A return to normal conditions . . . maybe

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!

 

2 thoughts on “A return to normal conditions . . . maybe

  1. tomadodd

    I was just up on the Humboldt coast, at Trinidad where my son lives, and saw a great number of sea stars, the most I've seen in a few years. I've seen a few recently along this stretch of the San Mateo coast, and I'm hopeful that they are recovering from their decimation. Have you noticed a significant return of population?

    Reply
    1. algong

      The ochre stars (Pisaster ochraceus) numbers do seem to be increasing in the last year or so. I've been seeing them in all sizes, from ~1 cm in diameter to larger than my outstretched hand. And so far this season the 6-rayed stars (Leptasterias sp.) are extremely abundant in the places where I'm used to seeing them, and more common than usual in other places.

      Reply

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