Homecoming

This week saw the last of the good morning low tides of 2016. By “good” I mean a minus tide that hits during daylight hours. There are two more minus tide series in August, with the lows occurring well before dawn. After that the next minus tides don’t happen until mid-October; these will be late in the afternoon so loss of daylight will be an issue. I wasn’t intemperate enough to risk the health of my concussed brain on this week’s low tides but did want to get out if possible. And I’m so glad I tried, because having been out on the past few days’ low tides I feel more myself than I have since the accident. My head hurts a little, but not nearly as much as it would have if I’d done any significant driving two weeks ago. And, I have pictures to share!

WEDNESDAY 22 JULY 2016 — DAVENPORT LANDING

I went up to the Landing to collect some animals that I’ll need for my Fall semester class. The full moon was still visible, as the sun hadn’t yet risen above the bluff.

Full moon at dawn over Davenport Landing beach. 20 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Full moon at dawn over Davenport Landing beach.
20 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

A month after the summer solstice and the algae are still nice and lush. Here’s a nice combination of mostly reds and greens, with some brown kelp thrown into the mix. How many phyla can you spot?

Mishmash of algae at Davenport Landing. 20 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Mishmash of algae at Davenport Landing.
20 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

One of the two local species of surfgrass, Phyllospadix torreyi, was blooming. A month ago I’d noticed the congeneric species P. scouleri blooming at Mitchell’s Cove. These surfgrasses are vascular plants rather than algae, and as such they reproduce the way the more familiar land plants do, by pollen transfer from male to female flowers.

Flowers of the surfgrass Phyllospadix torreyi at Davenport Landing. 20 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Flowers of the surfgrass Phyllospadix torreyi at Davenport Landing.
20 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

In the case of these obligately marine surfgrasses, the pollen is carried by water rather than wind. Not having to attract the attention of animal pollinators, the flowers have not evolved elaborate morphology, color patterns, or nectar rewards. They actually don’t look like much more than swellings near the base of the leaves. Some day I’ll remember to take one of the flowers back to the lab and dissect it to see what it’s like on the inside.

THURSDAY 21 JULY 2016 — FRANKLIN POINT

This was the day I was most worried about. The drive up to Franklin Point takes about 30 minutes, and I hadn’t driven that distance since the accident. To make things even scarier, I couldn’t find someone to go with me. In the end I decided to try getting up there and back on my own, figuring that if my head wasn’t happy with the driving I could always turn around and come home.

When I got there it was cold and very windy, and I was glad I’d worn an extra thermal layer. Up on the exposed coast it is often windy on the road but can be less windy below the bluff on the beach. Yesterday it was windy on the beach, too, more typical of an afternoon than a morning low tide. The rippled the surface of the tidepools, making visibility and picture-taking difficult. I tried and didn’t have much success.

Coming over the last dune down to the beach I noticed four or five gulls and a couple of turkey vultures milling about at the mid-tide line. Something must be dead, I figured. And yes, it was very dead.

Scavenged elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) carcass on the beach at Franklin Point. 21 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Scavenged carcass of a California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) on the beach at Franklin Point.
21 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

During last year’s El Niño we saw lots of sea hares in the intertidal up and down the coast. And they were big, heavy football-sized monsters. Yesterday I saw many sea hares, but none of then were larger than my open hand and most were quite a bit smaller. Nor were there any egg masses on the rocks. This guy/gal combo (they’re both, remember?) was about 15 cm long.

Sea hare (Aplysia californica) at Franklin Point. 21 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Sea hare (Aplysia californica) at Franklin Point.
21 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

By far the most unusual thing I’ve seen in the intertidal this year was a swarm of shrimpy crustaceans. Last year at about this time I witnessed a huge population of small sand crabs (Emerita analoga) in tidepools at Franklin Point. Yesterday the swarmers were swimmers, not burrowers. I think they had gotten trapped in this large pool by the receding tide. Not having any better idea of what they were, I’m going to say they were mysids. Mysids are quite commonly encountered in local plankton tows but I’d never seen them in the intertidal before.

Swarm of mysids in a large tidepool at Franklin Point. 21 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Swarm of mysids in a large tidepool at Franklin Point.
21 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

All those brown, orange, and white streaks are mysids. They are about 2 cm long, zooming around super fast. See for yourself:

My first, rather idiotic, thought was that these were krill. They’re about the same size as the krill species most common in Monterey Bay, so perhaps the thought wasn’t quite that idiotic. (but krill in the intertidal? yeah, that’s idiotic. although stranger things have happened and the animals is always right even when it does something that seems idiotic) However, it didn’t take me long to realize that these critters didn’t actually look like krill. They didn’t have the feathery gills under the thorax that krill have. I also noticed that some of them were brooding eggs in a ventral pouch on the thorax, making them members of the Peracarida. Okay, then. Definitely not krill, so maybe . . . mysids? They look like mysids and so far nobody has told me that they’re not mysids, so I’m going to call them mysids.

