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If anyone remembers, 2015 was a year of strange weather. The Blob of warm water in the northeast Pacific governed weather patterns throughout California, and we had an unusually warm and sunny summer, with none of the normal fog on the coast. Nature's air conditioner went on the fritz that year.

Since I spent most of 2016 in the mental fog of concussion I'm not sure I can recall with any accuracy whether or not last year was a normal year. So far 2017 feels like a return to old times, at least in terms of the intertidal biota. I've seen fewer of the species that creep up the coast during El Niño, such as the pink blobs of bubble gum called Hopkins' rose, which were spattered everywhere in 2015. The algae are lusher than I've seen in what feels like forever, but was probably only about three years.

Rock covered with red algae and surfgrass at Pigeon Point
29 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

All this to say that things seem to be returning to normal, and I want to show off some pictures I've taken so far this season.

First up, Dictyoneurum californicum, a kelp. As the blades mature they split down the middle near the holdfast.

The kelp Dictyoneurom californicum at Pigeon Point
30 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Split blade of Dictyoneurum californicum at Pigeon Point
30 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Both species of surfgrass seem to be doing well, too. The two species, Phyllospadix torreyi and P. scouleri often grow side by side in the exact same spot. Just the other day I saw the season's first flowers on P. scouleri at Pigeon Point.

Intertidal flats at Davenport Landing, completely covered with algae and surfgrass
27 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The two species of Phyllospadix can be distinguished by the shape of their leaves. Phyllospadix torreyi's leaves are narrow and sometimes cylindrical in cross-section, while P. scouleri has flatter, more ribbon-like leaves. Phyllospadix scouleri can also be a darker bluish-green color, compared to P. torreyi's brighter spring green color.

Phyllospadix torreyi (left) and P. scouleri (right) at Soquel Point
28 May2017
© Allison J. Gong

At Pistachio Beach I saw that P. scouleri has started to bloom. In one patch I found some fresh flowers, and in the stiller pools the water was covered with a yellow film that I think is the pollen.

Flowers of Phyllospadix scouleri at Pistachio Beach
29 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Pollen of P. scouleri on the surface of a pool
29 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

When the growing is good, the algae recruit to any available surface. This includes the thalli of established algae, or the bodies of animals. Any surface will do, and the hard shells of molluscs are often fouled by algae and/or small animals.

Shell of a living brown turban snail (Tegula brunnea), entirely covered with coralline and other red algae, at Pistachio Beach
29 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The mossy chiton, Mopalia muscosa, seems to be especially susceptible to fouling by algae. Or, it could be that it tolerates or even benefits from the population of algae growing on its shell plates. Whatever the reason, M. muscosa often carries more algae around than the other chitons.

A mossy chiton (Mopalia muscosa) heavily fouled with red and green algae, at Davenport Landing
27 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong
The chiton Katharina tunicata partially fouled by coralline algae, at Davenport Landing
14 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Even the owl limpets aren't immune to serving as substrate for other organisms. Here's a large limpet sporting a collection of acorn barnacles, smaller limpets, and a jaunty off-center cap of red algae.

Owl limpet (Lottia gigantea) sporting barnacles and red algae at Natural Bridges
26 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Here's another Mopalia muscosa, supporting at least four species of red algae on its shell plates:

Mossy chiton (M. muscosa) carrying around a variety of red algae, at Davenport Landing
27 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

I've been seeing lots of echinoderms in the intertidal, too. The globular ones and the star-shaped ones, at least. Sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) seem to be more common than they have been in recent years, and we are having a bumper crop of the six-armed stars in the genus Leptasterias. Just the other day I saw a Leptasterias star that was brooding her babies:

Brooding Leptasterias sp. female at Pistachio Beach
29 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

And brittle stars!

Brittle star (Ophiopholis aculeata) at Davenport Landing
27 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Brittle star (Ophiothrix spiculata) at Pistachio Beach
29 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Brittle stars are notoriously difficult to photograph, as they are extremely active and do not like the light. As soon as you get one situated for the camera, it starts crawling around to the back side of whatever you place it on. They aren't happy unless they are safely hidden in the dark. This one, recorded in July 2015, was cooperative only because I didn't really disturb it; I got lucky and happened upon it in deep enough water that I could dunk the camera without having to move the animal.

