Saving The Seagrasses - "Littoral Creatures"

Exhibit opens at The Gallery at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort14 February - 30 August 2015

Seagrass meadows, like those here in the Florida Keys are as important as any tropical rainforest when it comes to sequestering carbon, producing oxygen and providing food and shelter for an untold number of creatures. And, they are as threatened as the rainforests.

"Saving the Seagrasses - Littoral Creatures" is Miami Environmental Artist Xavier Cortada's effort to draw attention to the ongoing threats to South Florida's seagrasses. Cortada's "Littoral Creatures" draws attention to the creatures that make the seagrass and surrounding waters their home."Most of us don't see plants, we see the animals around the plants; this is called "plant blindness. Therefore, to bring attention to the importance of the world's seagrass beds, I focused my creative efforts on the many creatures that depend on seagrass for their survival," says Cortada. "Littoral Creatures" was originally created by Xavier Cortada to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve, established in 1974.

"Most of us don't see plants, we see the animals around the plants; this is called "plant blindness. Therefore, to bring attention to the importance of the world's seagrass beds, I focused my creative efforts on the many creatures that depend on seagrass for their survival," says Cortada.

By highlighting some of the many sea creatures we humans love, Cortada hopes people will come to understand the importance of protecting the underwater plants that provide their shelter and food; plants rarely noticed by us - the seagrass.The exhibit, a mixture of acrylic paintings and drawings on carbon paper opens on Saturday, February 14th at The Gallery on the grounds of The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort, mm 97.8 bayside. The Gallery is open to the public daily from 10am to 6pm. All artwork is for sale with the proceeds benefiting The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort and their Upper Keys Fairchild Challenge student education program which has, this year, enrolled over 1000 students and 73 teachers from most every upper Keys school.

The Gallery at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort, seeks to Promote Environmental Understanding through Art.

The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort, a 501(c)3 non-profit, offers a 90 minute TYUP™ tour about "Why Plants Matter," Tuesday through Saturday at 10am. And, through our affiliation with Caribbean Watersports, we offer a 2 hour "Enviro-Tour" of Florida Bay where one can directly experience many littoral creatures and see the seagrass meadows first hand. Reservations are required, please call 305-852-9766. TYUP™ = "Transforming Your Understanding of Plants."The intertidal area, also called the littoral zone, is where land and sea meet, between the high and low tide zones; a complex marine ecosystem found along coastlines worldwide. The Littoral zone is rich in nutrients and oxygen making it the preferred home to a variety of organisms referred to as Littoral Creatures.

The Seahorse

Seahorses are fish! Sometimes referred to as the "jewel of the sea," the seahorse is admired for its grace. Each "crown" on the top of a seahorse head is as unique as a human fingerprint; their method of reproduction wherein the male receives the eggs from the female, fertilizes them and carries them through to birth is unique, and their home, the seagrass is unique as well.

The earliest known seahorse fossils date back about 13 million years. Found in shallow tropical or temperate waters throughout the world, seahorses live in sheltered areas such as seagrass beds, estuaries, coral reefs and mangroves. They mate for life and can live up to 4 years. Poor swimmers, they rely on their dorsal fin beating at 30-70 times per second to propel them along, while their pectoral fins help with stability and steering. With their long thin snouts seahorses are able to probe into nooks and crannies for food, which they suck up through their snouts like a vacuum cleaner. Unable to chew, a seahorse disintegrates its food, mainly small crustaceans. An adult seahorse eats 30-50 times a day, while baby seahorses eat a staggering 3000 pieces of food a day. With between 30 and 40 species worldwide it is often difficult to identify individual species, as individuals of the same species can vary greatly in appearance.

Reduced habitat is a looming threat, as many coral reefs and seagrass beds are deteriorating due to pollution and climate change. Meanwhile, humans annually collect millions of seahorses for traditional Chinese medicine; millions more are taken and left to die in the hot sun to be sold as souvenirs; and the pet trade annually takes a million seahorses from the wild with less than 1,000 surviving more than six weeks in captivity.