The sun came out as I finished up in the tidepools. I hiked back up the very steep sand dune and looked back at where I had come from. Wow. Talk about stunning vistas!

View of Franklin Point from atop the last (and steepest) sand dune. 21 July 2016

View of Franklin Point from atop the last (and steepest) sand dune.
21 July 2016

FRIDAY 22 JULY 2016 — NATURAL BRIDGES

Today was by far the best day this week for picture taking in the intertidal. However this post is getting long so I’m going to showcase the crabs I saw this morning.

Pachygrapsus crassipes is the common shore crab, ubiquitous in the intertidal and at the harbor. It lives in the mid-tide zone and hangs out among the mussels. It is a shy beast, not aggressive and is more likely to drop into the nearest pool if it detects movement nearby. However, if you sit still for only a few minutes, you’ll find yourself noticing many small crabs coming out to bask in the sun.

Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) at Natural Bridges. 22 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) at Natural Bridges.
22 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) at Natural Bridges. 22 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) at Natural Bridges.
22 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Here’s a little tidbit about crab biology. All crustaceans breathe with gills. Any gas exchange structure, even your own lungs, functions by providing a surface across which oxygen can diffuse from the surrounding medium into the animal’s blood. Aquatic animals breathe with gills (if they have any specialized gas exchange structures at all, that is) and air-breathing animals breathe with lungs.

These crabs are often seen out of the water, in the sun. How then, you may reasonably ask, do they breathe with gills? The answer is, they foam. They produce bubbles that keep the gills moist, allowing oxygen first to dissolve into a thin layer of water and then to diffuse into the blood. I’m not entirely certain exactly how the crab forms the foam, but suspect it has to do with manipulating a thin layer of secreted mucus to capture small air bubbles. You do see the crabs massaging the foam over their sides, where the openings to the branchial chambers are.

Hermit crabs are the undisputed clowns of the tidepools. Around here we have four species that are commonly seen in the intertidal, all in the genus Pagurus. Many other species in different genera can be seen subtidally.

The most easily identified hermit crab in these parts is, in my opinion, Pagurus samuelis. They have bright red unbanded antennae, and often have bright blue markings on their legs. This species usually inhabits the shells of the turban snail Tegula funebralis.

Blue-banded hermit crab (Pagurus samuelis) in tidepool at Natural Bridges. 22 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Blue-banded hermit crab (Pagurus samuelis) in tidepool at Natural Bridges.
22 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The other species that I saw today was the much smaller P. hirsutiusculus. The common name for this animal is “hairy hermit crab” but they don’t seem all that hairy to me. They may be found in small Tegula shells, but I most often see them in shells of smaller snails such as Olivella biplicata.

"Hairy" hermit crab (Pagurus hirsutiusculus) in a tidepool at Natural Bridges. 22 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong

“Hairy” hermit crab (Pagurus hirsutiusculus) in a tidepool at Natural Bridges.
22 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

There’s another P. hirsutiusculus in that other Olivella shell in the right-side of the photo, but it did not want to have its picture taken.

All told it has been a very satisfying week. I may have overtaxed my concussed brain a little bit. My plan for the weekend is to revert back to the rest-and-do-nothing routine to let my brain recover. In the meantime I’ll leave you with a visual and audio reminder of what it was like this morning. Enjoy!

Posted in General natural history, Marine biology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Buy local, bee local

I sort of assume that people appreciate the importance of honey bees. And then, every so often I am forcibly reminded that, even in the fairly ecologically savvy city where I live, there are those who would rather destroy honey bees than live with them. Fortunately, sometimes I am also reminded of the resilience of honey bees and the remarkable ways that they have adapted to living with humans.

Case in point. About a year and a half ago one of my students told me about a colony of bees living in a eucalyptus tree in his neighborhood, on a corner two blocks from the ocean. I went to check it out, and indeed there were bees coming and going from a hole about 3 meters above the ground. They seemed to be perfectly happy in the tree, and I was happy to know that they were there. I looked in on them every once in a while and noticed that in the early fall the entrance to the colony had been sealed up with some gunk that looked like white foam.

Given the stresses on honey bees these days–pesticides, varroa mites and other parasites, as well as some of the practices of commercial beekeeping–one of the most valuable things a hobbyist beekeeper can come across is a locally adapted feral colony. Local adaptation means exactly what it sounds like: bees that have evolved to survive and thrive in the conditions of a particular area. They will have survived multiple winters and whatever parasite load comes along with the location. While there would be a change in the royal regime every 2-3 years on average, the lineage of queens would be producing viable, vigorous workers. Beekeepers want to know that alleles from these locally adapted feral colonies are in the gene pool in which our queens are mating. Most of us would love to catch a swarm thrown by one of these locally adapted colonies (we may have done that earlier this season, in fact).

