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Zebra Turkeyfish (Dendrochirus zebra)

Zebra Turkeyfish (Dendrochirus zebra)

At present, I am in no danger of coming into ownership of a yacht, but if I had one I kow what I would name it–the “Turkeyfish” a magnificent combination of my favorite bird and a lovely fish.  But “turkeyfish” is not just a funny portmanteau or an impossible chimera, there are actual turkeyfish swimming the world’s waters.

The Two-spot Turkeyfish (Dendrochirus biocellatus)

Dendrochirus is a genus of small scorpionfish which live in the Indo-Pacific region: these dwarf lionfish are also known colloquially as turkeyfish. They are members of the Pteroinae subfamily of the Scorpionfish family (a family which includes some of the world’s most poisonous fish) and, like their relatives they have fans of sharp spines coated with venomous mucus.  Because these spines are striped and shaped like the feathers of turkeys, divers fancifully call them turkeyfish (a common name which is sometimes even extended to larger lionfish of the Pterois genus).

Shortfin turkeyfish or Dwarf Lionfish (Dendrochirus brachypterus)

Shortfin turkeyfish or Dwarf Lionfish (Dendrochirus brachypterus)

Turkeyfish are formidable carnivores (for their size) with large powerful mouths and the ability to lurk in shadows and stalk prey around a reef.  They mostly prey on small fish, arthropods, and mollusks but occasionally they eat big fish—or each other. The poisonous spines of turkeyfish cause large predatory fish to avoid them and their toxin is also venomous to animals other than fish (like humans which can be badly hurt, or even occasionally killed by the spines). The exquisite colors of these spines serve as a warning to predators, but have also caused the fishes to be popular in the aquarium trade.

Zebra Turkeyfish (Dendrochirus zebra)

Zebra Turkeyfish (Dendrochirus zebra)

Some species of lionfish have even been spreading around the tropical waters of the globe after irresponsible aquarists freed them into the ocean.  It is unclear whether the turkeyfish have joined their larger cousins in invading non-native reefs but it is clear they are formidable fish.

Melo Pearl

Melo Pearl

The world’s rarest and most precious pearls do not come from oysters, but instead from very large sea snails of the species Melo melo.  Melo melo snails lives in the tropical waters of southeast Asia and range from Burma down around Malysia and up into the Philippines.  The snails are huge marine gastropods which live by hunting other smaller snails along the shallow underwater coasts of the warm Southeast Asia seas.

Melo melo snail (Melo melo)

Melo melo snail (Melo melo)

Melo melo is a very lovely snail with a smooth oval shell of orange and cream and with zebra stripes on its soft body.  The shell lacks an operculum (the little lid which some snails use to shut their shells) and has a round apex as opposed to the more normal spiral spike. This gives the Melo melo snail’s shell a very aerodynamic lozenge-like appearance (although living specimens look more like alien battlecraft thanks to the large striped feet and funnels).  The animals grow to be from 15 to 35 centimeters in length (6 inches to a foot) although larger specimens have been reported.  The shell is known locally as the bailer shell because fishermen use the shells to bail out their canoes and small boats.

Melo melo at Birmingham's National Sea Life Centre (with keeper)

Melo melo at Birmingham’s National Sea Life Centre (with keeper)

Melo pearls form only rarely on the snails and are due to irritating circumstances unknown to science.  No cultivation mechanism exists (which explains the astronomically high prices).  A single large melo pearl can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in Asia.  The pearls are usually egg-shaped or oval (although perfectly round specimens are known) and they can measure up to 20-30mm in diameter.  Not nacreous (like pearls from oysters & abalones), these valuable objects have a porcelain-like transparent shine.  Melo pearls are brown, cream, flesh, and orange (with the brighter orange colors being most valuable).

Melo pearls with Melo melo shell

Melo pearls with Melo melo shell

Apart from the fact that they come from a large orange predatory sea snail, what I like most about melo pearls is the extent to which they evoke the celestial.  It is hard not to look at the shining ovals and orbs without thinking of the sun, Mars, Makemake, and Haumea.  Rich jewelry aficionados of East Asia, India, and the Gulf states must agree with me.  It is difficult to conceive of paying the price of a nice house for a calcium carbon sphere from an irritated/diseased snail, unless such pearl spoke of unearthly beauty and transcendent longing.

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