Complexity in small packages

Last week I went up to Davenport to do some collecting in the intertidal. The tide was low enough to allow access to a particular area with two pools where I have had luck in the past finding hydroids and other cool stuff. These pools are great because they are shallow and surrounded by flat-ish rocks, so I can lie down on my stomach and really get close to where the action is. At this time of year the algae and surfgrasses are starting to regrow; the surface of the pools was covered by leaves of Phyllospadix torreyi, the narrow-leafed surfgrass.

Parting the curtain of Phyllospadix leaves to gaze into the first pool I was pleasantly surprised to find this. What does it look like to you?

Aglaophenia latirostris at Davenport Landing
8 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

There are actually two very different organisms acting as main subjects in this photo. The pink stuff is a coralline alga, a type of red alga that secretes CaCO3 in its cell walls. Coralline algae come in two different forms: one is a crust that grows over surfaces and the other, like this, grows upright and branching. Because they sequester CaCO3, corallines are likely to be affected by the projected increase of the ocean’s acidity due to the continued burning of fossil fuels. Ocean acidification is one of the sexy issues in science these days, and although it is very interesting and pertinent to today’s world it is not the topic for this post. Suffice it to say that changes in ocean chemistry are making it more difficult for any organisms to precipitate CaCO3 out of seawater to build things like shells or calcified cell walls.

It’s the tannish featherlike stuff in the photo that I was particularly interested in. At first glance the tan thing looks like a clump of a very fine, fernlike plant. It is, however, an animal. To be more specific, it is a type of colonial cnidarian called a hydroid. I love hydroids for their hidden beauty, not always visible to the naked eye, and the fact that at first glance they so closely resemble plants. In fact, many hydroid colonies grow in ways very similar to those of plants, which has often made me think that in some cases the differences between plants and animals aren’t as great as you might assume. But that’s a matter for a separate essay.

I collected this piece of hydroid and brought it back to the lab. The next day I took some photos. To give you an idea of how big the colony is, the finger bowl is about 12 cm in diameter and the longest of these fronds is about 3 cm long.

Colony of the hydroid Aglaophenia latirostris
9 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

And here’s a closer view through the dissecting scope.

The colonial hydroid Aglaophenia latirorostris
9 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Each of the fronds has a structure that we describe as pinnate, or featherlike–consisting of a central rachis with smaller branches on each side. This level of complexity can be seen with the naked eye. Zooming in under the scope brings into view more of the intricacy of this body plan:

Close-up view of a single frond of Aglaophenia latirostris, showing feeding polyps and two gonangia
9 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

At this level of magnification you can see the anatomical details that cause us to describe this animal’s structure as modular. In this context the term ‘modular’ refers to a body that is constructed of potentially independent units. A colony like this is built of several different types of modules called zooids, some of which are familiarly referred to as polyps. Each zooid has a specific job and is specialized for that job; for example, gastrozooids are the feeders, while gonozooids take care of the sexual reproduction of the colony. In this colony of Aglaophenia each of these side branches consists of several stacked gastrozooids, which you can see as the very small polyps bearing typical cnidarian feeding tentacles. Aglaophenia is a thecate hydroid; this means that each gastrozooid sits inside a tiny cup, called a theca, into which it can withdraw for protection. Those larger structures with pinkish blobs inside are called gonangia. A gonangium is a modified gonozooid, found in only thecate hydroid colonies, that contains either medusa buds or other reproductive structures called gonophores.

Pretty complicated, isn’t it? Who would expect such a small animal to have this much anatomical complexity?


In the second pool I found an entirely different type of hydroid. At first glance this one looks more animal-like than Aglaophenia does, although it is still a strange kind of animal. This is Sarsia, one of the athecate hydroids whose gastrozooids do not have a protective theca. It might be easier to think of these and other athecate hydroids (such as Ectopleura, which I wrote about here and here) as naked, with the polyps not having anywhere to hide.

Colony of the athecate hydroid Sarsia sp.
9 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Each of these polyps is about 1 cm tall. The mouth is located on the very end of the stalk. The tentacles, not quite conforming to the general rule of cnidarian polyp morphology, do not form a ring around the mouth. Instead, they are scattered over the end of the stalk.

Here’s a closer view:

Colony of the athecate hydroid Sarsia sp.
9 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

In the hydroid version of Sarsia, the reproductive gonozooids are reduced to small buds that contain medusae. You can see a few round pink blobs in the lower right of the colony above; those are the medusa buds.  The medusae are fairly common in the local plankton, indicating that the hydroid stage is likewise abundant. Here’s a picture of a Sarsia medusa that I found in a plankton tow in May 2015.

Medusa of the genus Sarsia
1 May 2015
© Allison J. Gong

The medusa of Sarsia is about 1 mm in diameter and has four tentacles, which usually get retracted when the animal is dragged into a plankton net. Sometimes, if the medusa isn’t too beat up, it will relax and start swimming. I recorded some swimming behavior in a little medusa that I put into a small drop of water on a depression slide. It refused to let its tentacles down but you might be able to distinguish four tentacle bulbs.

There’s a lot more that I could say about hydroids and other cnidarians. They really are among the most intriguing animals I’ve had the pleasure to observe, both in the field and in the lab. I’ve always been fascinated by their biphasic life cycle, with its implications for the animals’ evolutionary past and ecological present. Perhaps I’ll write about that some time, too.

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