Sexy time for sea anemones

This morning I went out on the first morning low tide of the season. I was so excited to have the morning lows back that I got to the site early and had to wait for the sun to come up. Awesome thing #1 about early morning low tides: Having the intertidal to myself.

Dawn over Davenport Landing. 9 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Dawn over Davenport Landing.
9 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The purpose for the trip was to collect some algae for a talk I'm preparing; I'll be speaking to the docents at Natural Bridges State Beach at their monthly meeting this coming Wednesday. They invited me to talk to them about algae. I already have a lecture on algae prepared, but last year I set the bar pretty high with this particular audience and want do something a little different. So I'll talk to them for a bit, show them some of my pressings, and invite them to press a couple of specimens. This morning I collected a few pieces of algae and took a bunch of pictures.

The Anthopleura anemones continue to fascinate me. At Davenport Landing there's an area where the rock has eroded and forms a sort of channel. In this channel at low tide the water comes about up to my knees. The rock in the channel remains clear of algae but sometimes contains sand. Scattered over the bottom of this channel are several A. artemisia anemones, which can burrow into the sand when it is present. I've photographed these animals many times, as they are magnificently photogenic and in deep enough water that I can just stick my camera below the surface and click away.

This morning the first anemone I looked at in this channel had some orange gunk on its oral surface. At first I thought it had latched onto a piece of bleached algae, but then noticed that others had the same thing. My second thought was, "Ooh, eggs!" If I were at the lab I'd have sucked up some of the gunk and examined it under the microscope.

Spawning female Anthopleura artemisia at Davenport Landing. 9 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Spawning female Anthopleura artemisia at Davenport Landing.
9 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Usually when animals spawn the gametes are quickly dispersed by water currents. But this channel is high enough that at low tide it doesn't exchange water with the ocean so there are no currents except those generated by the wind. Awesome thing #2 about early morning low tides: No wind. Once I used the camera as a sort of underwater microscope I could see the granular texture of the orange gunk, which told me that these were, indeed, eggs. Cool! Because I was on a hunt for algae I didn't spend a lot of time censusing these anemones, but I figured that statistically speaking they couldn't all be females. And sure enough, after a very short search I found some males.

Spawning male A. artemisia at Davenport Landing. 9 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Spawning male A. artemisia at Davenport Landing.
9 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Spawning male A. artemisia at Davenport Landing. 9 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Spawning male A. artemisia at Davenport Landing.
9 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

So today I learned that April is when the A. artemisia anemones have sex. Makes sense, as spring is the time of year when many organisms (algae and invertebrates) in the intertidal reproduce. Reproduce sexually, that is.

Some animals reproduce clonally as well as sexually, and while sexual reproduction tends to be seasonal, clonal reproduction doesn't seem to be. Along the coast of central/northern California we have four species of anemones in the genus Anthopleura:

  • A. artemisia, the moonglow anemone (see above)
  • A. elegantissima, the aggregating anemone
  • A. sola, the sunburst anemone
  • A. xanthogrammica, the giant green anemone

Of these four species, only A. elegantissima clones readily. It does this by ripping its body in half in a process called binary fission. The two halves of the animal pull away from each other and the tissue between them gets stretched thinner and thinner until it rips. Then each former-half heals the wound and gets on with life, completely independent of the other. It sounds rather awful but is a very effective way to form clones of genetically identical units that can monopolize large areas in the intertidal.

Anemone (Anthopleura elegantissima) undergoing binary fission, at Davenport Landing. 9 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Anemone (Anthopleura elegantissima) undergoing binary fission, at Davenport Landing.
9 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

It'll probably take this anemone another day or two to completely tear itself into two pieces. Anemones can continue to clone like this, with each individual splitting into a pair of individuals, for a long time. Eventually this process can form large clones. More about the ecology of these clones in a separate post some time.

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