Sting rays, cownosed rays and spotted eagle rays are relatively common in reserve waters, but manta and devil rays are quite unusual. Giant rays have been spotted a few times in the Research Reserve, near Keewaydin and Marco Island. Devil rays generally grow to about four feet across while mantas can reach more than twenty feet. Manta rays filter plankton out of the water by swimming slowly with their mouths open. Devil rays are known to eat crustaceans and other invertebrate animals they suck up from the bottom. Aside from size and feeding strategy, one of the few anatomical differences between these two species is that the manta ray has a barbed tail and the devil ray does not. Neither of these species pose a threat to people.
Goldspotted killifish (Floridichthys carpio) are small, hearty fish that tolerate a range of water conditions. Breeding males often display gold spots on their cheeks and bodies. Breeding males will attempt to chase off much larger fish when defending their territory. Goldspotted killifish can be found in both marine and brackish environments, especially around tidal flats.
The Goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara) is typically associated with offshore coral reef or wreck habitat. This grouper is appropriately named, as individuals can weigh up to 800 pounds and reach the size of a small car. It might seem strange that these monstrous fish would call an estuary home, however, mangrove-forested estuaries provide crucial habitat for juveniles.
Gulf flounders, Paralichthys albigutta, are left-eyed flat fish. As young they look and swim like most fish, but shortly after hatching, the right eye migrates around to the other side of its head. Gulf flounders can be distinguished from other flounders by the three dark ocelli (false eye spots). Masters of camouflage, flounders settle down on the bottom and change shades and pattern to match their environment. They eat small crabs and shrimp.
The hardhead catfish (Arius felis) is gray and has a long slender build. It has sharp spines in both pectoral fins and dorsal fin that help it fend off predators. It is not considered good eating, and fishing enthusiasts must handle it with care to avoid a painful wound. Its smooth skin is covered with thick slime. A bottom-dweller, the catfish uses barbels (scent organs) at the corners of its mouth and on its chin to help it locate food in the mud. The hardhead catfish prefers shallow water with a muddy bottom.
The inshore lizardfish (Synodus foetens) is named for its lizard-like head and small, sharp teeth. The lizardfish is voracious predator of shallow waters. It buries itself in the mud or sand to ambush its prey. Similar to flounders, the lizardfish is able to camouflage itself by changing shades or colors to match its surroundings.
Lane snappers, Lutjanus synagris, feed on crustaceans, worms, and other fish. It is a colorful fish, usually reddish with a series of yellow horizontal stripes running along its side. Its fins are reddish too, with a yellow tinted anal fin. A dark spot under the dorsal fin is often visible. Juvenile lane snappers, called “candy snappers,” are often caught while trawling in Rookery Bay.
Unlike most other fish, the male seahorse (Hippocampus erectus) incubates eggs deposited by his mate in a pouch on his abdomen. Seahorses have small fins and therefore are ill-equipped to swim against the current. They must cling to algae, seagrasses, and each other using their tails. Seahorse populations around the world are believed to be declining due to overcollection and use in traditional medicines.