Good times out there! I hope this apparent return to cold-water flora and fauna sticks. It's totally worth freezing on a damp, drizzly morning, to see the intertidal looking so vibrant and healthy. Cold water is good, productive water!

 

It seems that most years, the Memorial Day weekend brings some of the lowest spring tides of the year, and 2017 certainly fits the bill. I've been out for the past two days, heading out just as the sun is starting to rise, and already I've seen enough to whet my appetite for more. And with plans for the next few days, I'm pleased to say that my dance card is completely full for this tide series. There are a lot of stories building out there!

Gathering (orgy?) of dogwhelks (Acanthinucella punctulata) at Davenport Landing
27 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

At this time of year everything is growing and reproducing. Many of the larvae I've seen in the plankton have parents that live in the intertidal; makes sense that those parents should be having sex now. Barnacles, for example, copulate when the tide is high. I've seen them go at it in the lab, but never in the field, as they don't mate while emersed. This morning I interrupted a pair of isopods locked in a mating embrace, and they swam off, still coupled together, when I disturbed them. Other animals were much less shy. Lifting up a curtain of Mazzaella to see what was underneath, I spotted a small group of dogwhelks (small, predatory snails). I can't be certain, but suspect they were having an orgy.

A short distance away I found the inevitable result of the dogwhelk orgies.

Acanthinucella punctulata with eggs, Davenport Landing
27 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Each of those urn-shaped objects is an egg capsule, containing a few dozen developing embryos. After the snails copulate the mating individuals go their separate ways. The females lay these egg capsules in patches in the mid-intertidal, usually on a vertical surface under the cover of algae to minimize the risk of desiccation.

For many years now, some of my favorite animals have been hydroids. I worked in a hydroid lab as an undergraduate, and this is when I fell in love with the magic of a good dissecting microscope. A whole new world became visible, and I found it easier than I ever imagined to fall under the spell of critters so small they can't be seen with the naked eye. I still do.

The ostrich-plume hydroid Aglaophenia struthionides, at Davenport Landing
27 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Hydroid colonies come in a variety of forms, shapes, and colors. Most of them are small and cryptic, resembling plants more than any 'typical' animal, and aren't easily seen unless you're looking for them. One intertidal species, however, is pretty conspicuous even to the casual tidepool visitor or beachcomber. It often gets torn off its mooring and washes up on the beach.

A hydroid colony is the benthic polyp stage of the standard cnidarian life cycle. The polyp represents the clonal phase of the life cycle and reproduces by dividing to make several copies of itself. In a colony such as a hydroid, the polyps remain connected to each other and even share a common digestive system. The polyps don't reproduce sexually. That function is reserved for the medusa stage of the life cycle. Some hydroid colonies produce free-swimming medusae, and others hang onto reduced medusa buds or structures so un-medusa-like that they're called gonangia. Aglaophenia is a hydroid that houses its sexual structures in gonangia that are located on the side-branches of the fronds.

Here's a closer view of a single frond of the Aglaophenia colony. I had to bring it back to the lab to look at it under the scope.

Frond of a colony of Aglaophenia struthionides, showing gonangia
27 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The gonangia look like leaves, or pages of a book, don't they? After working a low tide I'm always hungry, and when the lows are early in the morning I'm often cold and sleep-deprived as well. That's my excuse for not dissecting open one of the gonangia to see what's inside.

Even the algae are getting into the act of reproducing and recruiting. This spring I've noticed a lot of baby bullwhip kelps (Nereocystis luetkeana). Nereocystis is one of the canopy-forming kelps in subtidal kelp forests along our coast, but every year some recruit to the low intertidal. However I don't remember seeing so many baby Nereocystis thalli in the tidepools. The smallest one I saw this morning had a pneumatocyst (float) the size of a pea! In mature thalli, the float might get as big as a cantaloupe.

A baby Nereocystis thallus, at Davenport Landing
27 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Intertidal nursery area for Nereocystis luetkeana, Davenport Landing
27 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Nereocystis doesn't usually persist or get very large in the intertidal. It is more common to see detached thalli washed up on the beach than to see a living bullwhip kelp longer than about 2 meters in the intertidal. Whether or not this particular nursery area results in an established population remains to be seen. I'm betting 'No' but could very well be proved wrong. Only time will tell.