The Horseshoe Crab

An ancient and astonishingly adaptable species, the horseshoe crab continues to fascinate those who watch their yearly migration to the beaches. But the horseshoe crab is even more intriguing if you take a closer look.

The horseshoe crab has TEN eyes and can see UV light. Horseshoe crabs pre-date flying insects, dinosaurs and man. Belonging to the phylum of Arthropods that includes insects and spiders, horseshoe crabs are not true crabs; rather they are closely related to the sea dwelling trilobites that existed some 500 million years ago.

The horseshoe crabs you see on beaches are all adults. Juvenile horseshoe crabs spend their first and second summer in the littoral zones— feeding before low tide and burrowing in the sand for the rest of the day. As they grow, young crabs move away from the littoral “nursery” into deeper water. To grow larger the horseshoe crab must molt and shed its shell. By the end of its first year, the crab will have molted several times, but will still be small — about 1/2" wide. As it ages, its growth rate slows. Shedding less frequently, it begins to display a striking variety of hitchhikers living in a symbiotic relationship on its shell, including sponges, mud crabs, sand shrimp, mussels and snails.

Horseshoe crab eggs and larvae are a seasonal food item of fish, sea turtles, crabs, snails and many migratory birds. And, the horseshoe crab plays a vital role in the life of anyone who has received an injectable medication. An extract of the horseshoe crab's blood is used to ensure that intravenous drugs, vaccines and medical devices, are free of bacterial contamination.

The Jellyfish

They are not really fish, hence, they are more properly known as "sea jellies." Jellies are gelatinous marine creatures that drift through the world's oceans. While oftentimes both beautiful and poisonous, only about 70 of the approximately 2000 jelly species are harmful to humans.

The most energy-efficient swimmers of all animals, jellies use their pulsating bell for locomotion and their stinging tentacles to capture prey. Jellies have inhabited the seas for over 500 million years yet they only live from a few hours to several months.

It is a fact that ocean fish populations are declining while jellyfish populations are increasing. All around the world, jellies are reproducing in astonishing numbers, congregating and wreaking havoc. Jellyfish have devoured so much food in the Caspian Sea they’re contributing to the extinction of beluga sturgeon - our source of fine caviar. Jellies have shut down nuclear power plants worldwide and disabled a US aircraft carrier by clogging cooling equipment. Due to their numbers, jellies asphyxiated more than 100,000 farmed salmon off the coast of Ireland.

Jellies are reproducing so rapidly that some experts predict “regime shifts” in which jellies assume dominance in one marine ecosystem after another by mid-century. Humans contribute to this growth: by overfishing big predators that feed on jellyfish, such as tuna, swordfish and sea turtles and overfishing small plankton-eating fish such as anchovies, the jellies, having no enemies and gorging on plankton, flourish.Of course, in some countries, such as Japan and Korea, jellies are known as a delicacy. Dried to prevent spoiling, jellies are becoming increasingly popular throughout the world; perhaps we'll all have to learn to enjoy them as food?

The Upside-Down Jelly

Cassiopea species, the "upside-down jellies," are found in warmer coastal regions around the world, including the littoral mangrove swamps, mudflats, canals, and turtle grass flats in Florida and the Caribbean. Down is up for this jelly - it rests upside-down on the seafloor, waving its lacy tentacles up toward the sun.

This jelly is a farmer; its brownish-olive color a hint to the symbiotic relationship it has with a photosynthetic algae living within its tissues. These algae convert sunlight into food for the jelly while the jelly provides the algae with a home. By lying upside-down, the jelly exposes the algae to the sun, allowing for photosynthesis. The jelly also paralyzes and eats plankton floating through the water.

