The Book of the Aquarium/Part 2/Chapter 5

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Though Anemones take precedence in the order of stocking, and frequently monopolise the tank—for, after all, these are the main attraction of most marine aquaria—yet, as they do not stand the highest in the order of nature, we must recount zoologically what creatures are best fitted for domestication, and in another chapter give directions as to their selection and management.

Fishes take the first place, because they are the highest forms of life admitted to the marine tank; but they are the last introduced, because, being more delicately organized than the tribes beneath them, they require either real sea-water, in a state of high preservation, or artificial water of some months’ seasoning, and good management.

The fishes best adapted for tank life are the queer-looking gobies, the lively blennies, small specimens of wrasse, rockling, and eel. The grey mullet is a pretty fish, but not to be domesticated without some difficulty. Some kinds of flat fish may be kept in tanks, but beginners had better have nothing to do with them. Small sticklebacks may be taken in plenty by means of a hand-net in quiet tide-pools, and do well in the tank, but they are pugnacious, and harass less vigorous creatures; so that some judgment is required in grouping them.

Mollusks.—The common Periwinkle is useful as a cleaner, and interesting also to those who find pleasure in contemplating the startling resources of Divine Wisdom, as evidenced in the construction of the most humble creatures. The winkles accomplish for the marine-tank what the fresh-water snails do for the river-tank, they scrape confervoid growths from the glass, and so help to preserve the crystalline aspect of the tank. All the species of winkle are capable of domestication, Littorina littorea, the commmon sort, and E. littoralis, a pretty little fellow, with a gaily mottled hybernaculum.

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The Trochus tribe, better known as Tops, are also useful as cleaners, and in appearance are more stately and ornamental than the winkle, their cleanly marked conical shell attracting as much attention from strange eyes as the noble planorbis comeus does in the river-tank. Generally speaking, univalves are more easily kept than bivalves; many of the latter are apt to die off, and cause some amount of putrescence before their demise is discovered.

Crustacea are lively and interesting, but of course small species, or small specimens of large species are the most suitable. The Soldier crabs (Pagurus) and the Swimming crabs (Portunus) are eminently suitable, so is the pretty Strawberry crab, Eurynome aspera, and the interesting Broad-claw Porcellana platycheles. Shrimps and prawns may be used freely; they are lively creatures,

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and much more beautiful when seen in motion, gliding about like ghosts, than would be imagined by any one judging from the appearance of specimens on the table.

Annelides afford us the interesting serpulas, some pretty sea-worms, and the terebellas, all easy of preservation, and remunerative of the attention bestowed upon them.

Zoophytes.—This is the division from which the most prominent attractions of the tank are derived. Of these the Actinia take precedence of all the ordinary inhabitants of the tank, because of their exquisite beauty, strange habits, and still more general certainty attending their preservation.

Actinia mesembryanthemum is the common Smooth Anemone which abounds on every part of our coast. Its colour varies considerably, but it is usually of a deep, warm chocolate, dotted all over with small yellow spots, and when closed has the best possible resemblance to a large ripe strawberry. Every stone about the sea-beach is studded with this anemone, and a collector may secure any required number in a few hours, slipping each from its base, and dropping the whole into a jar with some fragments of fresh wet weed to keep them moist.

When it expands, a circle of bright blue beads, or tubercules, resembling torquoises, is seen just within the central opening; and, as the expansion proceeds, a number of coral-like fingers, or tentacles, unfold from the centre, and at last spread out on all sides like the hundred petals of a Peri flower, reminding one of Hinda’s boon:—

———Be it our’s to embellish thy pillow
With everything beauteous that grows in the deep;
Each flower of the rock, and each gem of the billow,
Shall sweeten thy bed and illumine thy sleep.

Around thee shall glisten the loveliest amber
That ever the sorrowing sea-bird has wept,
With many a shell in whose hollow-wreathed chamber
We, Peris of Ocean, by moonlight have slept.

Lalla Roohk.

This anemone will remain expanded for many days together, if the water be kept bright and pure; but if the tank gets fouled, it closes and falls from its foothold, and perishes if not attended to. It is the hardiest of all the creatures that are regarded as stock for tanks, and survives many a wreck unhurt. To induce it to climb up the sides of the vessel, let it be placed with its base lying partly against it, or bring it close to a stone in the centre,

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and it will be pretty sure to attach itself where you desire in the course of a few days. This last suggestion applies to anemones generally; novices are surprised to find how well disposed the creatures are in a well-kept tank. The disposition dates from the day of introduction, for none of this tribe are fond of locomotion; and the arrangement of them for effect, depends upon whether you drop them quietly just in contact with the spot you wish them to adhere to, or throw them in pell mell, to cling to the weeds or to each other.