Yesterday I got a third-hand phone call about a “swarm of bees in a tree in such-and-such a neighborhood” and did I want to capture them? Mid-July is late for swarms, and after the caller mentioned what street they were on I realized we were talking about the feral colony I’d kept an eye on for the past year. I went down and looked at the tree, and noticed that the bees were in the same tree but had moved within the tree.

Feral colony of honey bees in a eucalyptus tree. 18 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Feral colony of honey bees in a eucalyptus tree.
18 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The bees are coming in and out of that orange blotch on the trunk. More about that later. This is a new opening as of this year.

Old and current openings to a feral colony of honey bees. 18 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Old and current openings to a feral colony of honey bees.
18 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

There was zero activity around the 2015 entrance. The two entrances are less than a meter apart on the outside of the tree, but there is no way to know whether or not the internal cavities are connected. The absence of bees near the door they were using last year suggests that the spaces are not connected. I wish I had a fiber-optic camera, because I’d love to see what’s going on inside that tree.

What’s going on outside the tree is a lot of coming and going.

While the neighbors and I were watching all the coming and going, I got a little of the backstory of this colony. The neighbors next to the property where the feral colony lives told me that there have been bees in that grove of eucalyptus trees for the 15+ years they’ve lived in their house. Last year, when the bees were in the lower entrance to the colony, the owner of the house on the corner called in an exterminator to poison them. The bees died but the cavity in the tree still contained wax and honey, which would be very attractive to a swarm looking for a permanent address. It appears that the bees currently residing in the tree either found or made themselves a new door, which at some point in recent months had been sealed up with foam (the orange stuff). They chewed through the foam and are carrying on as if nothing had happened.

Honey bees returning to a feral colony in a eucalyptus tree. 18 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Honey bees returning to a feral colony in a eucalyptus tree.
18 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Why would somebody pay to have an exterminator poison a colony of honey bees that is posing no threat? The reason must be fear and ignorance. This colony is high enough that the bees’ flightline is well above head height, and I imagine most people walking right next to the tree don’t even realize that the bees are there. However, fear is a powerful motivator, with ignorance coming in as a close second. The property owners decided that the bees were either a nuisance or a danger, and had them dealt with accordingly. Their neighbors, on the other hand, are happy to know that the bees are there to pollinate their gardens. I’ve asked them to keep in touch and let me know if they see anything interesting happening at the tree, and they’ve agreed to let us put a bait hive out there next spring to see if we can catch a swarm from this locally adapted colony.

One potential problem is that at some point in the past year or so the interior of the tree has been poisoned at least once. I don’t know what poison was used (it might not be difficult to find out but at this point I don’t want to bother–concussion, remember?) or its half-life in honey and beeswax. It could be that the bees living in the tree now are doomed because they’ve been exposed to the pesticide, or that any swarms they throw contain contaminated bees. I will keep watching this colony, though, crossing my fingers that they can continue to thrive despite the unfortunate activities of their closest human neighbors.

Posted in Bees | Tagged | Leave a comment

My concussion

Some friends have asked what it’s like to have a concussion, and how my recovery is going. I think it’s hard for them to understand why, almost six weeks after the accident, I’m still having so many problems. Since this is my first concussion I don’t really know what to expect, but having consulted with a neurologist last week I feel assured that my recovery is on the right track. As a reminder, on Saturday 21 May 2016 I was in a head-on collision; two days later I was diagnosed with a concussion. The CT scan showed no brain swelling or bleeding.

I decided to address the “What is it like?” questions by listing the common symptoms of concussion and describing how I am experiencing them.

Symptom 1 — Loss of consciousness. I did not lose consciousness at any time after the accident. I remember quite a lot of the accident itself, the arrival of the EMTs and ambulances, getting my vitals checked in the ambulance, and getting ourselves to the ER.

Symptom 2 — Headache. After the accident the worst pain I had was around my ribcage. Actually, everything hurt. I didn’t notice the headache as a separate pain until Sunday when I tried to grade my final exams. Since then the headache has been a more or less constant companion. It gets a lot worse when my brain has been overtaxed or overstimulated (more on that below). The headache doesn’t feel like a tension headache and it isn’t localized. It’s a dull diffuse pain that feels like my entire head is being squeezed under the skin. The best thing to do when the headache gets bad is to lie down and close my eyes. Looking at computer screens is very taxing on the brain, which is why it is taking me three days to write this post.

Symptom 3 — Amnesia, confusion. I didn’t have any amnesia right after the accident, and I passed all of the cognitive evaluation questions the EMTs asked me (“What day is it?” “Who is the President of the U.S.?” “How old are you?” etc.). I knew where I was and how I had gotten there.

Symptom 4 — Dizziness, vertigo, nausea. This has been strange. On Monday, two days after the accident, I started experiencing a bit of vertigo. I would move my head and it felt like the world was taking a while to catch up. Also, I could read printed words on paper, but when I tried to read my students’ hand-written answers on their final exams the words swam around on the page. I gave that up as a lost cause and went back to the ER. This general wooziness resulted in some mild nausea.

