Skip to content

In early July we joined my in-laws on a 2-day driving trip around the International Selkirk Loop, a series of highways that follow rivers and lakes through the northeast corner of Washington, the northern skinny part of Idaho, and southern British Columbia. These roads pass through some beautiful country in both the U.S. and Canada, and it would be a nice trip to take at a more leisurely pace, stopping to explore some of the little towns along the way.

The International Selkirk Loop

Knowing that we'd be driving through some spectacular scenery, I decided to test-drive a wide-angle lens. I rented the Nikkor 16-80mm lens, designed for crop-sensor cameras such as my Nikon D7200. I don't have much experience with wide-angle lenses, so it was a different kind of photography for me. And boy, talk about a whole new way of seeing things! I could get into landscape photography now. This post will showcase some of the photos I took with this lens.

Day 1:  Our trip started in Blanchard, Idaho, a tiny dot on the South Lakes Super Side Trip outlined in pink in the map. Our first sight-seeing stop was the Kootenay National Wildlife Refuge, near the town of Bonners Ferry and about 20 miles south of the Canadian border. I hoped to see a moose. En route to the Refuge we took a dirt road and got a little lost. But our accidental detour took us through some wide open landscapes, and the sky was fantastic.

Rapeseed field in northern Idaho
5 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The Refuge is on the Pacific Flyway and is visited by many migrating birds in the spring and autumn. Mid-summer is supposed to be the best time to see moose, but the moose didn't read the same pamphlet that we did.

Seriously, doesn't this look like quintessential moose habitat? No moose to be seen.

Kootenai Wildlife Refuge
5 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Crossing into Canada, we continued driving north along the east side of Kootenay Lake. One of the perks of the trip is the free ferry ride across the lake, from the town of Kootenay Lake on the east shore to Balfour on the west shore. During the summer season the crossing is traversed by two ferries, the M/V Osprey 2000 and the smaller M/V Balfour. We were on the Osprey, which runs year-round. Kootenay Lake remains ice-free in the winter, allowing business and pleasure craft to operate year-round.

The M/V Osprey 2000
5 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Here's the other ferry vessel making the eastward crossing:

The M/V Balfour
5 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

That night we stayed at Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort, where we had a fantastic dinner and 'took the waters' before going to bed.

Day 2:  Our first stop on the second day was a town called Kaslo, the home of the S/S Moyie. The Moyie was one of several steam ships that transported passengers and cargo up and down Kootenay Lake. She operated from 1898 to 1957, when she was retired from service and sold to the City of Kaslo for $1.00. She was hauled up onto land, permanently dry-docked, and restored to become a museum. As the oldest known intact vessel of her type, the Moyie gives visitors a glimpse into the past. One thing I noticed right away was that people were a lot smaller 100 years ago.

The S/S Moyie, in Kaslo, British Columbia
6 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Rail and boat map
6 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Back in the day, there were 11 sternwheelers running on Kootenay and the other lakes in the region. The really cool thing was that they connected with the railroad lines, allowing transport of goods and people throughout the area before there were roads. Passengers would board the Moyie in the morning, stow their children and the nanny in one of the staterooms, and party in the parlor while cruising up or down the lake. It would be a leisurely cruise, with the passengers relaxed, well fed, and liquored up.

 

Parlor of S/S Moyie in Kaslo, British Columbia
6 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Passengers were looked after by a crew of stewards. I like kitchens, so this butler's pantry was my favorite part of the boat. Note sloping floor!

Butler's pantry of S/S Moyie in Kaslo, British Columbia
6 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And because safety always comes first, here's the obligatory set of instructions for how to put on your cork life jacket. I'm guessing that they are called Cork Life Jackets because they are filled with cork, which apparently was A Real ThingTM.

6 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The Moyie is docked on land right next to the shore of Kootenay Lake. Just off her port side there's a piling with an osprey nest on the top. And we got lucky in that the osprey was there, too!

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) in Kaslo, British Columbia
6 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The osprey was the first of our wildlife sightings on the second day of the trip. Heading west on Highway 31A between Kaslo and New Denver, we stopped at a little lake on the side of the road. This was Fish Lake.

Fish Lake
6 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

In addition to being a pretty little lake in the mountains, Fish Lake is home to a species of amphibian called the Western Toad (Anaxyrus boreas). The toads are likely restricted to a few lakes in this basin and are listed as Near Threatened by the World Conservation Union, and as Special Concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. We didn't see any toads, but there were many proto-toads in the lake.

Proto-toads (i.e., tadpoles) of the western toad (Anaxyrus boreas) in Fish Lake
6 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And guess what we saw a few miles up the road from Fish Lake? That's right, a moose! And not just one moose, but a cow and a calf. They were right off the side of the road, and all we had to do to get a good look was find a safe place to turn around and drive by again. I took these shots from the car.

Moose and calf (Alces alces) near Fish Lake in British Columbia
6 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Despite her proximity to the highway, the cow was pretty undisturbed. She kept feeding in the shallow water. It was surprising how long she could keep her head underwater. Meanwhile the calf, obviously not weaned yet as it kept trying to nurse and didn't feed on vegetation, just waited until its mother raised her head again. Then she looked around to check her surroundings and plunged her head right back into the water.

"What happened to my mama?"
6 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

I haven't always had the best of luck in moose country, so I was glad to see these two. They are odd-looking, lumpy animals, even the calves. And to get a good close-up look at two wild moose totally made up for not seeing any at the Kootenai Wildlife Refuge.

So, what do I think of the Selkirk Loop? Highly recommended! The roads are lightly traveled, passage between the U.S. and Canada is easy through these ports of entry, and the scenery is spectacular. You can take the driving trip as we did, or stop and camp along the way. When we were there in early July the weather was quite warm, but those were the first sunny days of the season after a long, wet spring. You'd probably want to have a back-up plan in case your camping trip gets rained out. Honestly, though, the entire drive was gorgeous. If the opportunity comes your way to drive this loop, take it. You won't be sorry.

The marine macroalgae, or seaweeds, are classified into three phyla: Ochrophyta (brown algae), Rhodophyta (red algae), and Chlorophyta (green algae). Along the California coast the reds are the most diverse, with several hundred species. The browns have the largest thalli (the phycologists' term for the bodies of algae), including the very large subtidal kelps as well as the smaller intertidal rockweeds. The green algae are small in both thallus size/complexity and species diversity; many of the greens are filamentous and look like nothing more than slime growing on rocks or other surfaces.

On the other hand, what appears to be simple at first glance can turn out to be delightfully complicated and puzzling upon closer examination. Take, for example, the two species of green algae in the genus Codium that occur intertidally in northern California: Codium setchellii and C. fragile. Codium setchellii is a native species here. It grows as a thick rugose mat over rocks in the mid-intertidal. Its color is a very deep olive green, but when dry it looks almost black.