Cassiopea do not have a central mouth—instead, the edges of their eight oral arms are fused and folded into elaborate frills containing hundreds of stinging cells (nematocysts) and tiny mouth openings, connected by channels to a stomach. By pulsing, Cassiopea forces plankton into its tentacles where they are paralyzed and consumed. Spending nearly its whole life upside-down resting on the sandy or muddy substrate, the Cassiopea looks more like a sea flower than a jelly; a unique form of disguise.

Upside-down jellies have a mild sting; their stinging cells are excreted in a mucus-like substance released if you swim nearby. The stings will appear as a red, rash-like skin irritation and are known for being extraordinarily itchy.

Ocean sunfish and the endangered leatherback sea turtle find Cassiopea to be a most tasty meal.

American White Ibis

The ibises (plural of ibis) are a group of long-legged wading birds with long, down-curved bills. Ibis feed on crayfish, aquatic insects, small fish, and other aquatic life forms found in the littoral zone. Adult ibis are mostly white with black tipped wings, a red face, red legs, and that very distinct down-curved, pink bill. Ibis nest in trees with spoonbills or herons.

Ibis are most often seen feeding as a group, both in the wild and oftentimes in coastal backyards and landscaped areas. While walking, ibis thrust their slightly opened bills deep into the mud and when receptors in their bills feel vibrations from prey, the bill snaps shuts capturing the prey. Generally, their eyes are of little use while feeding. Along the Everglades National Park Anhinga Trail and throughout the Florida Keys, the ibis seem very unaffected by people and will often walk to within a few feet of a human while feeding.

Loss of wetland habitat due to the human development of coastal areas is the main threat to the ibis. The alteration of wetlands, pollution and saltwater influxes are other habitat threats as these practices degrade the quality of the littoral zone and decrease the availability of food.

Native American folklore held that the bird was the last to seek shelter before a hurricane, and the first to emerge afterwards. The bird was thus a symbol for danger and optimism, perfect for our 21st Century environment.


Like the "jellyfish," the "starfish," is not a fish. It’s an echinoderm, closely related to sea urchins and sand dollars and is thus more properly called a "sea star."

Sea stars have been in our oceans for about 500 million years. Today there are some 2,000 species of sea star living throughout the world’s oceans. The five-arm "starfish" is the most common, hence their name; but species with 10, 20, and even 40 arms exist. Sea stars move very slowly along the seabed, using hundreds of tiny tube feet.

Sea stars have bony, calcified skin, protecting them from most predators; many exhibit striking colors that camouflage them or scare off potential attackers. Sea stars can live up to 35 years and they are found in the littoral zone because their food sources inhabit the littoral zone.

Most sea stars have the remarkable ability to consume their prey, clams and oysters, by prying open shells with their tiny, suction-cupped tube feet. The sea star's sack-like stomach emerges from their mouth and oozes inside the shell. The stomach then envelops the prey inside the shell to digest it, finally withdrawing their stomach back into their body.

Beyond their distinctive shape, sea stars are famous for their ability to regenerate limbs, and in some cases, entire bodies. They accomplish this by housing most or all of their vital organs in their arms. Some require the central body to be intact to regenerate, but a few species can grow an entirely new sea star just from a portion of a severed limb.

Like most marine species, sea stars are threatened by pollution, ocean acidification and warming.

The Green Sea Turtle

Unlike most sea turtles, adult green turtles are herbivorous, feeding on seagrasses and algae. Like normal lawn grass, seagrass needs to be constantly cut short to be healthy and help it grow across the sea floor. Green sea turtles act as "lawnmowers," cutting littoral zone seagrasses short, thus helping maintain healthy seagrass beds.

Hatching on beach shorelines, male green sea turtles will never return to shore. During their first three to five years of life, green sea turtles are often found in Sargassum beds, a brown seaweed in which they find shelter and food. Reaching adulthood, it moves closer to the shore and the littoral zone. During the nesting season, females come ashore to lay their eggs on sandy beaches.

