Violescent sea-whip

(Paramuricea clavata)

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    P. clavata

The violescent sea-whip (Paramuricea clavata) is certainly among the most fascinating and emblematic species in the Mediterranean. For us it is pure poetry…

A sea-whip or sea-fan is an animal, which is already not trivial, but it’s also a colony. The single elements of the colony are called polyps and consist of a mouth surrounded by tentacles that extend to capture the surrounding nutrient particles. They then look like tiny flowers, which is why the sea-whips’s class is called Anthozoa, meaning “flower-animals” in Greek.

Every polyp has 8 tentacles. I mean, if we approach carefully and neutrally buoyant, without messing around, we will always count 8 of them (see picture). Therefore the sea-whips’ subclass is called Octocorallia (which would translate to “eight corals”). The polyps are connected to each other by a flexible yet resistant protein tissue called coenenchyme, which forms horny fans. The color is somewhere in the red/purple, but in some specific spots the terminations tend to be yellow: this is why they are sometimes called chameleon sea-fans.

To maximize their ability to intercept food, violescent sea-whips always grow perpendicular to the main current. In doing so they form real forests like trees do, whose leaves are also always oriented towards the light for the photosynthesis.

Now, Octocorallia, Anthozoa… Isn’t this the same classification as the much more famous tropical corals? Well, actually yes! To be more precise, indeed, anthozoans are divided into octo- and hexa-corals (“six corals”, for their tentacles are always 6 or a multiple of 6), with the latter being the reef-builders. Thus our violescent sea-whip are corals for real and by the way they play a role very similar to their tropical brothers’.

In effect, their way of protracting towards the current makes them a new and better substrate for many other marine species called epibionts. So if you’re curious and look well on top of the whips you’ll see echinoderms such as the basket star (Astrospartus mediterraneanus) or the feather star (Mediterranean antedon), briozoans such as Neptune’s lace (Reteporella grimaldii), annelids, i.e. worms, such as the lacy tube worm (Filograna implexa), molluscs like some nudibranchs (e.g. Marionia blainvillea or the tiny Tritonia odhneri) or the Mediterranean ovulid (Simnia spelta), even other anthozoans such as the false red coral (Alcyonium coralloides) or the gold coral (Savalia savaglia), but also fish (see the moray eel in the video) and various algae.

There are male sea-whips and female sea-whips. In the first half of summer at some point the two sexes just get synced: from the males’ polyps the sperm is spread which, if the current flows in the right direction, reaches the females’ polyps where the eggs are waiting. These are fertilized and in turn spread out (like in the video). Then they’ll turn into larvae that will wander for a while (1-4 weeks) until they’ll settle into a substrate where, if appropriate, they’ll turn into new little sea-whips. Violescent sea-whips are known to live up to 25 years and to reach a maximum dimension of 1 meter.

Despite endemic to the Mediterranean, the violescent sea-whip has… Scandinavian tastes: it is a heliophobic species, that is, it fancies little light and stable, cold temperatures. For this reason the first individuals generally appear at a depth of around 30 meters (even though in some places we know, for example in Marettimo, the first ones are already found at 20 m) where they’re hardly affected by the thermocline, and the last ones appear at around 130 m.
Needless to say, in recent years widespread death episodes have been documented more and more frequently, certainly linked to global warming and increased pollution: it’s oh so sad.

Last fact. The violescent sea-whip can only be found in the western Mediterranean and in the Adriatic seas. That is, in Spain but not it Greece, just to be clear. But also – and this is really mysterious – in Pantelleria but not in Lampedusa: how fascinating!!!

In which itinerary do we spot it?