Codium setchellii at Franklin Point
15 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Codium setchellii has a smooth texture and feels like very thick velvet. It grows on vertical faces of rocks, rarely on exposed horizontal surfaces--at least, I've not often seen it on top of a rock. Patches of C. setchellii are usually about the size of my outstretched hand, although some can be a little larger than that. When you see C. setchellii in the field, it's hard to imagine what type of structure would result in a thallus like this. To figure out what's going on, you need to look at small pieces under a microscope. It's this level of observation that reveals the filamentous nature of C. setchellii.

Phycologists have a few tricks for observing the internal structure of algae. The firm-bodied algae can be examined via cross-section, which can be more or less difficult to make depending on the species. Many simpler thalli, however, can be examined by making a squash, which is exactly what it sounds like: You take a piece of the alga, place it in a drop of water in a slide, and squash it with a cover slip.

A squash of C. setchellii revealed this mishmash of filaments:

'Squash' of Codium setchellii, viewed at 100X magnification
26 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

This particular squash shows the utricles, which are the pigmented ends of the filaments. It didn't really help me understand how the filaments are organized within the thallus, though. I even tried making a cross-section of the little piece of C. setchellii I have, but it turned to mush. I did at least get one squash that showed the filaments to be arranged in approximately parallel fashion at the outer edge of the thallus.

Utricles of Codium setchellii, viewed at 100X magnification
19 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

So, seeing the internal structure of Codium setchellii allows me to understand how its closely packed filaments produce the velvety cushion of the thallus that I see in the field. The way that the filaments are aligned allows them to be tightly packed together, resulting in a cushion that is surprisingly firm rather than squishy.

The second species of Codium that we see in northern California is C. fragile, commonly called 'dead man's fingers'. It is a non-native species here, originating in the western Pacific near Japan, and has spread into the Atlantic. In California it has a patchy distribution and, in my experience at least, isn't as common as C. setchellii. I have never seen the two species together at the same site, but according to iNaturalist they do co-occur in some locations.

Like its congeneric species, C. fragile is a dark greenish color and lives in the mid- to low-intertidal. But otherwise it looks entirely different. The thallus morphology must be what gave rise to the common name. I remember learning years ago about a seaweed called 'dead man's fingers' and being disappointed when I saw it for the first time. It didn't look like dead man's anything!

Codium fragile at Asilomar State Beach
16 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

This thallus resembles a clump of approximately dichotomously branching tubes. It is spongy in texture and is often colonized by bits of a filamentous red alga.

The green alga Codium fragile, with red algal epiphytes
19 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Epiphytes on Codium fragile
19 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

In this case, the red alga (Ceramium sp.) is in turn colonized by the benthic diatom Isthmia nervosa:

Benthic diatoms (Isthmia nervosa) growing as epiphytes on the filamentous red alga Ceramium, viewed under darkfield lighting
19 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

You might expect Codium fragile, having a tubular morphology, to be more amenable to being examined in cross-section. I can tell you that that isn't the case. It's easy enough to make the first transverse slice of one of those 'fingers', but the second slice, even made with a brand new razor or scalpel blade, results in a pile of mush. I made and looked at several such piles, hoping that at least one would show an approximation of the cross-sectional anatomy of this thallus. The best I could get was this:

Pigmented utricles of Codium fragile
20 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

At least it shows the radiating arrangement of the filaments. I think this is really interesting. The utricles (pigmented tips of the filaments) are a bit thicker than the unpigmented section of the filaments that make up the interior of the cylinder, but there's still space between them at their distal tips. It is this arrangement that gives Codium fragile a squishiness that C. setchellii lacks.

So there you have it. One genus, two species with radically different gross morphology but similar internal morphology. They're made of the same types of cells, at least. Like I said, I've not seen them in the same place in the field, but here in my blog you can see them side by side.

Codium setchellii at Davenport Landing
13 December 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Codium fragile at Asilomar State Beach
16 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

When low tides occur at or before dawn, a marine biologist working the intertidal is hungry for lunch at the time that most people are getting up for breakfast. And there's nothing like spending a few morning hours in the intertidal to work up an appetite. At least that's how it is for me. Afternoon low tides don't seem to have the same effect on me, for reasons I can't explain. A hearty breakfast after a good low tide is a fantastic way to start the day.

Sea anemones are members of the Anthozoa (Gk: 'antho' = 'flower' and 'zoa' = 'animal'). These 'flower animals' are the largest cnidarian polyps and are found throughout the world's oceans. They are benthic and sedentary but technically not sessile, as they can and do walk around, and some can even detach entirely and swim away from predators. The anthozoans lack the sexual medusa stage of the typical cnidarian life cycle, so the polyps eventually grow up and have sex. In addition to the sea anemones, the Anthozoa also includes the corals, sea pens, and gorgonians.

With their radial symmetry and rings of petal-like tentacles, the sea anemones do indeed resemble flowers. You've seen many of my anemone photos already. Here's one more to drive home the message.

Anthopleura artemisia at Pistachio Beach
27 January 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Sea anemones are cnidarians, and cnidarians are carnivores. Most of the time  anemones in the genus Anthopleura feed on tiny critters that blunder into their stinging tentacles, although the occasional specimen will luck into a much more substantial meal. I've watched hermit crabs crawl right across the tentacles of a large anemone (Anthopleura xanthogrammica), and while the anemones did react by retracting the tentacles, the crabs easily escaped their grasp.

Of course, not all potential prey items are so fortunate. Sometimes even big crabs get captured and eaten, like this poor kelp crab (Pugettia producta):

Kelp crab (Pugettia producta) being eaten by an anemone (Anthopleura sp.) at Davenport Landing
8 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

There's no way to know exactly how this situation came to be. Was the crab already injured or weakened when the anemone grabbed it? Or was the anemone able to attack and subdue a healthy crab? I've always assumed that the exoskeleton of a crab this size would be too thick for the rather wimpy nematocysts of an Anthopleura anemone to penetrate, but maybe I'm wrong. A newly molted crab would be vulnerable, of course; however, they tend to stay hidden until the new exoskeleton has hardened, and the crab in the above photo doesn't appear to have molted recently.

Even big, aggressive crabs can fall prey to the flower animals in the tidepools. I'd really like to have been there to watch how this anemone captured a rock crab!