There was a very early morning almost four weeks after the accident when I woke up feeling seasick. I took an anti-nausea pill and went back to sleep, and when I woke up for real a few hours later I felt no seasickness at all.

Symptom 5 — Cognitive deficits. I have these in spades, although I don’t know if anybody else can tell. For the first couple of weeks after the accident my head felt very foggy and it was difficult to process information. I’d walk around with a nectarine in my hand wondering what I was supposed to do with it. Oh yeah, those want to be eaten. I couldn’t really type, either. I could, but letters would come out in strange orders, as though my typing were dyslexic. That has gotten better recently.

I’m still having trouble carrying on detailed conversations. I can think of the words I want to say but they don’t make it to my mouth. And it feels like it takes me a very long time to process an answer when somebody asks me a question. What do I want to eat for dinner? Um. . . .

And yet, occasionally I can act with my usual decisiveness. Sometimes I feel as though I have my act together, and at other times. . . I don’t even know what my act is supposed to be.

My internal clock, which normally does a pretty good job of keeping track of elapsed time, is all out of whack. As is my ability to judge how long it will take to do a given task. This is rather a drag, as I’m used to my brain acting as a clock I don’t have to look at to tell the time. I suppose part of this deficit is due to the fact that I’m not spending as much time outdoors as I normally would in the summer, so I’m missing time cues that I should be catching.

Symptom 6 — Sensitivity to light and sound. As of now, six weeks post-accident, this is the most severe of my symptoms. It takes surprisingly little visual or aural stimulus to completely overwhelm my brain. Crowds, movement, the clinking of silverware on plates in a crowded restaurant, loud music, children playing (I think it’s their high-pitched voices that do it)–all are hell to me right now. There is no such thing as background noise to a concussed brain. Every sound pushes to front and center, demanding attention and energy that my brain simply cannot give. My brain reacts by hurting and trying to withdraw my consciousness from my surroundings. I can cope in the short-term by closing my eyes to shut out all visual stimuli, but I can’t close my ears and there are some sounds that dig their way into my brain. A massive headache ensues.

Right now there are two major construction projects going on at the marine lab, which makes the lab a very unhealthy place for me to be during the week. Fortunately there’s no construction work on weekends, so I can retreat down there for an hour of peaceful time with my critters. But even the running water through the seawater system makes a lot of noise; I’d never paid much attention to it before, except to notice when it was suspiciously quiet in the wet labs, but now it can get to me. I find that I need to minimize my time at the marine lab, period.

Driving remains extremely difficult for me. I can drive myself to and from the marine lab, but that’s about it. And even doing that little amount of driving causes a headache and wipes me out for the rest of the day. I’m not having flashbacks any more (more about that below) but my heart jumps every time a white car unexpectedly catches my eye. Driving takes so much concentration that my brain just isn’t up to it. I’m also fairly certain that my brain function is compromised enough to have slowed my reaction time. All in all, I don’t feel anywhere near competent to get behind the wheel of a car and drive any longer than 10 minutes.

Symptom 7 — Sleep disturbances. Dealing with these has been very strange. I’ve been sleeping a lot. At the beginning of my recovery I was taking 3-5 short naps every day, as lying down and closing my eyes was the only way to rest my brain. As the recovery continues I’m now a teensy bit more able to deal with sight and sound, and am down to 1-2 naps a day. But I also sleep late in the morning, which is extremely unusual for me. The past few mornings I have been sleeping past 07:00; usually in mid-summer I’m up at first light, or earlier if there’s a low tide to be had. I assume all this sleep is what my brain needs to heal.

Every night since the accident I have had crazy, vivid dreams. Some of them are borderline lucid dreams, in which I know I’m dreaming. And then things get sort of meta, when I think “This is a really strange dream I’m having right now.”

Symptom 8 — Changes in appetite. I am constantly hungry. All the time.

Symptom 9 — Psychological difficulties. I am definitely more irritable than I was before the accident. The niceties of polite conversation feel like such a chore that they just don’t seem worthwhile. I never was good at making small talk; now I find that having to do so really taxes my brain and gives me a headache. In this particular regard it seems that my natural introversion has been augmented by the concussion.

I’ve also noticed that my language filter has deteriorated quite badly. It is much easier these days for f-bombs to escape before I can hold them back. Then again, maybe it has nothing to do with the concussion but is because I’ve been watching “Game of Thrones” and “Orange is the New Black.” Those shows will definitely increase one’s tolerance for f-bombs and c-bombs.

For about a week after the accident I had flashbacks that occurred randomly throughout the day. I’d feel my body tense up for no apparent reason, then expect to hear the sounds of the collision and explosion of the air bags. I still get that momentary tensing when a white car suddenly appears out of the left side of my field of vision (the car that hit us was a white Honda sedan). And I really don’t like being in a car. The flashbacks aren’t happening nearly as frequently now, though, and that’s a good thing.

