Having completed her study of a specimen of Holothuria mexicana, or donkey dung sea cucumber, marine biology student Kylie Prew of Key Largo explained the species' uniqueness.
"They squirt out a bad-tasting liquid to protect themselves from predators," she said. "If they are threatened enough, their digestive tract will come out of their mouth."
Kylie, age 9, was among about two dozen inquiring young minds between 8 and 18 years old learning to identify and classify marine invertebrates Wednesday at the Pigeon Key marine science summer camp.
Luke Hoffman, 12, of Marathon, was in a group whose focus was a sea urchin.
"Today I learned how to classify different animals and treat them with respect."
The young scientists had collected the invertebrates, many of them nocturnal and living under rocks, and brought them to an aerated tank where camp Operations Director Chris Rowell explained how to classify the species and how they should be handled.
Intern Allison Kellum described some of the less common species that were collected.
"The West Indian sea egg is interesting because it has the ability to take other organisms around it and camouflage itself," she said. "The spotted sea hair is a sea snail with a reduced shell, and what makes them unique is they shoot out purple ink -- compared to squid and octopus that have black ink."
Earlier in the week, the youths delved into dissections -- a squid and a shark.
"They look for the pen of the squid to show them how they are related to snails," she said. "They also learn to differentiate between their two tentacles and eight arms."
Pigeon Key summer camp, operated by the nonprofit Pigeon Key Foundation, is not limited to biology -- after all, these science adventures were occurring on a historic island.
Rowell spearheaded a history lesson Wednesday with a discussion of the island's role in Florida Keys history.
"When [Henry] Flagler was building the railroad between 1908 and 1912, there were 400 workers on this island," he said. "Most of the buildings here are over 100 years old and were able to hold up to hurricanes because they are composed of Dade County pine."
Executive Director Kelly McKinnon then explained the island's small environmental footprint -- the 5-acre island is completely off the grid.
"We have 26 kilowatts of solar panels and a large battery bank," said McKinnon. "If the batteries were to run out in the middle of the night, the generator would automatically kick on and charge the batteries."
Pigeon Key summer camp programs include the study of marine habitats, invertebrate biodiversity, reef fish identification, marine adaptations, shark biology and dissection and a plankton lab.
Other activities include marine organism scavenger hunts, an underwater obstacle course, and a Sombrero Reef snorkel trip.
For more information, visit the foundation's website at http://www.pigeonkey.net/education.html.
Alex Press, an intern with The Citizen, is a recent graduate of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.