Green sea turtles are an endangered species, yet despite this, they are still killed for their meat and eggs. Their numbers are further reduced by boat propeller accidents, fishnet-caused drowning, and the destruction of their nesting grounds by human encroachment.

Seagrass beds are vitally important, providing breeding and developmental grounds for many species of fish, shellfish and crustaceans. Without seagrass beds, many marine species would be lost, as would lower levels of the food chain, resulting in many more marine species being lost, eventually impacting humans. So if green sea turtles go extinct, there would be a serious decline in seagrass beds and a decline in all the other species dependent upon the seagrass beds for survival. All parts of an ecosystem are important, if you lose one, the rest will eventually follow.

The Fish

Seagrass beds are home to many resident fish species and also nursery and feeding grounds for many commercial and sport-fishing species of fish.

Year-round seagrass residents are typically small in size and well camouflaged. The camouflaged emerald clingfish is a tiny fish associated only with seagrass. Common year-round resident fish of south Florida seagrass habitats include pipefish, seahorses and the inshore lizardfish. Parrotfish feed directly on blades of seagrass, while sharptail eels and young moray eels forage for mollusks and other prey in seagrass beds.

Seasonal residents that spend part of their life cycle in littoral zone seagrass beds, mainly as a nursery area for spawning and/or juvenile development include the spotted sea trout, silver perch, grunts and snapper. Some species of coral reef fish will utilize seagrasses as nurseries.

When seagrass beds are adjacent to south Florida coral reefs, large numbers of reef fishes, especially grunts and snapper, will take shelter on the reef during the day and move to seagrass beds at night to forage. Offshore migrants such as nurse sharks, sawfish and some stingrays, visit seagrass habitats in search of prey while pinfish and flathead mullet feed during the day on prey encountered in the seagrass beds.

The Sea Urchin

The sea urchin is found across the ocean floors worldwide in shallow littoral zones, the coral reefs and deeper water. These globular marine invertebrates move very slowly along the seabed and are closely related to the sand dollar.

There are over 600 different species of sea urchin; they are found in all shapes and sizes. Some are covered in long thin spikes where others have a hard shell made up of chalky plates. Many sea urchins have venomous spines. The red sea urchin is one of the longest living animals on earth, oftentimes living more than 200 years.

Like humans, sea urchins are omnivorous, eating both plant and animal matter. They feed on algae and decomposing matter such as dead fish, mussels, sponges and barnacles encountered in the littoral zone.

Sea urchins are food for many animals, ranging from crabs, sea stars, snails, sea otters, birds, fish and, yes, even people. In Japan, sea urchins are an expensive delicacy and their popularity is growing worldwide. Of course, due to overfishing, dredging and ocean pollution, sea urchin populations are declining and today some research indicates the sea urchin is threatened with extinction.

The Nature of Being

Finally, in this painting in the series, "Littoral Creatures," Xavier takes his full creative rights. Is this painting, "The Nature of Being," representative of all of the creatures of the littoral zone? Are they are crying out to be saved? It is a matter of interpretation. Are they trying to tell us to help save their habitat - to better understand the Seagrasses? Again, it's a matter of interpretation. Are they showing us all their colors; all their complexity; all their beauty? Is Xavier showing us just how diverse and amazing the littoral zone is? Is Xavier telling us, without showing us, that seagrass is as important as the tropical rainforests? That seagrass is not only indispensable to the lives of all these amazing creatures, but to us humans as well?

What perhaps makes Xavier's "Littoral Creatures" so incredible is that Xavier is sending a message about seagrass, about a very significant ecological environment, without ever showing us a seagrass meadow; without ever really showing us a blade of seagrass. Xavier is taking the theory of "plant blindness™" to it's ultimate - since we usually don't see the plants, he doesn't bother to show the plants. But perhaps intuitively we know that these littoral creatures need the seagrass for their home, for their food, for their survival - just like we need all the plants around us if we are to assure our survival on Planet Earth.

Help Save the Seagrasses and save our environment at the same time.