Symptom 10 — Hallucinations. I don’t have either visual or auditory hallucinations, per se, but there is almost constantly a snippet of music running through my head. This isn’t all that unusual for me; I seem to be very susceptible to infection by earworms. Since the accident one piece that my subconsciousness is obsessed with is Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien. Why? Who knows. It happens to be the first piece of classical music that I remember from childhood, and maybe that’s significant. Other random bits of music running through my head at any given moment are Christmas carols (“Good King Wenceslas”; “Il est né, le divin enfant”; “In dulci jubilo”), old folk tunes (“My darlin’ Clementine”), the “Et in terra pax” movement from Vivaldi’s Gloria, and lately the opening riff from The Fixx’s “Saved by Zero.” Is there rhyme or reason to any of this? Not that I can see.


One interesting thing that the neurologist told me was that with concussions, the severity of the symptoms doesn’t typically correlate with the prognosis for full recovery or the time it takes to reach full recovery. Very often, he said, patients who report very mild symptoms either take a long time to heal or don’t reach 100% recovery. Of course, this led me to ask whether my symptoms would be considered mild, moderate, or severe. He smiled and said that my symptoms are congruent with a full recovery, then warned that it will be a slow process. I shouldn’t be surprised if it takes several months or a year not to have any symptoms.

One good sign is that my condition has improved quite a bit since the accident. Now that it’s July I need to start working on my class for the fall semester. I’m going to be taking things very slowly and resting/napping as necessary. I will continue to minimize my social activities and very gradually re-enter the world as my brain allows. Although I miss the field activities I had planned to do this summer, I’m learning how to do nothing, which can be sort of rewarding in its own way.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The original clone wars

A long time ago in a galaxy called the Milky Way, a great adventure took place. We don’t know exactly when it happened, but it must have been very shortly after the evolution of the first cells. Some small prokaryotic cell walled itself off from its surroundings. Then it learned how to replicate itself and as cells continued to divide they began interacting with clones of themselves. Sooner or later, however, our clone of cells encountered cells from a different genetic lineage. These foreign cells were “other” and were recognized as such because they had a different set of markers on their outer covering. Perhaps there was an antagonistic interaction between the two clones of cells. In any case, this ability to distinguish between “self” and “non-self” was a crucial step in the evolution of life on Planet Earth.

The entire immune system in vertebrates is based on self/non-self recognition. It is why, for example, transplanted organs can be rejected by their new host–the host’s immune system detects the transplanted tissue as “non-self” and attacks it. As a result, patients who receive donor organs usually take immune-suppressing drugs for some period of time after the transplant.

The vertebrate immune system is quite complex and very interesting. It has two main components: (1) cell-mediated immunity, in which the major players are T cells; and (2) humoral (i.e. blood-based) immunity, which is the part of the immune system that produces antibodies to a pathogen when you get a vaccination. However, even animals much less structurally complex than vertebrates have some ability to recognize self from non-self.

Sponges, for example, exist as aggregations of cells rather than bodies with discrete tissues and organs. Most zoologists, myself included, consider sponges to be among the most ancient animal forms. They have different types of cells, many of which retain the ability to move around the body and change from one type to another; this totipotency is a feature that sponge cells share with the stem cells of vertebrates. There are sponges that you can push through a mesh and disarticulate into individual cells, and then watch as the cells re-aggregate into an intact, functioning body. As if that weren’t cool enough, if you take two different sponges and mush them into a common slurry, the cells from the distinct lineages re-aggregate with cells to which they are genetically identical. So even animals as primitive as sponges have some degree of self/non-self recognition.

If you’re lucky, you can see self/non-self recognition and aggression in the intertidal. Here in northern California we have four species of sea anemones in the genus Anthopleura:

  • Anthopleura xanthogrammica, the giant green anemone
  • Anthopleura sola, the sunburst anemone
  • Anthopleura elegantissima, the aggregating anemone
  • Anthopleura artemisia, the moonglow anemone (and my favorite)

Of these species, only A. elegantissima clones. It does so by binary fission, which means that the animals rip themselves in half.

Sea anemone (Anthopleura elegantissima) undergoing binary fission in a tidepool at Davenport Landing. 9 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Sea anemone (Anthopleura elegantissima) undergoing binary fission in a tidepool at Davenport Landing.
9 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

It looks painful, doesn’t it? As the two halves of the animal walk in opposite directions they pull apart until the tissue joining them stretches and eventually rips. Then each half heals the wound and carries on as if nothing had happened. Each anemone is now a physiologically and ecologically independent animal, and can go on to divide itself. And so on ad infinitum. The logical consequence of all this replication is a clone of genetically identical anemones spreading over a rocky surface. And that’s exactly what you get:

Clones of the sea anemone Anthopleura elegantissima, emersed on a rock at Monastery Beach. 27 November 2015 © Allison J. Gong

Clones of the sea anemone Anthopleura elegantissima, emersed on a rock at Monastery Beach.
27 November 2015
© Allison J. Gong

Okay, it’s hard to tell that these are sea anemones, but this is what they look like when the tide goes out and leaves them emersed. They pull in their tentacles, close off the oral disc, and cover themselves with sand grains. They look like sand but feel squishy and will squirt water if you step on them. In this photo, each anemone is probably 4-5 cm in diameter.