Did you know that California has a state lichen? I didn't either, and it turns out that we've had one for over a year! In January of 2016, California became the first state to adopt an official state lichen, and Ramalina menziesii joined the ranks of the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), the California quail (Callipepla californica), the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), and the extinct-in-the-wild California grizzly bear (Ursus californicus) as official symbols of the Golden State.

The lichen Ramalina menziesii growing on a coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) at Rancho del Oso
29 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Lichens are strange beasts, resulting from a symbiosis between two very different organisms, an alga (or in some cases a cyanobacterium) and a fungus. They are photosynthetic like plants and algae thanks to the algal/cyanobacterial partner in the symbiosis, but do not have roots or leaves. The fungus component restricts them to places where fungi can live, which means you generally don't find lichens in very dry places. That said, some lichens have adapted to live in hostile habitats such as the Arctic tundra and arid deserts. Many of them live on trees and other plants, but when they do so they are not parasitic. They can grow on nonliving surfaces such as rocks, buildings, and soils. Lichens are crucial players in the ecological process of primary succession, which occurs when virgin habitat is newly opened up to colonization by life (for example, the area left scoured by a retreating glacier, or land formed by recent lava flowing into the sea). The fungal partner of a lichen sends out hyphae which burrow into rock, eventually weakening it and forming soil. Plants cannot take root until soil is present, so lichens, in addition to being among the first organisms to colonize an area, modify the habitat to enable other species to become established.

In some ways, the fungus partner of a lichen can be viewed as a farmer, in the sense that it houses photosynthetic symbionts that do the hard work of fixing carbon into molecules such as sugars, which can then be used to fuel the fungus's metabolismThe fungus doesn't just mooch off its symbionts, though. As in other symbiotic relationships between unicellular algae and multicellular hosts, the fungus provides a safe place for the algae to live, as well as a stable environment in which to carry out its photosynthetic magic. 

Ramalina menziesii at Rancho del Oso
29 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Most lichens have a simple morphology, growing as a crust over the substrate. Ramalina menziesii has a lacy morphology and typically lives as an epiphyte, draping over the branches of trees and shrubs. It is often associated with oak trees in California, especially the Coast Live Oaks (Quercus agrifolia) that live in the more humid regions along the coast. During the drought there was much less Ramalina hanging from the thirsty oak trees, but this year there does seem to be more of it. Strands of R. menziesii are used as nesting material by many birds, and I've seen deer eating whole gobs of the stuff, pulling it off the trees with their rubbery lips.

Lichens, including Ramalina menziesii, growing on a Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) at Los Osos Oaks Reserve in San Luis Obispo County
2 January 2015
© Allison J. Gong

Ramalina menziesii is often referred to as "Spanish moss" which is misleading on any number of counts. First of all, it's not Spanish, being a species native to the west coast of North America. Second, it's not a moss; mosses are plants, and Ramalina is a lichen. Third, there is a true flowering plant (a bromeliad, actually, not a moss at all) with the common name Spanish moss that lives as an epiphyte in the warm humid southeastern U.S. as well as other tropical areas; clearly, this is not the same organism as R. menziesii, although the two may share superficial similarities such as overall growth form and color. If R. menziesii requires a common name for people to understand what it is, then let that name be something descriptive and biologically accurate, such as "lace lichen"; I've seen this name on a few websites and like it.

Lichens and fungi comprise a large part of my body of ignorance regarding the natural history of California. I find them very interesting but inscrutable, and they don't speak to me as loudly as do my beloved marine invertebrates. What this means is that I have a lot of learning to do, and this is always a Good Thing.

If I ask my invertebrate zoology students to name three characteristics of the Phylum Annelida, they would dutifully include segmentation and chaetae (bristles) in the list. And they would be correct. Annelids, for the most part, are segmented and many of them have chaetae. But in biology there are many exceptions for every rule we teach, and it's these exceptions that make a deeper study of biology so rewarding.

