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Scuba Diving in Lake Malawi, One of the Best Fresh Water Diving Locations in the World
As the sun sets on the bright surface of Lake Malawi, three divers appear close to the rocky area of Masimbwe Island, the diving site of Likoma Island in Lake Malawi. Burn happily back to the boat, remove their gear and discuss the fish they found on the short trip back to shore. With spotless white beaches and white blue water that stretches as far as the eye can see, you are constantly reminded that you are not diving in the Caribbean but in the 3rd largest lake in Africa. Along with 1000 different species of Cichlid fish, as well as catfish and even otters, it is no wonder that Lake Malawi has been cited as one of the best freshwater locations in the world.
Malawi is a landlocked country in the Southern Region of Africa and is bordered by Tanzania to the north, Zambia to the west and Mozambique to the east and south. The landscape is dominated on its eastern side by the third largest Lake in Africa, and the ninth largest in the world. Lake Malawi is known as the Lake of the Stars, due to its impressive ability to reflect the stars at night in its crystal clear waters. The lake is of great importance to the country not only as a means of transportation but also as a source of both food and water. As a scuba diver, its importance lies in its incredible abundance of different species of fish – making it the most biologically diverse freshwater area in the world.
Lake Malawi has more native species (around 1000) of Cichlid fish than any other lake. Researchers have identified more than 500 species to date in Lake Malawi, which is more than any freshwater species found in all of Europe and North America. The Cichlids of Lake Malawi, perhaps even more so than the Cichlids from the other two rift lakes, Victoria and Tanganyika, are brightly colored and patterned. Cichlids have evolved from one common species into the hundreds we see today, located within the lake ecosystem. Variable species have developed differential feeding strategies to increase performance. Some species have developed teeth that specialize in extracting leaves from rocks, or aquatic plants. Others use the sand filter technique to extract aquatic animals or invertebrates from the sand. There are also species that specialize in snails, plants and fish.
One of the most amazing phenomena we see on the oceans is the protective nature of sea cucumbers, made famous in the BBC documentary series ‘Planet Earth’. The Cichlids of Lake Malawi are among the small number of fish that care for and protect their young. The mothers carry their eggs and feed them until the young are big enough to fend for themselves. Even at this stage, in many species, the fry stay close to their mother for a short time when at the first sign of predatory danger, she opens her mouth and all the babies are taken for protection. In the case of most orals, males do not show parental care; after spawning, they move on to see another female. Often divers can see men dig large Spawning holes – large round craters – in the sand, at a depth of around 2-20 meters (6-65 feet), in order to attract more females.
Other species in Lake Malawi have developed some unique hunting adaptations, which make them interesting to observe during diving. At least two species attract small fish within range by thinking of death and lying motionless in the sand! These have been given the nickname of “Game dead fish.” One of the biggest fish you can see while diving is the Kampango. Growing up to 2m in length, the Kampango is a large, regional and predatory fish endemic to Lake Malawi, occurring from the lower reaches of rivers to the deeper habitats of the lake. A nocturnal predator, it feeds heavily on small cichlids. The young first feed on the eggs released by the female, and when a little older, the male helps the young in finding invertebrates in and around the nesting area, which both parents will protect. If you are lucky enough to find a pair of whales with babies, you will see perfectly formed small fish – up to 80 of them in one nest! The kampango investigates and will approach divers entering its territory, especially when breeding.
Lake Malawi is a freshwater region; As a result there is no coral growth on the reefs. However, that does not mean to say that there is no plant life. Lake Malawi is home to many species of freshwater sponges, Malawispongia echinoides. This small colonial animal occurs nowhere else on earth.
About a third of the lake’s shore is rocky, which is home to vegetarian cichlids, Mbuna, and the occasional freshwater eel. These underwater rock formations make for amazing dive sites with countless river passes and drop walls. The rest of the coast is characterized by sandy beaches and lowlands. This is where many open-water piscivores (eat other fish), called Haps, live. A few species of Cichlid live in the mud and thickets below where large rivers flow into the lake.
Lake Malawi is unusual in that it has no currents or particularly strong currents, making it the perfect area for open water training. Diving is possible all year round. However, between August and November, the lake remains calm, with little wind. Water temperatures can rise to 30 degrees Celsius at this time, with visibility as good as 20 meters. With these conditions, 3-5mm rods with little or no weight settings are perfect in this cold water paradise. . Given that Lake Malawi sits approximately 500m above sea level, special precautions are required when diving at altitude.
Night diving is certainly a unique experience in the lake. Dolphins, which look nothing like their names, can be seen using divers’ torches to facilitate easy feeding. Many different large fishes can also be seen rising from the depths of their lunches in search of food. In shallow water, a plethora of blue crabs can be found on the sandy bottom, while a keen eye can spot small freshwater shrimp in and around the rocky outcrops.
For those days that divers want to stay up there is always something to do on Lake Malawi. Kaya Mawa, an award-winning lodge on Likoma Island, offers activities for its guests, such as sailing, kayaks, bicycles, water skiing and wakeboarding, boat trips around the island and quad bike tours. For the 2012 season, Malawi’s first Kite-surfing school has also been opened. For those interested in bird watching, Lake Malawi is a haven for hundreds of species. If you’re lucky, you might see the ruffed bibill, found only in Likoma Island, or the Majestic Fish Eagle, swooping down to catch its prey.
There are many international airlines that fly to Malawi, including South African Airways, Kenya Airways, Air Malawi and Ethiopian Airways. Internal transportation is possible by bus, taxi, rental car, internal airlines (Ulendo Airlink) and Ilala boat, which travels continuously around the lake.
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