There are three patches of anemones in the photo above, separated by narrow strips of real estate where there are no anemones. Each patch is a clone, essentially a single genotype divided amongst many individual bodies. The anemones in each clone pack tightly together because they are all “self.” However, they recognize the anemones of an adjacent patch as “non-self” and they won’t tolerate the intrusion of neighbors onto their territory. Those strips of unoccupied (by anemones) rock are demilitarized zones. When the rock is submerged the anemones along the edges of the clones reach out their tentacles and sting their non-self neighbors. This mutual aggression maintains the DMZ and nobody gets to live there.

Because A. elegantissima lives relatively high in the intertidal the clonal patches are usually emersed when I go out to the tidepools. Its congener, A. sola, lives lower in the intertidal and is more often immersed at low tide. Anthopleura sola is larger than A. elegantissima and is aclonal, meaning that it does not divide. Anthopleura sola also displays quite dramatically what happens when anemones fight.

These two anemones, each about 12 cm in diameter, were living side-by-side in a tidepool. You can see that each animal has two kinds of tentacles: (1) the normal filiform feeding tentacles surrounding the oral disc; and (2) thicker, whitish club-shaped tentacles below the ring of feeding tentacles. These club-shaped tentacles are called acrorhagi, and are used only for fighting. The acrorhagi and the feeding tentacles may contain different types of stinging cells, reflecting their different functions. All tentacles are definitely not the same.

Anthopleura sola anemones fighting in a tidepool at Davenport Landing. 8 May 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Anthopleura sola anemones fighting in a tidepool at Davenport Landing.
8 May 2016
© Allison J. Gong

These animals, which represent different genotypes, are non-self to each other, so they fight. They inflate their acrorhagi, move their feeding tentacles out of the way, and reach across to sting each other. See how some of the acrorhagi on the animal on the right don’t have nice smooth tips? Those tips have been lost during battle with the animal on the left; the tips are torn off and remain behind to continue stinging the offender even after the tentacle itself has been withdrawn.

Here’s another picture of the same two anemones, taken from a different angle:

Anthopleura sola anemones fighting in a tidepool at Davenport Landing. 8 May 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Anthopleura sola anemones fighting in a tidepool at Davenport Landing.
8 May 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The goal of these fights is not to kill, but to drive the other away so that each anemone has its own space. Eventually one of them will retreat, and a more peaceful coexistence will be established. Fights like these have been going on for over half a billion years. Eat your heart out, George Lucas.

Posted in General natural history, Marine biology, Marine invertebrates | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Coming back to life

Every year, as early as Memorial Day or as late as Father’s Day, there’s about a week of really lovely low tides. This midsummer tide series usually includes the lowest low tides of the year, and we intertidal ecologists plan our field activities around them. Incidentally, there’s a corresponding low tide series in the midwinter, too. However, at that time of year the lows are in the afternoon, and because the low occurs about 50 minutes later each day you’re fighting darkness as you work the series. But in the summer, even if the first day of the tide series has a low tide before sunrise, that 50-minutes-later-each-day thing is really nice and you never have to worry about running out of daylight.

This year, the California Academy of Sciences sponsored several citizen science excursions called Bioblitzes to various locations on the California coast. The goal of these Bioblitzes was to document biodiversity in the intertidal in protected and non-protected areas of the coastline. Back in May I volunteered to lead a Bioblitz at one of the sites close to me, and planned to participate in a few others as well. In addition to actual organized Bioblitzes, citizens were invited to submit their own independent observations to the project.

Today is the three-week anniversary of the car accident that left me bruised and concussed. The bruises are pretty much healed at this point, and the soreness in my ribcage is also much improved. The medical advice I got for dealing with the concussion was, “Protect your brain from stimulation. Let it heal. And REST.” So for the past three weeks I haven’t been doing much of anything. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to go out on any of the midsummer low tides, as it didn’t take much to overtax my injured brain and I didn’t want to risk overextending myself. I did end up skipping the first Bioblitz of the week and modified my original plans for the rest of the tide series to play it safe and stay closer to home.

I’m still trying not to spend too much time on the computer (electronic screens are very bad for injured brains) so I’m going to summarize my week’s activities in a single post. I’ll keep the stories short. But I did want to share some of the things I saw.

