or hiding under rocks or seaweed. The poor people of Naples sometimes eat them; whilst the Chinese have a perfect mania for a certain member of the holothurian fraternity, which they call "trepang."

They make it into rich soups and stews, and thousands of pounds worth of these queer unsavoury-looking animals are yearly imported into China  for the delectation of the Celestials.

A sea urchin, too, we must have, or sea hedgehog, as his picturesque spikes entitle him to be called. In Latin he is termed the echinus. The empty shell of the echinus, that very probably we have picked up on the shore, bears very little resemblance to the beautiful creature when alive. It was bare, smooth, and brown, and covered with little circular sockets.

But when the echinus is alive every socket bears its pointed spike, so delicately fixed that it can move at will; and intended party as a means of defence, and partly as numerous crutches to assist the little suckers which serve as feet.

The echinus differs a good deal in size on our own shores; but he excels both in beauty and magnitude abroad. I have picked up very beautiful ones by the Mediterranean - a rich brown, deep purple, and even crimson, in colour, nearly four inches in diameter, and with spikes quite three inches long.

The sea urchin does not look a tempting dish to us, but both Greeks and Romans of old appear to have thought it so. It was served up at marriage and other feasts, flavoured with vinegar, sweet wine, and herbs, and considered quite a dainty.

Belonging to the same family as the sea cucumbers and the sea urchins, although to a different branch, are the star-fishes, which lie all about us as we climb along the rocks and over the loose shingle. After a storm these fat, red stars almost cover the shore, thrown up by the retiring waves; and in some places their corpses have even been used to manure the land.

It is worth taking a star-fish (Uraster rubens) home with us, in order to study the action of the five rays, or limbs, which, covered with their thousands of strong minute suckers, make themselves useful as feelers and as propellers. It is a funny thing to see a star-fish walk or turn himself over. He is a lively and intelligent animal, and although apparently he has no eyes, he boasts a pair of little organs like insect antennae, which are very sensitive. But if you keep a star-fish, he must be put into a pot by himself. Mind you do not let him associate with the rest of the marine aquarium or you will find your aquarium speedily turned into a slaughter-house, with only shells of the inhabitants left to explain their mournful ends. For our friend has a vulgar appetite, and a fierce and determined mode of gratifying it. In his turn, however, he is much relished by larger fish, and especially by cod and haddock, and has many foes to contend against.

The stellerides, as they are called, are remarkably full of vitality, and indeed may almost be said to have  as many lives as a cat, since, were every one of their arms lopped off by a cruel hand, each to which a little portion of the circular body adhered, would become in time a new starfish.

Another kind of starfish, called the brittle star, may be found on the shore or among the rock pools at low water, generally buried among the tufts of green seaweed. The brittle stars are delicate and pretty, and more lively than their heavier cousins, the common stars, and owe their name to their embarrassing habit of tumbling to pieces when touched or frightened.

But all this time we have forgotten the actiniae, or sea anemones, who perhaps after all will form our chief delight in our new aquarium. The commonest kind, found all over England, is the beadlet (I will not attempt its terrible scientific name, which boats sixteen letters in one word).

The beadlet, when closed, is a little roundish lump of crimson or green jelly, sticking firmly to the rock; when open, he is a soft hamper, full of waving leaflets, a rim of bright blue ornamenting the base of the hamper. The beadlets, when on their native rocks, are often to be seen surrounded by a happy family of baby beadlets, and will populate the aquarium rapidly with fresh members. They are very hardy little animals, and will stand unintentional neglect or maltreatment with greater good temper than most of our marine friends. 

There is another fish, the dahlia wartlet. It is another common but beautiful sea anemone. This fine creature is more than five inches in diameter, and is coloured white, crimson and green. When open it resembles a soft basketful of fine buds, something like the dahlia in appearance. Its name of wartlet it gets from the little protuberances, like warts, which cover its body. These protuberances attract small bits of shell and stone, which so cover the anemone that it is difficult to discover it when closed.

But the dahlia wartlet, like the starfish, is a dangerous addition to an aquarium. It is a hungry creature, and so skilful with its tentacles, that shellfish, crabs, and even prawns fall victims to its voracious dexterity. There is no such objections to the plume anemone (Actinoloba dianthus), who is an exceedingly pretty little fellow, white, yellow, and red. When open its outer edge is beautifully fringed, resembling a circle of fairy feathers. This little anemone loves the dark, and I have found a beautiful species of it in caves on the Bristol Channel, coloured scarlet, with a white fringe.

Another curious anemone is the snake-locked (or Sagartia viduarta), which, when closed, is an uninteresting little object, like a flattened lobster-pot, but when open becomes a long waving arm, the hand being represented by a numerous quantity of snake-like locks floating in every direction.

A few acelepha or sea jellies will make a nice variety in our aquarium. I would scarcely advise you to burden your can with one of those huge rainbow-hued crystal bowls lying upon the sands, but I would advise you, in passing, to bend down and admire its opal, transparent brilliancy; and then, turning it gently over, to mark its strange india-rubber-like appendages or tentacles, and the shape of its body, which - convex or pointed above  is concave or hollowed below.

Many of the jelly-fish are called Medusida on account of the long tendrils which fall from their bodies or float after them like the locks of Medusa - as they lie lazily and gracefully on the summer sea.

In the region of the tropics, jelly-fish or Medusae of all kinds and sizes swarm, extending for miles over the sea, and positively checking the progress of ships, whilst the phosphorescent light they emit gives the appearance of an infinite host of stars twinkling and dancing over the bosom of the waters.

The medusa, however, is an unpleasant customer to deal with when out bathing, as he has a most irritating sting.

One of the prettiest ornaments for our aquarium will be the cydippe or sea acorn - a little cone-shaped medusa, with long dependent strings - which is exquisitely formed and tinted, and which can be caught in a net a little distance from land. When first captured, it will appear like a little colourless ball of jelly; but, when freed and at ease in the aquarium, it will spread out its tentacles, adopt its rainbow hues, and become an object of beauty.

Who has not heard of "Portuguese Man of War," with its luminous body and its tentacles of two lengths - the longer used to capture the prey and convey it to the shorter, which are furnished with mouths to receive it?

And now, before turning homewards with our well filled can, may I ask you to bend down and carefully gather up that little lump of sandy tubes lying at our feet upon the wet shore?

And don't say, contemptuously, "Why, those are nothing but worms!" for you will find, when you keep an aquarium, that some worms can be interesting acquaintances.

This sabella, as he is called, is very delicate, and you must beware that his house does not fall to pieces in your hands; but you will discover in time that he is a clever architect and industrious builder, who will carry on his work with perfect equanimity in captivity, if supplied with material.

Another "worm," probably not far off, and decidedly prettier, is the "terebella."

The sabella looks like a writhing mass of sandy pipes; but the terebella has the appearance of one large distinct tube, covered with sparkling incrustations of broken shell and grains of sand, from one end of which protrude many little snaky tentacles.

The terebella is sometimes a foot long, and is a burrower as well as a builder, often burying his body in the sand, leaving uncovered his tentacle and a part of his tube.

This tube is only the shell of the animal, which is quite distinct, and can not only move about the habitation, but if denuded of it can build a new one from surrounding materials by means of its skilful tentacles.

But we must pause. One could go on for ever enumerating new instances of the intricate beauties of creation, and the loving care of a divine Father. But we have now more than sufficient to stock the moderate aquarium of a beginner, who will find that a careful study of the habits of even these few among the countless multitudes of strange and beautiful little creatures will open out to her new fields of ever-widening thought, and many an hour of unexpected enjoyment.

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