Peanut worms (Phascolosoma agassizii) at Pigeon Point
30 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

A couple of weeks ago I did some collecting in the intertidal at Pigeon Point. It was a very accommodating low tide, and I had a lot of time to poke around and explore. I found an area that had several decently sized rocks that I could turn over, and had fun seeing what lives on the side away from the light. Some of the animals on the underside of rocks are the common ones you see everywhere--turban snails, limpets, Leptasterias stars, and the like. Some, however, prefer a life of darkness and actively move away from the sun when their rock is turned over. And others happen to live in the sand under the rock and might not care one way or the other about the light.

Peanut worms, scientifically known as sipunculans, are delightful small worms that in my opinion are vastly underappreciated. This is understandable, as they are usually hidden in sand or rubble and aren't exactly conspicuous even when uncovered. Phascolosoma agassizii is our local sipunculan. Like all sipunculans it is unsegmented, and it has no chaetae. Peanut worms used to be elevated to their own phylum, the Phylum Sipuncula; however, molecular evidence shows that they are indeed annelids despite their apparent loss of key features such as body segmentation and chaetae.

Peanut worms (Phascolosoma agassizii) at Pigeon Point
30 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

They do look vaguely peanut-ish, don't they? They're small, maybe 6 cm all stretched out, which you hardly ever see. Phascolosoma agassizii is a grayish pink color, with irregular black stripes that usually don't form complete hoops around the body. Peanut worms are sedentary, living with most of the body buried in sand, rubble, shell debris, kelp holdfasts, etc. One of the weird things about them is that the mouth in located on the distal end of a long tube called the introvert. Most of the time the introvert is stuffed inside the main body region, or trunk. It is eversible and unrolls from the inside out, sort of like when you remove a long sock by pulling the top edge down over your leg and off your foot. The mouth on the end of the introvert is surrounded by short sticky tentacles, and the introvert dabs around to pick up organic deposits from the surfaces. Mucus and cilia on the tentacles convey the yummy organic gunk to the mouth, and a pharynx pushes food through to a long esophagus that runs the length of the introvert and leads to the long coiled intestine in the trunk.

Watch these peanut worms extending and retracting their introverts. Cute, aren't they?

I brought three peanut worms back to the lab with me, where they are happily living in my sand tank. Their housemates are ~15 sand crabs (Emerita analoga) and a clump of tube-dwelling polychaetes (Phragmatopoma californica). I never see them unless I dig them up from the sand, which leads me to believe that they do most of their feeding at night. Either that or they actually do actively shy away from the light.

Despite not sharing much in the way of apparent morphological similarity with more typical annelids, sipunculans are indeed annelid-like in other ways. Many of their internal structures are like those of annelids, and at least their early development (cleavage pattern and differentiation of tissue layers) follows the annelidan pathway. The species that have indirect development have a trochophore larva, typical of the marine annelids, that in some cases morphs into a second larval stage called a pelagosphera.

Sipunculans are the poster child for Animals That Are Not What They Seem. But they are interesting in their own way, and I always have a "yay!" moment when I find them in the field. It's really hard not to make sound effects as they're rolling their introverts in and out. You should try it yourself some time.

The Seymour Marine Discovery Center is currently hosting a satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project. Back in the fall, about 350 UC Santa Cruz students and community volunteers began crocheting creatures real and fanciful with yarn and other materials. Satellite reefs have been built all around the world, in this project that unites mathematics, marine biology, conservation, and a love of working with yarn.

Since this isn't my brainchild I'm not going to go into the background and philosophy of the Crochet Coral Reef project. Instead, I'm just going to show you some photos of the Santa Cruz satellite reef, and encourage you to come see it for yourself. If you happen not to be in the Santa Cruz area, you can click here to find other satellite reefs around the world. You may even want to start your own reef! Note that many satellite reefs are located quite far inland--Colorado, Indiana, Minnesota--so don't let your lack of a nearby ocean keep you from organizing and building your own reef.

Satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Detail of satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Some of the creatures on the reef are made of garbage or plastic, to remind viewers that the world's oceans continue to pay the price for human excesses. This jelly, below, has oral arms made from plastic grocery bags.

Detail of satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

And see what familiar object was used for this crab's eyes?

Detail of satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Detail of satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

There are multiple species of octopus on this particular reef!

Detail of satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Detail of satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The reef will be on display through October 2017. If you're in the area before then, swing by and check it out!