Day 1 – Natural Bridges, Monday 6 June 2016, low tide -1.6 ft at 06:25

My first venture out by myself was to Natural Bridges. It’s very close to my house and I figured that if I needed to bail I could walk out and be home within 15 minutes. It was cold and foggy and I felt energized just to be out there again.

Natural Bridges State Beach 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Natural Bridges State Beach
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Open ends of tubes of the polychaete worm Phragmatopoma californica. 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Open ends of tubes of the polychaete worm Phragmatopoma californica.
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Anthopleura sola in a tidepool at Natural Bridges. 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Anthopleura sola in a tidepool at Natural Bridges.
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

One of many healthy Pisaster ochraceus stars I saw at Natural Bridges. 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

One of many healthy Pisaster ochraceus stars I saw at Natural Bridges.
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Intertidal life at Natural Bridges. 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Intertidal life at Natural Bridges.
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

A woolly sculpin (Clinocottus analis) in a tidepool at Natural Bridges. 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

A woolly sculpin (Clinocottus analis) in a tidepool at Natural Bridges.
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) playing peek-a-boo at Natural Bridges. 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) playing peek-a-boo at Natural Bridges.
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Turns out this trip was about all my brain could cope with that early in the week. I skipped a Bioblitz up at Pigeon Point on Tuesday so I could stay home and rest, which ended up being a good call. A whole day of doing nothing was exactly what my concussed brain needed.


Day 2 – Mitchell’s Cove, Wednesday 8 June 2016, low tide -1.1 ft at 08:02

The day of rest was enough to get me back out there on Wednesday. My friend Brenna met me at Mitchell’s Cove for a morning of tidepooling. Mitchell’s Cove is a popular, dog-friendly beach in Santa Cruz, particularly busy in the mornings and evenings. Last September it was visited by a juvenile humpback whale, which came right into the Cove and hung out there for several days. I didn’t see any whales this week, but there was a surprising diversity of life in a relatively small area of rocky intertidal.

Rocky intertidal on the west end of Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Rocky intertidal on the west end of Mitchell’s Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Pisaster ochraceus regenerating an arm, at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Pisaster ochraceus regenerating an arm, at Mitchell’s Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

A small (~2 cm long) chiton, Mopalia muscosa, nicely camouflaged on a rock at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

A small (~3 cm long) mossy chiton, Mopalia muscosa, nicely camouflaged on a rock at Mitchell’s Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

We have two species of surfgrass in northern California. At this time of year they are very lush and conspicuously green.

Two species of surfgrass at Mitchell's Cove. Phyllospadix torreyi (front) and P. scouleri (rear). 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Two species of surfgrass at Mitchell’s Cove. Phyllospadix torreyi (front) and P. scouleri (rear).
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Phyllospadix scouleri, the species that has flatter, more ribbon-like leaves, was blooming. Its congener, P. torreyi, growing in almost exactly the same place, has narrow leaves that are more cylindrical in cross-section, and was not in bloom. Phyllospadix is a true marine plant; the flowers are inconspicuous swellings near the bottom of the leaves and the pollen is carried by water, rather than wind, to nearby plants.

Surfgrass (Phyllospadix scouleri) in bloom at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Surfgrass (Phyllospadix scouleri) in bloom at Mitchell’s Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Flower of surfgrass Phyllospadix scouleri at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Flower of surfgrass Phyllospadix scouleri at Mitchell’s Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

And I saw two species of hydroids! This one is easy to ID to the genus Aglaophenia, but I would need to examine it under a microscope to determine the species. I wasn’t collecting anything on Wednesday so I don’t know which species it is.

Hydroid (Aglaophenia sp.) at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Hydroid (Aglaophenia sp.) at Mitchell’s Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This second hydroid is, I think, a species of Abietinaria. The hydroid colony is the pale orange stuff; the pink stuff is coralline alga.

Small clump of the hydroid Abietinaria sp. at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Small clump of the hydroid Abietinaria sp. at Mitchell’s Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

And I saw an octopus! We know that they’re in the intertidal, but they are so cryptic and clever at hiding that we don’t see them very frequently. This one was definitely smarter than I was. Instead of scooping it out and placing it on dry ground so I could photograph it more easily, I chased it around a tidepool with my camera. Thus, this is the best picture I could get:

Small octopus (Octopus rubescens) in a tidepool at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Small octopus (Octopus rubescens) in a tidepool at Mitchell’s Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Okay, you’ll just have to take my word for it.