Giant green anemone (Anthopleura xanthogrammica) eating a rock crab, possibly (Romaleon antennarium) at Natural Bridges
17 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And crabs aren't the only large animals to be eaten by sea anemones. Surprisingly, mussels often either fall or get washed into anemones, which can close around them. Once a mussel has been engulfed by an anemone, the two play a waiting game. Here's what I imagine goes on inside the mussel: The bivalve clamps its shells shut, hoping to be spit back out eventually; meanwhile, the anemone begins trying to digest the mussel from the outside; sooner or later the mussel will have to open its shells in order to breathe, and at that point the anemone's digestive juices seep inside and do their work on the mussel's soft tissues. When the digestive process is finished, the anemone spits out the perfectly cleaned mussel shells.

Giant green anemone (Anthopleura xanthogrammica) digesting a clump of mussels (Mytilus californianus) at Natural Bridges
17 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

In the photo above, the anemone is working on a clump of several mussels. I can't see that any of these mussels have been compromised, but the pale orange stringy stuff looks like mussel innards and slime. It could be that several mussels are still engulfed within the anemone. There is always a chance that an anemone will give up on a mussel that remains tenaciously closed, and spit it out covered with slime but otherwise unharmed. I assume that hungry anemones are less likely to give up their meals than ones that have recently fed.

So how, exactly, does an anemone eat a mussel, or a crab? The answer lies within the anemone's body. Technically, the gut of an animal is outside its body, right? Don't believe me? Let's think it through. An animal with a one-way gut can be modeled as a tube within a tube, and by that reasoning the surface of a gut is contiguous with the outer surface of the body. Our gut is elaborated by pouches and sacs of various sizes and functions, but is essentially a long, convoluted tube with a mouth on one end and an anus on the other. Sea anemones, as all cnidarians, have a two-way gut called a coelenteron or gastrovascular cavity (GVC), with a single opening serving as both mouth and anus. Anemones, being the largest cnidarian polyps, have the most anatomically complex gut systems in the phylum.

Imagine a straight-sided vase with a drawstring top. The volume of the vase that you'd fill with water and flowers represents the volume of the anemone's gut. Anemones can close off the opening to their digestive system by tightening sphincter muscles that surround the mouth; these muscles are analogous to the drawstring closure of our hypothetical vase. Now imagine that the inner wall of the vase is elaborated into sheets of curtain-like tissue that extend towards the center of the cavity. These sheets of tissue are called mesenteries. They are loaded with various types of cnidocytes that immobilize prey and begin the process of digestion. The mesenteries greatly increase the surface area of tissue that can be used for digestion. The mesenteries are also flexible and can wrap around ingested prey to speed things up.

This anemone (below) that was eating both a mussel and a piece of kelp:

Sunburst anemone (Anthopleura sola) having brunch at Davenport Landing
4 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Those frilly ruffles are the mesenteries. You can see how greatly they'd increase the surface area of the gut for digestion. They are also very soft, almost flimsy. Here's a close-up shot:

Gastric mesenteries of the sea anemone Anthopleura sola at Davenport Landing
4 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Maybe I'm especially suggestible, but seeing these animals working on their own meals makes me hungry, too. After crawling around the tidepools for a few hours I'm always ready for a second breakfast or brunch of my own.

Bon appétit!

Monterey Bay is shaped like a backwards letter 'C', with Santa Cruz on the north end and the Monterey Peninsula on the south end. The top of the 'C' is comparatively smooth, while the bottom is punctuated by the Monterey Peninsula, which juts north from the city of Monterey. The most striking geologic feature is the Monterey Submarine Canyon, but of course you can't see that from land. It is crazy to realize that the canyon starts right off the jetty at Moss Landing. It is this proximity to deep water that makes the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) so ideally situated.

Monterey Bay, California
© Google Maps

Separated by 40.2 km (= approximately 25 statute miles) as measured harbor to harbor, Santa Cruz and Monterey represent both the same and slightly different marine habitats. On a large scale they are both part of the California Current system, strongly affected and biologically defined by seasonal upwelling in the spring and summer months. On a finer scale they differ in a few ways, primarily geologic. The rock on the Santa Cruz end of the bay is a soft sand- or mudstone, and at sites like Natural Bridges can be easily eroded; you can scratch it with your thumbnail, and falling on it might give you a bruise but probably won't beat you up more than that. The rock of the Monterey Peninsula is much less forgiving: granite with large quartz crystals. Falling on that stuff can leave you with bruises and a bad case of rock rash; I usually end up bleeding from at least one laceration when I'm in the intertidal there.

Limpet on granite on the Monterey Peninsula
16 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Barnacles on mudstone in Santa Cruz
17 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The difference in rock type between the north and south ends of Monterey Bay also manifests in the tidepools themselves. The soft mud stone of the Santa Cruz erodes into small particles, which form nice soft sandy beaches. Small particles also remain suspended in water more so than larger ones, which affects water clarity. Larger and heavier particles, on the other hand, sink out of the water, so that the water column itself tends to be less murky. Clear water has some marked advantages over murky water. For example, light transmission is directly proportional to water clarity. Thus, all other factors being equal, photosynthetic organisms such as algae have access to more light, in waters above large-grained sand than those above finer sediments.

That being said, it is not always the case that clearer water is better. Remember Phragmatopoma californica, one of the worms I wrote about recently? They build tubes out of sand grains. However, it turns out that they are particular about the sand grains they use. If you were to examine a Phragmatopoma tube under a dissecting scope you'd see that all of the sand grains are the same size. Just how they select and sort the sand grains isn't understood, but somehow they manage to choose the particles they want and cement them together underwater. Phragmatopoma is one of the most conspicuous animals at Natural Bridges on the north side of Monterey Bay, forming large mounds of hundreds of individuals, yet very few live on the Monterey Peninsula. There are likely several reasons for this, but part of the explanation is that the sand grains are too big to be used in the worms' tubes.

I live in Santa Cruz, on the north end of the bay, and most of my intertidal excursions these days are to locations in Santa Cruz and north along the coast. I haven't spent nearly as much time as I'd like to in the tidepools on the Monterey Peninsula and locations further south. It's tough getting to a site an hour away, when the low tide is at dawn. And with my post-concussion syndrome I don't yet feel comfortable driving myself that far away and back. Fortunately for me, I am currently mentoring a student working on an independent study project, and she was willing to drive down to Asilomar last weekend. So I tagged along with her.

Monterey Peninsula
© Google Maps

Asilomar State Reserve is one of California's no-take marine protected areas (MPAs), where people can look and take pictures but are not allowed to remove anything, dead or alive. It is a glorious site. The water is clear and blue, and the biota is both similar to and different from that on the north side of the bay. I want to highlight some of the organisms that I see there, that are less common here on the north side.

Black abalone (Haliotis cracherodii) at Asilomar State Beach
16 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Abalone (Haliotis sp.) are not unheard of here. In fact, there is a black ab (H. cracherodii) at Natural Bridges that I've been keeping an eye on since 2015, tucked into a crevice and generally not visible except on a minus tide. And further north at Pigeon Point I have seen red abalone (H. rufescens), both living and empty shells. But I've never seen as many black abs as I saw at Asilomar. Standing in a depression about as big as my kitchen table, well above the water level, I easily counted at least 20 black abs. Some of them were as big as my hand. How many can you see in the photo above?