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A. anguicoma, or the snaky-locked anemone, is a pretty but curious creature. It is all arms, just as a crab is all claws; but so delicate in form, so beautifully striped in the tentacles, that it stands quite apart in the tank as a thing unique. When found on the sea-shore, as it is usually after a storm, it is a flat-looking, smooth mass, of a brown tint, delicately striped with yellow and white. After a few days’ residence in the tank, it begins to expand, and rises to so tall a figure, especially in the twilight, that it appears quite a different creature to that introduced a few days before. In fact, its actual bulk is increased vastly by expansion. It is constantly expanded.

A. Bellis is another good species. It is a delicate pink and brown and pink and white anemone, and certainly does resemble a daisy very closely indeed. Though much prized it is not rare. Mr. Lloyd usually has abundance of them on sale, at a shilling each, and a few should be used to give variety to the collection. In newly-made marine-water it will not do at all; but if it falls into the possession of an aquarian who has no ripe tank at hand for it, it may be kept for weeks in a shallow pan.

If anything goes wrong with this kind, it throws out a number of white threads, and shrinks out of form, and perishes in a few days; but once obtained in a sound state, and carefully treated at the outset, it is as hardy as mesembryanthemum, and more readily expanded at all seasons than most of its compeers.

Actinia Gemmacea.—This is a delicately-constituted anemone, that displays itself freely only in the most pure sea-water, in which there is abundance of oxygen. It is quite unfit for early experiments, but well repays the trouble it occasions when it can be successfully kept. A few weeks since I had the pleasure of witnessing the birth of a large cluster of this pretty anemone in the extensive collection of Mr. Lloyd, at Portland Road. To the naked eye they appeared mere flocculent specks, but a lens revealed their true form as they adhered to the side of the vessel; every one of the little creatures, with its tentacles expanded, a real microscopic gem, combining the grace of a flower with the tinting of a pearl, and the delicate volition of a new-born animal.

When full grown, the gemmed anemone is very showy in its tintings. Pink, yellow, and grey are all beautifully blended, and the rows of glands which reach from the margin to the base, add their dots of white to the garments of this tiny harlequin. The disk is brilliantly coloured, scarlet, green, and orange, shading into each other, and occasionally mingled with half-tints of every colour of the rainbow. The lip is usually of a vivid green, and the tentacles exhibit rose, violet, orange, and white on their upper surfaces. In the cut, this anemone is seen partially closed on a piece of stone behind two specimens of A. Bellis.

Actinia Crassicornis is another of the more delicate kinds, that dies speedily, unless treated with great care, and in a well-established tank. It is very abundant on every part of our coasts, and must be removed with the stone to which it is found adhering; for if removed, or even handled, it perishes in the course of a few hours. It is, however, too beautiful not to be worth an effort to preserve it; and, if the tank is in good condition, it will be well to obtain two or three specimens, and watch them narrowly, so that if any of them die, they may be immediately removed to avoid polluting the water.

The colour of this anemone varies considerably in different specimens. Violet and amber shades frequently predominate in the tentacles. Sometimes the disk is of a pearly white, at others of a warm fawn or bright orange and scarlet, sometimes a deep crimson or a dull chocolate; while the tentacles vary from pure white to dark brown, dingy fawn, and brick-dust red. The latter organs are very numerous and tubular. When irritated, the creature has the power of attaching the tentacles to the object which annoys it, and in this way it frequently clings to the fingers when handled, and at the same time squirts out numerous jets of water, until it is quite empty and collapsed.

Actinia Parasitica.—This is a good aquarium species, on account of the ease with which it may be kept. It is a species that the rambler on the sea-beach will not be at all likely to meet with, for it is truly pelagic in its habit. It is only to be obtained in a state fit for the aquarium by means of the dredge, and when so obtained it lives a long while in confinement.

The most interesting feature in the history of this zoophyte is that of its usually inhabiting the shell of some defunct univalve mollusk, such as the Trochus, or the great whelk, Buccinum undatum. This is not the most curious part of its history. The anemone loves company, and in the same shell as that on which it extends itself, we usually find a pretty but pugnacious crab, Pagurus bernhardus. To the anemone the crab acts as porter; he drags the shell about with him as if it were a palanquin, on which sits enthroned a very bloated but gaily-dressed potentate, destitute of power to move it for himself. Like most lazy dignitaries, this showy Actinia attracts more attention than the lively servant who drags it from place to place, for its form and colouring are beautiful in the extreme.

