Spying on filter-feeders

Late yesterday afternoon I met my friend Brenna at the harbor to go on a slug hunt. Brenna is working on the taxonomy of a group of nudibranchs for her dissertation, and we’ve gone collecting out in the intertidal together a few times. I knew I’d need some harbor therapy after teaching a microscope class in the afternoon so when she suggested a slug hunt I didn’t have to think twice about saying “Yes!”

I arrived at the harbor before Brenna did, and spent some time lying on the docks taking pictures of the fouling community that lives there. The late summer afternoon light was perfect for picture taking, and I got some great shots.

Mussel (Mytilus sp.) at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, 29 August 2015. © Allison J. Gong

Mussel (Mytilus sp.) at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, 29 August 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

This is one of my favorites. It’s a view into the posterior end of a live mussel (Mytilus sp.). Mussels live inside a pair of shells and open up only the posterior end to suck in water for respiration and filter feeding. They shut the shells very quickly when disturbed, so I had to sneak up on this individual and take a picture before it knew I was there. Looking through the opening you can see a blurry pale structure running from left to right; I think this is the mussel’s gill. The elaborately fringed dark structure that looks like a pair of curtains extending towards each other is the edge of the mantle. Because most of the mussel’s body is enclosed within the shells, the mantle edge contains most of the animal’s sensory organs. Mantles are exquisitely sensitive to touch, light, and certain chemicals; scallops, another type of bivalve mollusk, often have actual eyes on the mantle edge.

In addition to spying on mussels, I also tried to catch polychaete worms off-guard. There are several different types of tube-dwelling polychaetes living at the harbor. Most of the ones I saw yesterday were serpulids living in meandering calcareous tubes. Like these:

Serpulid polychaete worm at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, 29 August 2015. © Allison J. Gong

Two examples of Serpula columbiana, a tube-dwelling polychaete worm, at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, 29 August 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

Polychaete worm tubes come in many different materials and morphologies. These serpulids live in calcareous tubes that snake over surfaces. Because the tubes are mineralized, they can extend upwards from a surface, too. The worm spends its entire post-larval life in the tube that it secretes, extending only its “head”, visible as a tentacular crown, for filter-feeding. Like the mussels, serpulid polychaetes are very quick to respond to anything they perceive as a threat. Even a mere shadow passing over them can cause a rapid retreat into the tube finalized by sealing off the tube with the trumpet-shaped operculum.

One of the most conspicuous animals at the harbor is an invasive encrusting bryozoan, Watersipora subtorquata. This animal is one of the first to colonize new real estate. Nothing else looks like it, so it is easy to identify.

Watersipora subtorquata, an introduced bryozoan at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, 29 August 2015. © Allison J. Gong

Watersipora subtorquata, an introduced bryozoan at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, 29 August 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

Watersipora grows as a crust on surfaces such as mussel shells and floating docks, but when two colonies meet they use each other as surfaces, forming these curling sheets. The faint fuzziness that you see sort of hovering above the surface of the sheets is due to the lophophores extending from the zooids. Here’s a closer shot:

Watersipora subtorquata, an introduced bryozoan at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, 29 August 2015. © Allison J. Gong

Watersipora subtorquata, an introduced bryozoan at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, 29 August 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

Another of the common introduced species at the harbor is the colonial sea squirt Botrylloides violaceus. This animal comes in a wide range of oranges and even purple. Here’s a colony that seems to understand the visual impact of pairing high-contrast colors:

Colony of the colonial sea squirt Botrylloides violaceus growing over mussel shells at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, 29 August 2015. © Allison J. Gong

Colony of the colonial sea squirt Botrylloides violaceus growing over mussel shells at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, 29 August 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

What looks like a mass of pale orange doughnuts is actually a strictly organized colony. Each of the doughnuts is a zooid, and the hole of the doughnut is the incurrent siphon through which the zooid draws water in. Each zooid has its own incurrent siphon. In this photo you can see several larger holes; these are excurrent siphons, shared by several zooids, through which waste water is expelled. It’s difficult to see in the photo, but the excurrent siphons are raised up above the level of the colony, so water that has already been filtered doesn’t get sucked in again. This is exactly the reason that human structures such as smokestacks and chimneys are tall.

Oh, and since you asked, Brenna did indeed find slugs! And she taught me some field characteristics to help me ID slugs that I find. We both got what we needed on our little jaunt to the harbor.

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