Black abalone (Haliotis cracherodii) at Asilomar State Beach
16 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Abalone are large herbivorous snails. They feed on macroalgae, both reds and browns. If they venture from the safety of their nooks and crannies they can chase (at a snail's pace) down algae, but then they are vulnerable to predators such as cabezons and sea otters. Abs that live in crevices, like these, have to rely on drift algae to come to them; they don't have the luxury of choosing what to eat. It's the age-old compromise between safety and food, one of the driving forces in foraging behavior.

While we have four species of anemones in the genus Anthopleura at the Santa Cruz end of the bay, as well as other anemones such as Epiactis, we don't have any in the genus Urticina--not intertidally, at least. I have seen Urticina anemones at Carmel, and last weekend saw what I think was U. coriacea. It was in a pool, and partially obscured by sand and its own pharynx.

The anemone Urticina coriacea at Asilomar State Beach
16 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

It's own pharynx, you ask? Yes! Anemones are cnidarians, and as such have a two-way gut. This means that food is ingested and wastes are expelled via a single opening, which for politeness' sake we call a mouth even though it also functions as an anus. Sometimes, when an anemone is expelling wastes, it also turns out the top part of its pharynx. This is a temporary condition, and the pharynx will be returned to normal soon. The anemone in the picture above appears to be in the process of spitting out something fairly large and undigestible.

Here's another example of an anemone eating a big meal, this time of mussels.

Giant green anemone (Anthopleura xanthogrammica) snacking on a clump of mussels (Mytilus californianus) at Natural Bridges
17 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

What do you think this thing (below) is?

Pista elongata at Asilomar State Beach
16 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

I had at first misidentified these as something else, but have since been told that they are the tubes of another of those strange terebellid polychaete worms. This one is Pista elongata. As with many terebellids, P. elongata lives in a tube, the opening end of which is elaborated into a sort of basket. They reportedly range from British Columbia to San Diego. I think I've seen them at Carmel Point, but not at Point Piños, which I've visited more often. And I'm positive I've never seen it at Natural Bridges.

At Asilomar I saw some large clusters of P. elongata in the low intertidal. They are not clonal, to my knowledge, so these aggregations would form by gregarious settlement of competent larvae when they return to shore.

Cluster of Pista elongata at Asilomar State Beach
16 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

One solitary ascidian that I saw at Asilomar is Clavelina huntsmani, the appropriately called lightbulb tunicate:

The "lightbulb tunicate" Clavelina huntsmani at Asilomar State Beach
16 June 2017
© Allison J. Gong

For people too young to remember what an incandescent light bulb looks like, they were made of clear or frosted glass. Inside the glass bulb were tungsten filaments, through which electricity flowed; the filaments heated up enough to emit light. In Clavelina, the two pink structures running down the length of each zooid resemble the filaments of an incandescent light bulb, but are in fact parts of the pharyngeal basket, the structure used for filter feeding.

We have neither Pista nor Clavelina in Santa Cruz--at least, I've never seen them. They remind me that although Santa Cruz and Monterey are part of the same ecosystem, they do not represent the same microhabitat. I'm pretty familiar with the intertidal floral and fauna in Santa Cruz, but I absolutely love exploring the intertidal along the Monterey Peninsula. There's something exciting about spending time a place I don't know as well as the back of my hand. I hope that as my brain continues to heal I'll eventually regain the stamina to travel so far for a low tide.

1

Today is the first day of the week of low tides dedicated to Snapshot Cal Coast, a statewide citizen science project headed in my area by the California Academy of Sciences. This week groups and individuals will be making photographing the organisms they see in the ocean or along the coast, and uploading observations to iNaturalist. Participants will include both scientists and non-scientists, making the week-long event one of the biggest citizen science projects that I regularly take part in. Next Monday I'll be taking a group of Seymour Center volunteers and staff up to Davenport to conduct a Bioblitz. The other days I'll be out on my own, or with 1 or 2 people.

This morning the low tide was very early (-1.3 feet at 05:09), so I stayed close to home and went to Natural Bridges. The tide was low but the swell was big and I wasn't able to get down to the low spots I could normally reach with this kind of tide. However, this meant that I could spend more time in the low-mid-intertidal, where there is a lot of biodiversity to document.

Today I want to write about polychaete worms. These are the segmented marine worms in the Phylum Annelida, which also includes earthworms and leeches.

Worm #1: Phragmatopoma californica

One of the most conspicuous inhabitants of this zone is the tube-dwelling polychaete worm, Phragmatopoma californica. This worm has a couple of common names: honeycomb worm, which refers to the mounds of tubes they build; and sandcastle worm, for the fact that the tubes are built of cemented sand grains. In effect, these worms are tiny masons!

Mound of Phragmatopoma californica tubes at Natural Bridges
26 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Each of the tubes is inhabited by a single worm. Mounds form because competent Phragmatopoma larvae, looking for a place to settle out and live permanently, are attracted to the tubes of existing adults. This phenomenon is called gregarious settlement. Once settled and metamorphosed, juvenile worms build their tubes by selecting sand grains and cementing them together around a lining of chitin-like material. How they do it, underwater, nobody knows. And these tubes are tough! The worm inside is skinny, and a humongous one would be all of 4 cm long, but it takes a lot of force to pry apart those sand grains. The openings to the tubes are 5-10 mm in diameter. Each worm can close off its tube with a circular-ish disc of stiff, fused chaetae called an operculum; this protects the worm from both predators and desiccation.

When the tide is out the worms withdraw into their tubes and clap the operculum down. They wait for the water to return. Phragmatopoma is a filter feeder; like most of the tube-dwelling polychaetes these worms use a crown of ciliated tentacles to create water currents that draw food particles to the mouth. When the tide is in the worms pull down the operculum and extend their feeding tentacles into the water. In the field, this is the most you can see of the worm's body.

Feeding tentacles of Phragmatopoma californica at Natural Bridges
13 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Worm #2: Serpula columbiana

Many polychaetes live in tubes, and tubes can be made of a variety of materials. Phragmatopoma californica builds tubes out of sand grains. Another worm that I saw today, Serpula columbiana, builds tubes out of CaCO3 precipitated from seawater. Like other animals that build calcareous skeletons, S. columbiana may in the future have difficulty precipitating CaCO3 in an increasingly acidic ocean. Tubes of Serpula worms are white when new and soon become fouled with algal growth, and tend to wander over the substrate. The best photo I could take this morning is a little blurry but you can see the general morphology of the tubes.

