Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

087: In Stunning Black-and-White
The Spotted Drum

When we think of tropical fish, most of us have images of bright colors and flashy displays. The subject of this week's column, the spotted drum, does not meet those expectations, yet it was one of my "must see" species when I dove Central America's Caribbean waters. This unexpectedly attractive fish proves you don't need to display any of the colors of the spectrum to be interesting. It reminds me of my early days as a photographer when I worked exclusively in black-and-white. I could always say that medium was more artistic than color photography, but the real reason was that I didn't earn enough as a young teacher to afford color processing!

Spotted drums are members of the drum family. This species is 6-11" long and has a very pronounced, tall, sickle shaped dorsal fin. The head region has alternating diagonal black and white stripes, with the upper pair extending along the side of the fish. The upper surface of the body and the tail are black with white spots.

Due to the high biodiversity in the tropics with many different species present, most tropical fish have brightly colored and usually unique patterns to aid in recognizing a mate of their own kind. The spotted drum must rely on its unusual shape and monochrome pattern to select the proper mate. Maybe that's not so unusual. I'm always a sucker for a nice black dress with little make-up or jewelry when I consider a potential mate (but will gladly settle for a nice pair of non designer jeans).

Spotted drums are not a common fish in the Caribbean. I observed them only a few times on my dives there. Generally they prefer secluded areas of the reef, often under ledges or near the entrances of small caves, down to depths of about 100 feet. They are often noticed due to the circular patterns they swim in with the tail wagging back-and-forth. Although they stay in such protected areas during the day, they are not afraid of divers and can be approached slowly.

These drums are most active at night when they swim out into the open. They are very active carnivores, feeding on worms, snails and crustaceans. Occasionally divers have observed spotted drums serving as cleaner fish.

Drums are so named because many of them produce drum like sounds. This is accomplished by using special muscles to vibrate their swim bladders (the equivalent of a diver's BCD). Drumming is common in Belize due to the influence of the Garifuna people, freed African slaves who interbred with the Caribe Indians. Thankfully, spotted drums are not as loud as the drummers who played each night next to my nice $12.50 room at Romie and Jim's Guesthouse on Caye Caulker.

© 2004 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays.

Various images of mature spotted drums as well as an immature one without spots in the lower right.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material © 2004 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia