This week I took my Ecology students to the Younger Lagoon Reserve (YLR) on the UC Santa Cruz Coastal Science Campus. The YLR is one of 39 natural reserves in all of the major ecosystems throughout the state of California. The UCSC campus administers five of the reserves: Younger Lagoon, the Campus Reserve, Fort Ord Natural Reserve, Año Nuevo (operated in conjunction with the California State Park system), and the Big Creek Natural Reserve in Big Sur. The UC reserves are lands that have been set aside to use as living laboratories and outdoor classrooms, and are fantastic places to take students to learn about the natural history of California. They provide students with opportunities to gain valuable hands-on experience working in the field, through classes, internships, or volunteering.
The Younger Lagoon Reserve comprises about 70 acres of land, most of which was formerly brussels sprouts fields. The lagoon itself is a Y-shaped body of brackish water that receives input from run-off due to rain. It connects with the water of Monterey Bay only when there is enough freshwater flowing to break through the thick sand berm; this happens once or twice a year during the rainy season. The Lagoon lands were donated to UCSC in the 1970s. East of the actual lagoon are about 47 acres of what are referred to as Terrace Lands, which were incorporated into the YLR in 2009. This is where, for the past three years, I've brought students to work on vegetation restoration. The team of reserve stewards, interns, and volunteers has a yearly goal to replant two acres every year.
This year, instead of getting straight to the planting, we began the morning at the bird banding station. Personnel at the YLR have been banding birds for a little over a year now, usually on Fridays and occasionally on Thursdays. The banders, or "bird nerds", get started at about 07:30, and by the time our class arrived at 09:30 they had caught five birds. It was windy and there was no cloud cover at all, which were not very good conditions for catching birds in either the mist nets or the ground traps.
Notice how both the mist net and the ground trap are empty? That's the kind of luck we had with the bird banding.
The rest of the morning was very productive. After the bird banding demonstration we joined the UCSC student interns on the Terrace Lands for some planting. The method used for planting has changed since the last time I was here with students in 2016, due to a 5-year study comparing weed control methods. Herbicide was very effective, but obviously toxic to the native plants as well as the weeds. The stewards also tried laying black plastic over the fields and letting the sun bake the weeds to death. This was almost as effective as herbicide; however, the plastic can be used only a few times and then has to be thrown away to end up in the landfill. The result of the study was a compromise between effective weed control and minimal negative environmental impact. The planters now put down a layer of biodegradable paper and cover it with mulch. Holes are punched through the paper and small plants are planted in the holes. The combination of the paper and mulch seems to work pretty well. Plus, there's no waste!
A large group of about 25 motivated workers can accomplish quite a lot in a few hours. By lunchtime we had lain three long strips of the paper side-by-side, covered them with mulch, and repeated the process twice more, using up the entire roll of paper. The hole-punching and planting go more slowly, but we did place ~200 plants in the ground. It was a busy and productive morning, despite the lack of birds. The students said they learned a lot and had fun doing it. That's the beauty of field trips!
I like to venture out of my comfort zone every once in a while, as that's the only way to keep learning. Even though my particular area of interest is the marine invertebrates, there are a lot of other aspects of marine biology that are almost as interesting. And if I'm going to call myself a naturalist I should extend my knowledge in as many directions as I can, right? Besides, going out and learning new stuff is a lot of fun!
Shortly after the new year I went up to Año Nuevo State Park to see the northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) at their winter breeding rookery. Of course, I've known about the rookery ever since I came to Santa Cruz and have had friends in the Ph.D. program doing their dissertation out there, yet for whatever reason I never managed to get out there during the breeding season. The park is open all year, but while seals are on the beach for breeding the trail out to the rookery is accessible only via docent-led tour. This year I remembered to buy tickets ahead of time, to ensure that we'd be able to see the seals on a day we had time to do so.
The day we went, a Thursday, was threatening to be stormy, so we took our rain jackets just in case. We met up with our docent, a woman named Trevlyn, and hiked out to the beaches. Before we got there, though, we saw a mother bobcat (Lynx rufus) and her two kittens. This particular mom is well known to the folks at the park, who see her frequently. Because of the overcast skies, these normally crepuscular wild cats were active in the middle of the day.
And here is one of her kittens. There were two, but they were much shyer than their mom and hesitated to come out of the bushes.
Both of the kittens looked healthy, alert, and well fed. It looks like the heavy rains of the 2016-2017 season resulted in an abundance of prey--everything from insects to rodents to rabbits to birds--for carnivores, including bobcats. Given the bobcat's variable and adaptable diet, the future looks bright for these kittens who were lucky enough to be born in a state park. They (and their prey) will not be poisoned by pesticides or herbicides or hunted by humans, although it is likely that mountain lions (Felis concolor) prowl these trails as well.
Before arriving at the rookery we stopped so that Trevlyn could go over some elephant seal biology and give us the rules for visiting the beaches. The rules were: (1) stay behind Trevlyn at all times; and (2) do whatever she says without question. These animals are BIG and can move surprisingly fast over short distances. We were there at the early part of the season and there were only a few hundred animals at the rookery. But later, after all the adult animals have returned to land and the pups are born, it gets very crowded and stinky.
Elephant seal biology
The northern elephant seal is a highly pelagic animal, coming to land for two purposes at different times of the year: to breed in the winter and to molt. While they are hauled out for either purpose they do not feed, and survive on blubber reserves accumulated during the months foraging at sea. The different demographic groups (pups, juveniles, adult females, and adult males) haul out at different times of year.
The breeding season begins in mid-November, with the adult males arriving first. As they are staking out beach territory the females start arriving about three weeks later. They are pregnant and usually give birth a few or several days after their arrival.
A female who has given birth spends all of her time resting and nursing her pup. See how the pup in the photo above is sort of skinny, with wrinkled skin? This tells us that it is only a couple of days old. As it continues to nurse that loose skin gets filled out and the pup gets nice and fat. In the meantime, its mother is fasting while she nurses, and loses a significant portion of her bodyweight.
Sometimes the juvenile males, who have not yet proven their worth against an established bull male, get a little overexcited and try to mate with a female who has just given birth. These females are not receptive because, well, they've just given birth and have not yet gone into estrus. Watch this female above rebuff the attention of a juvenile male. Trevlyn told us that females try to rest near the larger bull males, whose presence will keep the juvenile males in line. Oh, and those markings on the young male? Those are made with ordinary hair dye, to identify the animals being studied.
Pups nurse for 28 days, then are abruptly weaned when their mothers mate and return to the sea. At this point the pups are called weaners. Weaners can't follow their mothers to the sea until they molt their pup fur and learn how to swim. They usually head out around early May, when they become fodder for white sharks lurking just offshore. The sharks ain't stupid.
The spectacular showdowns between adult male seals fighting for mating rights should be starting up about now.
Adult males are by far the largest animals on the beach. They also have a much larger proboscis. And see that pinkish stuff on the neck? That is thickened, callused skin that forms when the animals are fighting. As two bull males charge into each other they rear back and then slam forward, trying to gouge each other's neck with their teeth. The fights are not deadly but can become quite bloody before the loser decides to give in to the dominant male. While they aren't fighting or mating the males are resting to conserve their energy. This early in the season there is plenty of space on the beach and things are pretty serene, although as animals continue to arrive and pups are born, the fighting and mating will begin in earnest and there will be a lot more activity.
But at least as of early January, youngsters like these yearlings can relax on the beach without having to worry about being run over by males weighing up to 2500 kg.
Año Nuevo Island lies just offshore. When northern elephant seals began to return to this part of California they established their first breeding colony on the Island. Many pinnipeds, as well as seabirds, breed on islands because they are protected from land predators. In the case of the northern elephant seal, the major land predator was the grizzly bear.
Problem is, Año Nuevo Island has limited beach real estate. Elephant seals can't climb up even short cliffs, so can come ashore only on sandy beaches. The last wild grizzly bear in California was spotted in 1924, and since then the elephant seals have began taking over the coastal beaches near the island. All told, some couple thousand elephant seals will be on the beach at Año Nuevo this winter. This is a small rookery; the rookery south at Piedras Blancas is much larger. The northern elephant seal population in California seems pretty robust, with the animals having recovered nicely after being hunted to near extinction at the end of the 19th century. In these days when all news about the environment seems to be doom and gloom, it's nice to hear of a wildlife species doing so well.
The other day I was walking along Pescadero Beach about an hour north of where I live. My husband and I had gone on a short afternoon hike in Pescadero Marsh and decided to return to the car via the beach. It was a windy afternoon, making photography difficult, but I did enjoy the chance to get out, stretch my legs, and observe some nature. The ocean was quite lively, and as always it was fun watching surf scoters playing in the waves crashing on the beach. These ducks breed in freshwater lakes in northern Canada and Alaska, but spend their winters along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America, where they forage on small invertebrates.
High on the beach well above the high-tide line we spotted some little brown puff balls, perfectly colored to match the sand and tiny enough to disappear completely in the divots formed by the footsteps of previous beach combers. They would run along the sand and duck behind a small hillock of sand, where they would be protected from the wind and from visual predators. See how well they disappear?
These are the delightful snowy plovers in their winter plumage. The field guides describe them as inconspicuous, pale little birds, which they certainly are. Unlike the sanderlings and other 'peeps' that frequent our beaches, which gather in large flocks and run away from both waves and people, snowy plovers react to human presence by hunkering down in small depressions and relying on their cryptic coloration for protection. Snowies live in California year-round, but I see them usually in the winter and spring. They nest in the sand, laying eggs in small depressions lined with shells, pebbles, and other like debris. Both parents incubate the clutch of 3-4 speckled eggs, which hatch into speckled nestlings.
It's this habit of nesting on sand that imperils the snowy plover. They are not as a species considered endangered, but some populations are declining. Human activities and the presence of dogs on beaches disrupt breeding birds and destroy eggs. Such tiny birds have a high metabolism and need to feed constantly. Every time they are disturbed into running away from humans they expend precious energy that they cannot spare. This is why some beaches where snowies are known to be nesting are closed to humans during the nesting season.
So if you see one of these signs on the beach, stay out of the fenced areas and keep your eyes open for tiny sand-colored puff balls. Even when the birds are not breeding they should be left alone and watched from a distance. Use your binoculars to get a close-up view of them.
There are certain creatures that, for whatever reason, give me the creeps. I imagine everyone has them. Some people have arachnophobia, I have caterpillarphobia. While fear of some animals makes a certain amount of evolutionary sense--spiders and snakes, for example, can have deadly bites--my own personal phobia can be traced back to a traumatic childhood event involving an older cousin and a slew of very large tomato hornworms. Even typing the words decades later makes me want to rub my hands on my jeans.
But enough about caterpillars. This Halloween I want to share something that isn't nearly as disgusting, but can still creep me out sometimes. Commonly called skeleton shrimps, caprellid amphipods are a type of small crustacean very common in certain marine habitats. They are bizarre creatures, but a close look reveals their crustacean nature. For example, they possess the jointed appendages and compound eyes that only arthropods have.
Around here the easiest place to find caprellids is at the harbor, where they can be extremely abundant. The last time I went to the harbor to collect hydroids for my class, the caprellids were swarming all over everything. When I brought things back to the lab I had to spend an hour or so picking the caprellids off the hydroids. I don't think they eat the 'droids, but they gallop around and keep messing up the field of view, making observation difficult. They're essentially just a PITA to deal with, and everything is easier after they've been removed.
Caprellids are amphipods, members of a group of crustaceans called the Peracarida (I'll come back to the significance of the name in a bit). They have the requisite two pairs of antennae that crustaceans have, and seven pairs of thoracic appendages of varying morphology. Some of these thoracic legs are claws or hooked feet that like to grab onto things. A caprellid removed from whatever it's attached to and placed by itself in a bowl of seawater thrashes around spastically. Only when it finds something to grab does it calm down. Even then, they attach with their posterior appendages and wave around the front half of the body in what I call the caprellid dance: they extend up and forward, and sort of jerk front to back or side to side. It isn't pretty.
A bunch of caprellids removed from their substrate and dumped into a bowl together will use each other as something to grab. This forms the sort of writhing mass that makes my skin crawl. I was nice enough to give them a piece of bryozoan colony to hang onto, but even so they ended up glomming together.
Now, back to the thing about caprellids being peracarids. The name Peracarida means "pouch shrimp" and refers to a ventral structure called a marsupium, in which females brood their young. Males don't have a marsupium, so adult caprellids are sexually dimorphic. When carrying young, a female caprellid looks like she's pregnant. See that caprellid in the top photo? She's a brooding female. That's all fine, until her marsupium itself starts writhing. This ups the creepiness factor again. Here's that same brooding female, in live action:
Crustaceans obviously don't get pregnant the way that mammals do, but many of them spend considerable energy caring for their young. Well, females do, at least. A female caprellid doesn't just carry her babies around inside a pouch on her belly. Although she isn't nourishing them from her own body in the way of mammals (each of the youngsters in the marsupium is living off energy stores provisioned in its egg), the mother does aerate the developing young by opening and closing the flaps to the marsupium. This flushes away any metabolic wastes and keeps the juveniles surrounded by clean water. As the young caprellids get bigger, they begin to crawl around inside the pouch, and eventually leave it. They don't depart from their mother right away, though; rather they cling to her back for a while, doing the caprellid dance in place as she galumphs along herself.
Until the juveniles strike out on their own they form a small writhing mass on top of a female who can herself be part of a larger writhing mass. And the sight through the microscope of all these long skinny bodies jerking around spasmodically can indeed be very creepy. Fortunately not as creepy as caterpillars, or I wouldn't be able to teach my class or go docking with my friend Brenna. And it's a good thing caprellids are small, 'cause if they were any bigger. . . just, no.
Although the world's oceans cover approximately 70% of the Earth's surface, most humans interact with only the narrow strip that runs up onto the land. This bit of real estate experiences terrestrial conditions on a once- or twice-daily basis. None of these abiotic factors, including drying air, the heat of the sun, and UV radiation, greatly affects any but the uppermost few meters of the ocean's surface so most marine organisms don't need to worry about them. Despite the apparent paradox of where they live, intertidal organisms are also entirely marine--they cannot survive prolonged exposure to in air or freshwater. So how do they manage to live here?
Some organisms have a physiological tolerance for difficult conditions. These tidepool copepods and periwinkle snails, for example, are able to survive in the highest pools in the splash zone, where salinity can be either very high (due to evaporation) or very low (due to rain or freshwater runoff), dissolved oxygen is often depleted due to high temperature, and temperature itself can be quite warm. Sculpins and other tidepool fishes cope with low oxygen levels by gulping air and/or retreating to deep corners of their home pools.
Of course, animals that can locomote have the option of moving to a more favorable location. Other creatures, living permanently attached to their chosen site, aren't quite so lucky. Let's take barnacles as an example.
Barnacles have two planktonic larval stages: the nauplius and the cyprid. The nauplius is the first larval stage and hatches out of the egg with three pairs of appendages. It can be distinguished from the nauplius of other crustaceans by the presence of two lateral "horns" on the anterior edge of the carapace. The nauplius's job is to feed and accumulate energy reserves. It swims around in the plankton for several days or perhaps a couple of weeks, getting blown about by the currents and feeding on phytoplankton.
After sufficient time feeding in the plankton, a barnacle nauplius metamorphoses into the second larval stage, the cyprid. A cyprid is a bivalved creature, with the body enclosed between a pair of transparent shells. It has more appendages than the nauplius, and these are more differentiated. If the nauplius has done its job well, then the cyprid also contains a number of oil droplets under its shell. These droplets are of crucial importance, because the cyprid itself does not feed. For as long as it remains in the plankton it survives on the calories stored in those droplets. The cyprid's job is to return to the shore and find a suitable place on which to settle. Somehow, a creature about 1 mm long, being tossed about by waves crashing onto rocks, has to find a place to live and then stick to it.
Returning to the topic of the challenges that marine organisms face when they live under terrestrial conditions, let's see how these barnacles manage. Along the northern California coast we have a handful of barnacle species living in the intertidal. In the higher mid-tidal regions at some sites, small acorn barnacles of the genera Balanus and Chthamalus may be the most abundant animals.
However, nowhere is a particular pattern of barnacle distribution more evident than at Natural Bridges. Here, the barnacles in the high-mid intertidal are small, and concentrated in little fissures and cracks in the rock.
I think most of these small (~5 mm) barnacles are Balanus glandula:
And here's a closer look:
If all of the rock surfaces were equally suitable habitat, the barnacles would be distributed more randomly over the entire area. Instead, they are clearly segregated to the cracks in the rock. Each of these barnacles metamorphosed from a cyprid into a juvenile exactly where it is currently located. The cyprid may be able to move around to fine-tune its final location, but once the decision has been made that X marks the spot and the cyprid has glued its anterior to the rock, the commitment is real and lifelong. The barnacle will live its entire life in that spot and eventually die there. It is quite probable that cyprids landed in those empty areas on the rock, but they didn't survive to adulthood.
How did this distribution of adult barnacles come to be?
There is one very important biological reason for barnacles to live in close groups, and that is reproduction. They are obligate copulators, which I touched on in this post, and as such need to live in close proximity to potential mates. But today I'm thinking more about abiotic factors. In a habitat like the mid-mid rocky intertidal, desiccation is a real and daily threat. Even a minute crack or shallow depression will hold water a bit longer than an exposed flat surface, giving the creatures living there a tiny advantage in the struggle for survival. No doubt cyprid larvae can and do settle on those empty areas of the rock. However, they likely die from desiccation when the tide recedes, leaving only the cyprids that landed in one of the low areas to survive and metamorphose successfully. There are other factors as well, such as the presence of adult individuals, that make a location preferable for a home-hunting cyprid. In addition to facilitating copulation, hanging out in a cluster slows down the rate of water evaporation, giving another teensy edge to animals living at the upper limit of their thermal tolerance.
Lower in the intertidal, where terrestrial conditions are mitigated by more time immersed, barnacles and other organisms do indeed live on flat rock spaces. But at the high-mid tide level and above, macroscopic life exists mostly in areas that hang onto water the longest. Pools are refuges, of course, but so are the tiniest cracks that most of us overlook. Next time you venture into the intertidal, take time on your way down to stop and salute the barnacles for their tenacity.