Calcareous tubes of Serpula columbiana at Natural Bridges
13 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

These worms are incredibly shy, and react to any perceived threat by pulling into their tubes. Their tentacles have tiny eyespots that can detect changes in light, so passing a hand over them can cause them to withdraw. Fortunately I was able to sneak up on one lazy worm in a pool, and grab a shot of its 'head' region. Worms that live in tubes are poorly cephalized, with none of the structures that we generally associate with a head. Serpula columbiana's 'head' looks like this:

Anterior end of Serpula columbiana at Natural Bridges
13 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The tentacles of S. columbiana are morphologically complex compared to those of Phragmatopoma. Serpula's tentacles are pinnate, or feather-shaped, and in cross-section look like a V. Cilia on the side branches of the tentacle create the feeding current, and food particles are transported by other cilia down the trough of the V to the mouth.

See that long, trumpet-shaped structure? That's the worm's operculum!

Worm #3: Unidentified cirratulid

Unlike Serpula and Phragmatopoma, worms of the Family Cirratulidae don't live in tubes. Instead, they live with most of the body hidden in crevices, and extend tentacles to feed.

Feeding tentacles of an unidentified cirratulid polychaete worm at Natural Bridges
13 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

As you can imagine, it is extremely difficult to identify a worm when all you can see of it are its tentacles; with the rest of the body hidden in a crevice, there are no visible characteristics to use to distinguish species. Cirratulids use their tentacles to feed, but in a way that is entirely unlike how Phragmatopoma and Serpula use theirs. Instead of feeding on particles suspended in the water, cirratulids are deposit feeders. They sweep their tentacles across the surface and collect organic deposits. Sticky mucus on the tentacles picks up organic matter, and cilia on the tentacles sweep the organic matter to the worm's mouth.

Don't believe me? Watch this!

It doesn't matter if the surrounding substrate is sand or rock. The cirratulid's sticky tentacles are very effective at gathering organic muck.

Worm #4: Flabesymbios commensalis

This worm remains an enigma. There doesn't seem to be much known about its biology. I have seen them twice, both times on the body of purple urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus), and although the genus name has changed twice since the first time, I'm pretty sure it's the same worm. As the species epithet commensalis implies, this worm is a commensal on sea urchins. This means that it neither harms nor benefits its echinoderm host. Similar to the worm I've seen on bat stars, F. commensalis presumably cruises over the urchin's body and feeds on detritus or scraps of kelp that the urchin grabs.

When I took the photo in a tide pool this morning I didn't see the worm. It wasn't until I downloaded the pictures from the camera onto my computer that I saw it. See how well it blends in with the urchin's color?

Purple urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) at Natural Bridges
13 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Here's a tighter crop of that photo:

Flabesymbios commensalis on aboral surface of a purple urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) at Natural Bridges
13 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

For many polychaete worms, another animal's body seems to be the ideal habitat. And for some reason, echinoderms are likely hosts for such commensal worms. I've written about the bat star worms, here is the urchin worm, and there's also a scale worm that I've seen crawling around on the body of a sea cucumber. What is it about echinoderms that makes them habitat for worms? Or is this type of commensalism also common, but less observed, between polychaetes and other non-echinoderm invertebrates? I don't know the answer to either of those questions, but am very intrigued.

1

This morning, after months of invitations that I could not accept due to teaching commitments, I was finally able to join a group of folks at the Younger Lagoon Reserve (YLR) for their weekly bird banding activities. During the summer months they start early, trying to catch birds in the few hours after dawn. I didn't get out there until almost 07:00, and they had been "fishing" for about 45 minutes already. They were finishing up the process with a Wilson's warbler and went out to release the bird as I came up.

Bird banders waiting for some action at Younger Lagoon Reserve
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Bird banding activities are overseen by a person who holds state and federal permits to work with birds. The permit holder for the Younger Lagoon Reserve and the Fort Ord Natural Reserve is Breck Tyler. Either he or his partner, Martha, must be on site whenever birds are being banded. The other regular participants are YLR staff members Vaughan Williams (Restoration Field Manager), Kyla Roessler (Assistant Restoration Steward), and various UCSC undergrads who are interns, volunteers, or students visiting with classes. Back in March I brought my Ecology students to YLR to observe bird banding and work on vegetation restoration in the Reserve's terrace lands; on that day we did help with planting, but got skunked on birds.

When I arrived this morning it was sunny and cool. Vaughan told me that the best weather for bird banding is one of the overcast, foggy mornings that we often get in the summer. When it's sunny, like it was today, the birds can see and avoid the nets.

Mist net at Younger Lagoon Reserve
8 June 201
© Allison J. Gong
Bird banding equipment
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The mist nets are made of an extremely fine nylon mesh. They are very loose and flexible and don't hurt the birds. A bird flies into the net and gets tangled in it. If the bird is heavy enough, it and the mesh it is tangled in fall into one of the pockets of the net. The banders check the nets about every 20 minutes, so a bird isn't tangled for very long. At the end of the morning the nets are taken down and put away so they aren't a hazard to birds. In addition to the nets, the banders set traps at ground level. The traps are kept in place all the time and are baited with seed so the birds know they can get food there. During a banding session the trap doors are allowed to shut on a critter that ventures inside, but at other times the doors are clamped open so animals can wander in and out. This morning we caught a vole in one of the traps. I didn't get to see it because I was with the group of people checking the nets.

But the first bird I got to see was caught in a trap! It was a California scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica) that had clenched its feet around the wire of the cage, making for a difficult extraction. Sophie, the intern wrangling this particular bird, had quite a job of it.

Sophie working to extract a scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica) from a trap
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The bird, once extracted from either net or trap, gets put into a cloth bag and taken to an area called The Yard to be worked up. Each bird gets the following treatment:

  • A complete formal ID, which can be really easy or really difficult
  • Banded on the left leg with a unique number
  • Sexed, if possible
  • Aged and life history stage determined. Age can be guesstimated by examining patterns of wear on the feathers. Missing feathers can indicate either a molt or some recent mishap in the bird's life. Some species are not sexually dimorphic, but females that are incubating or brooding have a patch of bare skin on the front underneath the feathers. Our scrub jay had a brood patch and is thus a girl!
  • Measured and weighed

The banding itself has to be done by either Martha or Breck. They are the ones with the training required to squeeze tiny bracelets around skinny legs.

Martha crimping band around the leg of a California scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica)
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

It takes practice and skill to hold a bird immobilized but still able to breathe. You also have to avoid the feet, which are equipped with sharp talons. Elizabeth, the intern to whom Martha relinquished this bird for the remainder of the workup, neatly solved the problem of the feet by giving the jay a bag to hold onto. The bird's left leg, wearing the band, is tightly clenched and the right one is grasping the bag.

Scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica) with clenched feet
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Elizabeth examining a scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica)
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

To examine the skin the handler blows up the feathers. To me this was surprisingly effective. I sort of assumed the bird's down feathers would be too thick to blow through. A good puff blows the feathers up and uncovers the skin.

Birds the size of jays are weighed in bags hung from a spring scale. The scrub jay in its bag weighed 90 grams. The empty bag weighed 15 grams, so the bird's body weight was 75 grams. The weighing was the last part of the workup, and after that she was released. Birds with an active brood patch are probably tending eggs or babies, and should be released in the area where they were caught so they don't have to expend a lot of energy flying back to the nest.

In addition to the scrub jay, we also caught a bushtit and a Bewick's wren. Bushtits can be problematic because they flit around in large flocks, and sometimes 20 or 30 of them will fly into the nets all at once. This results in a frenzy of activity for the banders, who want to work up the birds quickly so they aren't overly stressed. Breck said that while the data are important, the birds are more important, and if they have to let birds go without working them up, then they will. Bushtits are tiny birds--look at how small that wing is!

Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus) getting its workup
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The last bird we caught was a Bewick's wren (Thryomanes bewickii). These little birds have a reputation of getting pretty tangled in the nets, because when they hit the mesh they start thrashing and making things worse. When I went out with Elizabeth to check the nets we saw the wren wrapped up in the net. It took Martha's expertise to get the bird free, and it screamed the whole time. That's a good sign, as a bird that complains is a bird that is angry rather than scared. Sometimes the net needs to be cut to free the bird, but this time patience and expertise were all it took.

Disentangling a Bewick's wren
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Bewick's wren (Thryomanes bewickii) in mist net
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Bewick's wren is more substantial than a bushtit, although not by much. And it has a tiny leg that requires a tiny band.

Breck placing band on a Bewick's wren (Thryomanes bewickii)
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And the coolest thing is how they weigh these teensy birds. They're so small that they can fly around inside the bag, which means they aren't confined and would be unlikely to hold still long enough to get an accurate weight measurement from the spring scale. But years ago there was a company named Kodak that manufactured and sold millions of small plastic canisters that probably make up a significant proportion of landfill materials around the world. These little plastic containers happen to be the perfect size for containing the head half of a wren-sized bird, keeping the bird calm so it can be weighed.

Weighing a Bewick's wren (Thryomanes bewickii)
8 June 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Worked like a charm!

1

This afternoon we got a call about some bees that were swarming in a residential neighborhood near us. We had caught a swarm the other day and that was a very good thing, as both of the colonies in our Apiary #1 had died out in the last few weeks. The first swarm went into our Green hive and earlier today they appeared to be settling in nicely, making orientation flights. They were a decently sized swarm, filling up about 10 cm in a 5-gallon bucket and, as long as they have a queen that gets herself mated they should do fine.

That swarm was in a tree, requiring the use of the swarm-catching-bucket-on-a-long-pole that Alex rigged up.

Alex maneuvers the bucket under the swarm
26 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Once the bucket was in place under the swarm Alex gave it a good thump to knock the bees off the cluster. Given the density of the foliage it wasn't possible to get all the bees to fall into the bucket, so he left the bucket perched nearby. If the queen had fallen with the first clump into the bucket, the rest of the swarm should follow her scent and join her.

Swarm bucket
26 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Which they did. And now they live in our Green hive.

Today's swarm was very different. These bees had just started gathering on the ground near a fire hydrant, and lots of bees were still in the air. They had formed a large patch on the ground. The resident of the house where the swarm was said the bees had been in a cluster hanging from the tree by the curb. This is typical swarm behavior. However, sometimes the queen falls from the cluster and ends up on the ground; because she's a weak flyer she usually stays there, and of course all of the workers eventually end up where she is.

There's a queen in there, somewhere!
28 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Alex searches for the queen
28 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Knowing that the queen was somewhere in that mass of bees on the ground, Alex's strategy was to find her and catch her in that little trap. The workers will follow the scent of their mother (or sister), so if we place the trapped queen where we want the bees to go, chances are we can persuade them to follow her.

It turned out that there were two queens in the swarm, which can happen. When a colony is preparing to throw its first swarm of the season, the workers will make some queen cells in the old hive. That way, when they depart and drag the old queen with them, the hive won't be left queenless. Sometimes one of the new queens emerges just as the swarm is taking off and gets caught up in the melee.

Alex found two queens on the ground. One he caught in the little trap, and one he caught by hand and set in the bucket. Without the security of a second trap the queen in the bucket was 'balled'--the bees literally killed her either accidentally (i.e., by smothering her) or deliberately (because they didn't like her for some reason). Anyway, when all was said and done the swarm was left with a single queen.

Caged queen on a hive box
28 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And it works!

Eventually most of the bees were in the box. Alex released the queen from her little cage and prodded her to go down. The last thing we wanted to see was her taking off into the air again! She eventually crawled down, and the bees did exactly what they were supposed to do.

Looks like a hive box full of bees!
28 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Once most of the bees had made their way into the box, Alex closed it up. We'll let it sit there until evening, when the last of the stragglers should head inside. Then we can bring them home and install them in our Rose hive.

28 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

This weekend I was supposed to take a photographer and his assistant into the field to hunt for staurozoans. I mean a real photographer, one who has worked for National Geographic. He also wrote the book One Cubic Foot. You may have heard of the guy. His name is David Liittschwager. Anyway, his assistant contacted me back in March, saying that he was working on something jellyfish-related for Nat Geo and hoped to include staurozoans in the story, and did I know anything about them? As in, maybe know where to find them? It just so happens that I do indeed know where to find staurozoans, at least sometimes, and we made a date to go hunting on a low tide. Then early in May the assistant contacted me to let me know that David's schedule had changed and he couldn't meet me today, and she hoped they'd be able to work with me in the future, and so on.

None of which means that I wouldn't go look for them anyways. I'd made the plans, the tide would still be fantastic, and so I went. And besides, these are staurozoans we're talking about! I will go out of my way to look for them as often as I can. Not only that, but I hadn't been to Franklin Point at all in 2018 and that certainly needed to be remedied.

Pigeon Point, viewed from Franklin Point trail
19 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The sand has definitely returned. The beach is a lot less steep than it was in the winter, and some of the rocks are completely covered again. This meant that the channels where staurozoans would likely be found are shallower and easier to search. But you still have to know where to look.

Tidal area at Franklin Point
19 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

See that large pool? That's where the staurozoans live. They like areas where the water constantly moves back and forth, which makes them difficult to photograph in situ. And given that the big ones are about 2 cm in diameter and most of them are the same color as the algae they're attached to, they're a challenge to find in the first place. I looked for a long time and was about to give up on my search image when I found a single small staurozoan, about 10 mm in diameter, quite by accident. It was a golden-brown color, quite happily living in a surge channel. I took several very lousy pictures of it before coming up with the bright idea of moving it up the beach a bit to an area where the water wasn't moving quite as much. I sloshed up a few steps and found a likely spot, then placed my staurozoan where the water was deep enough for me to submerge the camera and take pictures.

Staurozoan (Haliclystus sp.) at Franklin Point
19 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Staurozoan (Haliclystus sp.) at Franklin Point
19 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Cute little thing, isn't it? I had my head down taking pictures of this animal, congratulating myself on having found it. When I looked around me I saw that I had inadvertently discovered a whole neighborhood of staurozoans. They were all around me! And some of them were quite large, a little over 2 cm in diameter. All of a sudden I couldn't not see them.

Staurozoan (Haliclystus sp.) at Franklin Point
19 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

I know I've seen staurozoans in the same bottle green color as the Ulva, but this time I saw only brown ones. As you can see even the animals attached to Ulva were brown. Staurozoans seem to be solitary creatures. They are not permanently attached but do not aggregate and are not clonal. Most of the ones I found were as singles, although I did find a few loose clusters of 3-4 animals that just happened to be gathered in the same general vicinity.

Trio of staurozoans (Haliclystus sp.) at Franklin Point
19 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Not much is known about the biology of Haliclystus, or any of the staurozoans. I collected some one time many years ago, and brought them back to the lab for closer observation. They seemed to eat Artemia nauplii very readily, and I did get to observe some interesting behaviors, but they all died within a week or so. Given that I can find them only in certain places at Franklin Point, they must be picky about their living conditions. Obviously I can't provide what they need at the marine lab. The surging water movement, for example, is something that I can't easily replicate. I need to think about that. The mid-June low tides look extremely promising, and my collecting permit does allow me to collect staurozoans at Franklin Point. Maybe I'll be able to rig up something that better approximates their natural living conditions in the lab.

In the meantime, I just want to look at them.

Staurozoan (Haliclystus sp.) at Franklin Point
19 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Pair of staurozoans (Haliclystus sp) at Franklin Point
19 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Every once in a while some random person drops off a creature at the marine lab.  Sometimes the creature is a goldfish that had been a take-home prize at a wedding over the weekend (now weddings taking place at the Seymour Center are not allowed to include live animals in centerpieces). Once it was a spiny lobster that spent the long drive up from the Channel Islands in a cooler, and became the Exhibit Hall favorite, Fluffy. This time the objects had been collected off the beach and brought in by somebody who thought they might still be alive.

16 April 2018
© Allison J. Gong

These white objects are egg masses of the California market squid, Doryteuthis opalescens, that had been cast onto the beach at Davenport. Sometimes the masses are called fingers or candles, because they're about finger-sized. Each contains dozens of large eggs. Squids, like all cephalopods, are copulators, and after mating the female deposits a few of these fingers onto the sea floor. Many females will lay their eggs in the same spot, so the eggs in this photo represent the reproductive output of several individuals. The cephalopods as a group are semelparous, meaning that they reproduce only once at the end of their natural life; salmons are also semelparous. After mating, the squids die. Not coincidentally, the squid fishing season is open right now, the idea being that as long as the squids have reproduced before being caught in seines, little harm is done to the population. Most of the time the squids are dispersed throughout the ocean, and the only time it is feasible to catch them in large numbers is when they gather to mate.

These egg masses look vulnerable, but they're very well protected. The outer coating is tough and leathery, and the eggs must taste bad because nothing eats them. I've fed them to anemones, which will eat just about anything, and they were spat out immediately.

The eggs were brought to the Seymour Center because the person who brought them in thought they might make a good exhibit. I happened to be there that day and got permission to take a small subset of the bunch so I could keep an eye on them. And they did and still do make a good exhibit.

16 April 2018: I obtain squid eggs!

Egg mass, or 'finger, of the California market squid Doryteuthis opalescens
16 April 2018
© Allison J. Gong

At this stage it is impossible to tell whether or not the eggs are alive. The only thing to do was wait and see.

30 April 2018: After waiting two weeks with apparently no change, I decided it was time to look at the egg fingers more closely again. Lo and behold, they are indeed alive! Look at the pink spots in the individual eggs--those are eyes. And if you can see the smaller pink spots, those are chromatophores, the 'color bodies' in the squids' skin that allow them to perform their remarkable color changes.

Developing embryos of Doryteuthis opalescens
30 April 2018
© Allison J. Gong

9 May 2018: A week and a half later, the embryos definitely look more like squids! Their eyes and chromatophores have darkened to black now. The embryos are also more active, swimming around inside their egg capsules. You can see the alternating contraction and relaxation of the mantle, which irrigates the gills. Squids have two gills. More on that below.

At this point the squid fingers began to disintegrate and look ragged. They became flaccid and lightly fouled with sediment.

14 May 2018 (today): Almost a month after they arrived, my squid eggs look like they're going to hatch soon! I didn't see any chromatophore flashing, though.

In the meantime, some of the eggs on exhibit in the Seymour Center have already started hatching. The first hatchlings appeared on Friday 11 May 2018. The hatchlings of cephalopods are called paralarvae; they aren't true larvae in the sense that instead of having to metamorphose into the adult form, they are miniature versions of their parents.

Peter, the aquarium curator at the Seymour Center, allowed me to take a few of the paralarvae in his exhibit and look at them under the scope. The squidlets are about 3mm long and swim around quite vigorously. Trying to suck them up in a turkey baster was more difficult than I anticipated. But I prevailed!

Paralarva of Doryteuthis opalescens
14 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

You can actually see more of what's going on in a video:

The cup-shaped layer of muscular tissue that surrounds the squid's innards is the mantle. When you eat a calamari steak, you are eating the mantle of a large squid.The space enclosed by the mantle is called the mantle cavity. Because the paralarvae are transparent you can see the internal organs. Each of those featherlike structures is a ctenidium, which is the term for a mollusk's gill. The ventilating motions of the mantle flush water in and out of the mantle cavity, ensuring that the gill is always surrounded by clean water.

And now we get to the hearts of the matter. At the base of each gill is a small pulsating structure called a branchial heart ('branch' = Gk: 'gill'). It performs the same function as the right atrium of our own four-chambered heart; that is, boosting the flow of blood to the gas-exchange structure. So that's two hearts. Between the pair of branchial hearts is the systemic heart, which pumps the oxygenated blood from the gills to the rest of the squid's body. This arrangement of multiple hearts, combined with a closed circulatory system, allows cephalopods to be much more active swimmers and hunters than the rest of their molluscan kin.