It is of large size, frequently attaining to a height of four inches with a diameter of two and a half. Mr. Gosse’s description of this fine creature is so minute and interesting, that I must beg the reader to accept it in preference to any that I can write. He says, the “ground colour is a dirty white, or drab, often slightly tinged with pale yellow; longitudinal bands of dark wood-brown, reddish, or purplish brown, run down the body, sometimes very regularly, and set so closely as to leave the intermediate bands of ground colour much narrower than themselves; at other times these bands are narrower, more separated, and variously interrupted or broken. I have seen a variety in which the bands took the form of chains of round dark spots, the effect of which was handsome. Immediately round the base the bands usually subdivide, and are varied by a single series of upright, oblong spots of rich yellow, which are usually marginal, with deeper brown than the bands. The whole body is surrounded by close-set faint lines of pale blue, sometimes scarcely distinguishable, except near the summit, where they cut the bands in such a manner as to form, with other similar lines which there run lengthwise, a reticulated pattern.

“The disk is somewhat wider than the diameter of the body, which it over-arches on all sides. Its margin is somewhat thin, and occasionally thrown into puckered folds to a small extent. Thus it appears to approach the peculiar form of A. bellis. The disk is nearly flat, or slightly hollowed, but rises in the centre into a stout cone, in the middle of which is the mouth, edged with crenated lips. The tentacles are arranged in seven rows, of which the innermost contains about twenty, the second twenty-four, the third forty-eight, the fourth ninety-six; the other rows are too closely set, and too numerous to be distinguished. Probably the whole number of tentacles, in a full-grown specimen, may be considered as certainly not less than 500.”

Actinia Dianthus.—This is the Plumose anemone of Mr. Grosse, and sometimes bears the very appropriate name of the Carnation anemone. It is the most superb of our native Actinias—a gorgeous creature, that in itself more than realizes our brightest imaginings of the hidden splendours of the ocean floor, and of the gems that bedeck the caves of Neptune. How will future poetry be affected by the revelations of the aquarium, and how far will the sober facts of scientific research influence the pictures and the incidents of romance? Even Keats’s glowing description of “God Neptune’s palaces” becomes tame in the presence of this splendid creature, which carries the fancy—

—————————“far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods, which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean,”

and peoples the dark slippery slopes with wondrous forms of life and beauty, as if the lost argosies and the perished navies, that have found a common sepulchre in the waters, had given up their myriad souls to the conjuration of Glacus and Scylla, and all the dizzy troop of ocean spirits. It is, verily, a wondrous creature, of enormous size, and so delicately tinted, so light and fairy-like in structure, so constantly expanding and retracting its thousand delicate fingers, like the Indian blossom that the Brahmin believes to be endowed with life, that it never ceases to attract the attention of the coldest, and fill the ardent lover of nature with—

——————“the amaze
Of deep-seen wonders.”

I have before me now five specimens of this splendid anemone. They are all expanded, and they glow in the sunshine like huge carnations of the brightest amber, one of them verging towards a pure white. Two of these are represented in the engraving, surrounded by fronds of Delesseria sanguinea, Callithamnium, and Griffithsia. The one attached to the perpendicular side of a stone is of the golden amber variety; when fully expanded it forms a massive column of five inches in height, at least, and nearly three in diameter. From the summit of the column the tentacles fringe over in rich masses, like the petals of a monster carnation, all of them in motion as if seeking something which they cannot find. The tentacular disk is deeply frilled and puckered, and constantly changes its outline under the capricious will of the animal; while, at the same time, the tentacles arrange and rearrange themselves into most confusing forms; then again expand to their utmost, and expose the oval mouth and

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crenated lips, of a pellucid softness that would appear as if chiselled out of alabaster, were they not constantly varying their form, and every instant undergoing a new “sea-change.” The tentacles are very regularly arranged around the mouth, but towards the margin they thicken and thicken till they form a dense fringe that overlaps the column, and continues ever waving as if stirred by trembling ocean currents. If I now strike the glass with my finger, or even breathe lightly on the surface of the water, they are all withdrawn, the stately column shrinks down into a mass of pulp, and in a few moments swells out like a globular balloon, so tight and large that one momentairly expects it to burst. For an instant only it remains thus blown out; it is suddenly constricted as if clasped by a cord, and it then becomes double like a pair of globes placed one upon the other, and flattened where they meet. Suddenly the imaginary girdle slips downward, disappears, then it contracts, rises again, assumes its noblest proportions, expands its thousand fringes, all delicately waving above the dark stones, and is once more as lovely, or lovelier than ever.

This has been described as one of the most tender of its class, but I have long been convinced that it is comparatively hardy, and may be preserved with very great certainty. So long as the water is kept moderately pure, by an occasional filtering through charcoal—which aerates and purifies at the same time—it lives and prospers, occasionally moving from place to place, but almost always expanded, and every instant assuming some new form. It is, however, so far delicate that, if frequently disturbed, it is sure to perish. When removed from its native “ oozy bed ” it should be kept on the stone or shell to which it is found attached, until it floats off of its own accord, and fixes itself elsewhere. When handled it throws out a number of white threads, which are afterwards withdrawn.