Day 3 – Davenport Landing, Thursday 9 June 2016, low tide -0.7 ft at 08:52

This was the day of my “official” Bioblitz. I had four participants–Brenna, Alice, Martha, and Andy. As of right now (Brenna hasn’t yet uploaded her observations) the other four of us have made 120 observations, documenting 50 species. Here are some of mine:

Nudibranch (Hermissenda opalescens) at Davenport Landing. 9 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Nudibranch (Hermissenda opalescens) at Davenport Landing.
9 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Can you see Pisaster ochraceus hiding in this clump of mussels (Mytilus californianus)? 9 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Can you see Pisaster ochraceus hiding in this clump of mussels (Mytilus californianus)?
9 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Looking north towards Davenport Landing beach. 9 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Looking north towards Davenport Landing beach.
9 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

There are kelps, such as Egregia menziesii (feather boa kelp) whose habitat is the rocky intertidal. Most kelps, though, live subtidally, often in kelp forests. Nereocystis luetkeana, the bullwhip kelp, is one of the subtidal canopy-forming kelps. This one recruited to the intertidal. It is quite small and extremely cute; the float is only 2 cm in diameter.

A baby bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) at Davenport Landing. 9 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

A baby bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) at Davenport Landing.
9 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

A small moonglow anemone (Anthopleura artemisia) at Davenport Landing. 9 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

A small moonglow anemone (Anthopleura artemisia) at Davenport Landing.
9 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Algae look their best when immersed. Out of the water they usually collapse into stringy or gooey masses, making it difficult to appreciate their structural beauty. This piece of Microcladia borealis was submerged in a tidepool, and fortunately there was enough light that I could take this picture.

The beautifully delicate red alga, Microcladia borealis, at Davenport Landing. 9 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

The beautifully delicate red alga, Microcladia borealis, immersed in a tidepool at Davenport Landing.
9 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong


Day 4 – Natural Bridges, Friday 10 June 2016, low tide -0.2 ft at 09:42

Yesterday I returned with a former student, Daniel, to Natural Bridges. It was sunny and warm, completely different from how it had been on Monday. There were many boaters out on the bay, taking advantage of the glassy flat sea.

View of Monterey Bay from Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

View of Monterey Bay from Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

I’ve seen a lot of shore crabs running around on the rocks this year. On cool, damp days they just scurry about, but on warm sunny days they often sit still and literally foam at the mouth. The bubbles they produce keep their gills moist so they can still breathe even while emersed. This biggish shore crab was working up quite a froth.

Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) at Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) at Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Hermit crabs don’t usually end up out of the water. This one was immersed in a tidepool, wearing the shell of the snail Olivella biplicata.

Hermit crab (Pagurus sp.) in shell of the snail Olivella biplicata, at Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Hermit crab (Pagurus sp.) in a tidepool at Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Nuttallina californica is one of the most common chitons seen around here. They often hunker down into small crevices where water will collect even at low tide. This individual was nestled among a clump of Phragmatopoma tubes; being closely surrounded by other animals will help keep its own body moist.

Nuttallina californica, one of the most common chitons at Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

The chiton Nuttallina californica at Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Unlike the hard granite that you’d find at the southern end of Monterey Bay, the rock at Natural Bridges is a soft, easily eroded mudstone. You can scratch it with your fingernail. Limpets take advantage of this soft rock by digging themselves little home scars, which conform perfectly to the contours of their shells and make a snug, water-tight fit. The limpet leaves its home scar to forage when the tide is in and returns to it as the tide recedes. The owner/occupant of this scar has likely died, as it wouldn’t have abandoned its home scar when we were there at low tide.

Home scar of a limpet (Lottia sp.) at Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Home scar of a limpet (Lottia sp.) at Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

And speaking of limpets, Daniel and I spent a lot of time observing the owl limpet, Lottia gigantea. This limpet is noteworthy not only for its large size, but for its territorial behaviors. They are indeed large–the biggest ones I’ve ever seen are about the size of the palm of my hand–and the big ones are all females. Lottia gigantea is a protandrous hermaphrodite: individuals begin sexual maturity first as males, and then the lucky few turn into females.

Owl limpet (Lottia gigantea) at Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Owl limpet (Lottia gigantea) wearing a smaller limpet (Lottia sp.) at Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The truly remarkable thing about L. gigantea is its ability to modify the environment. The large females maintain an area called a farm, from which they diligently remove interlopers. They will scrape off settling larvae of barnacles and mussels, and will push off other limpets. Lottia farms are very common at Natural Bridges; if you are here and see a suspiciously empty patch of rock amid the mussel bed, look for a big limpet hanging out on the edge of the empty spot.

Farm of an owl limpet (Lottia gigantea) at Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Farm of an owl limpet (Lottia gigantea) at Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The owl limpet has a good reason for keeping other animals off her territory. It provides her food. This animal is indeed a farmer. See the pale zig-zag markings in the Lottia farm? Those are marks made by the limpet’s radula as she grazes over the rock. All limpets are grazers, but L. gigantea actively manages her farm so that she feeds on one area while allowing the algal film to grow on other areas, then rotates to a new feeding spot as the old one becomes depleted. Pretty clever for a snail, isn’t it?

It felt really good to spend some quality time with Mother Nature again. I’m still taking it very easy, careful not to get overtired and to continue letting my brain heal. Getting outside for even short periods definitely seems to help.

Posted in Marine biology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment