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May 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 36, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Death to Flamingo Tongues?

from the May, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

While diving in St. Kitts, Carol Ziller (Littleton CO) noticed that Dive St. Kitts divemasters were pulling flamingo tongues from sea fans, and either broke them up or buried them in the sand. They claimed there was a proliferation due to the last hurricane, and that the little animals are killing the gorgonia. Ziller told us she saw as many as 20 on a single sea fan and wondered if this was a kosher practice.

We asked Paul Humann, author of the superlative Fish, Critter and Coral ID book series, who told us, “I’ve heard of this. Under normal circumstances, flamingo tongues do not seriously injure sea fans and other gorgonians upon which they feed. The living tissue they feed on is quickly replaced by the colony, and no permanent damage is done. The number of flamingo tongues on any colony is normally held in check by unknown mechanisms. In fact, in many parts of the Bahamas and Caribbean, flamingo tongues are endangered because of over-collection by unknowing divers who don’t realize the beautiful pattern is not part of the shell but is instead the mantle, which will disappear when the animal dies after being removed from the water.

“In the St. Kitts case, perhaps the stress caused by the hurricane has temporarily disabled the unknown mechanism that, under normal circumstances, prevents flamingo tongue population explosions. This is part of natural processes, and will correct itself over time and return to normal. It does not appear to be a man-made problem. Should man interfere with nature and try to do something about it? This is a philosophical question that we could argue about endlessly. It would be my suggestion that the diving community check with local marine biologists, government or educational agencies, and follow their advice. Otherwise, it may be another ill-conceived attempt by the ultimate predator – man -- to alter nature.”

So we contacted Dive St. Kitts to see what was behind its policy. Michael Arsenault, dive operations manager at Dive St. Kitts, told us, “This is the first I have heard of this practice. It is not a policy of Dive St. Kitts or a recommendation from our governing bodies. If these actions are taking place, management does not endorse such actions. I will be following up with our professionals and advise them of non-interference.

Then we heard from another staffer, Jeremy Reeves, who said, “I was told by the natives that the flamingo tongue is an alien species . . . but I feel I do not have the expertise to answer this, as I have not been on St. Kitts long enough to truly know for sure. Because you are the expert magazine, I ask that you please do more investigation on this matter and let me know what you find out. With your guidance, perhaps I can help educate the natives on what really is going on under the water.”

We e-emailed Reeves with specific information about flamingo tongues and suggested he check Humann’s Critter ID books. After all, flamingo tongues have been in St Kitts’ waters far longer than humans have lived there. He wrote back, “Thanks so much for your help. Neither the resort, myself, nor the dive shop believe in removing things from the ocean, and we have put a stop to it.”

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