I expect that my fingers will hatch very soon. If and when they do, it will be a challenge getting them to eat. I've never tried it myself, and cephalopods are known to be difficult to rear in captivity. But I'm willing to give it a shot!

This weekend a subset of my students and I spent a day at the Fort Ord Natural Reserve (FONR) to participate in the 2018 spring Bioblitz. We were supposed to visit FONR for a class field trip in early March to do some vegetation studies, but that trip was rained out. Today's visit was sort of a make-up for that missed lab; because it's a Saturday I couldn't compel the students to attend, but I offered a little extra-credit for those who did. It just so happened that Joe Miller, the field manager at FONR, had organized a Bioblitz for another group of students, and he welcomed my Ecology class as well.

Map of communities surrounding Monterey Bay
© Google Maps

Located adjacent to the city of Marina in Monterey County, FONR is one of five natural reserves administered by the campus of UC Santa Cruz. The other four are the Campus Reserve (on the main campus of UCSC), Younger Lagoon Reserve (on UCSC's Coastal Science Campus), Año Nuevo Natural Reserve (up the coast in San Mateo County), and Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve (along the Big Sur coast). FONR occupies some 600 acres of a former military base that was closed in 1994. The reserve opened in 1996. As with all the other UC natural reserves, FONR exists to provide students, teachers, and researchers with natural lands to be used as outdoor classrooms and laboratories. Field courses at UC Santa Cruz and CSU Monterey Bay make extensive use of FONR, and students carry out independent studies and internships there.

After all of the participants arrived at the Reserve, Joe described the activities he had planned for the day. He told us that we could wander around the Reserve on our own if we wanted, but there were several hikes we could choose to join:

  • One to where some people were finishing up the day's bird banding activities
  • One to collect samples of environmental DNA
  • One to ID various tracks in the sand
  • One to the different habitats and vegetation types
  • One to check out some pitfall traps for small rodents and reptiles

Because my knowledge of the local flora is sorely lacking, I went on the plant hike with Joe. Many of the spring wildflowers had either finished or were finishing up their yearly bloom. The poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) is looking amazing this year; I think it has been able to take advantage of two consecutive wet seasons with a decent amount of rain. There were many poison oak plantlets scattered around all over the place, and the established bushes are lush and green. There is no way I didn't come into contact with the stuff at least once on this hike, so today is going to be the true test of whether or not I am allergic to it.

One of many poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) plants at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Much of the terrain at FONR is a maritime chaparral. The soil is extremely sandy (Pleistocene sand dunes, Joe says) with a poor nutrient load and water content. It's not a desert, because we do get a fair amount of precipitation along the Monterey Bay, but the plants have adapted to thrive with low soil moisture levels. It's also often very windy, and there are no trees. Even the coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia), which can be magnificently massive and meandering, are stunted here. Much of the foliage is low-growing perennial shrubs or annual plants.

Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) growing above coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis) at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Joe led us through the habitats of the Reserve, mostly on trails but also along narrow-to-nonexistent tracks that we called Poison Oak Lane, Rattlesnake Drive, and Tick Alley. And yes, we did see a rattlesnake! My husband spotted it, right about where he was going to put his foot. It wasn't a big snake, maybe half a meter long, and was sunning itself in a narrow opening between manzanita bushes. I didn't stop to take a picture because there wasn't a good space to do so, and I wanted to let other hikers pass the snake quickly. The snake didn't seem to react to us, but it's always a good idea to leave them alone.

Just beyond where we saw the rattler, Joe had found a pair of southern alligator lizards (Elgaria multicarinata) mating. When Joe picked them up the male had grabbed the female with a bite behind her head; he does this to keep her from running away, and it also shows his strength and suitability as a father for the female's offspring. The lizards didn't like being interrupted in copulo, so to speak, and the male released the female and escaped back to the ground, leaving his lady love behind in Joe's hand. Hopefully they were able to find each other again once they were both let go.

Joe Miller (left) holding a female southern alligator lizard (Elgaria multicarinata) in his left hand
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

To me, the picture above exemplifies what a Bioblitz is all about. We have two people examining a natural phenomenon, and one of them is taking a picture that he will presumably upload to iNaturalist. People learn a lot when they participate in a Bioblitz--they usually see things they've never paid attention to before, and when their observations are ID'd or corroborated by the community of iNat experts, they get to put a name to the thing they saw. True, it's a better learning experience to sit down with a specimen, hand lens, and book to figure out what an organism is, but most people don't have either the inclination or the luxury of time and the necessary books. And while I'd rather have people look at the real thing with their eyes instead of their phones, getting people to go outdoors and pay any attention at all to their surroundings is a minor victory. I find Bioblitzes to be a little unsettling sometimes. My preferred method for observation is to examine fewer things in greater depth; this is what my graduate advisor Todd Newberry referred to as "varsity" observations. I don't think a Bioblitz has any place in varsity studies, because of its very raison d'être--to record as many observations as possible--means to some degree that instead of taking a deep look you have to glance-and-go. Still, it does have its place in natural history, and I value it as a way to get more people involved in science.

I was on the plant hike, so many of the organisms I photographed and uploaded to iNat are new to me. Some are California endemics and all have adapted to survive in the difficult conditions of a maritime chaparral.

Eriastrum sp., a plant with delicate blue-purple flowers, at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And I did see one of the California native thistles. Invasive thistles are such a problem that the knee-jerk response is to stomp on them or yank them out of the ground. This one, for which I'm still waiting on an ID confirmation, is silvery and sort of looks like cobwebs. Joe said that its blossom is a bright pink.

A California native thistle, possibly Cirsium occidentale, at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And one of my newish old favorite wildflowers, Castilleja exserta, was there. The purple owl's clover occurs throughout California; in 2017 I saw a lot of it on my wildflower excursion to the southern part of the state. It varies in color from purple to pink to white and thus has multiple common names.

Castilleja exserta, the purple owl's clover, at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

We also saw a lot of the peak rushrose, Helianthemum scoparium. It is a California native species that does well in dry, sandy areas, such as throughout most of Fort Ord.

Peak rushrose (Helianthemum scoparium) at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

While I was leaning down to photograph this plant, one of the Reserve volunteers pointed out a much paler version nearby. He told me that most of the time the peak rushrose has brilliant yellow flowers, but there are always a few that have this much more delicate color.

Pale form of peak rushrose (Helianthemum scoparium) at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And speaking of yellow, I discovered another new-to-me organism! What at first glance looked like a blotch of spray paint on a tree trunk turned out to be something much more interesting--a gold dust lichen in the genus Chrysothrix.

Gold dust lichen (Chrysothrix sp.) at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The lichen book1 that I have describes two species of Chrysothrix, both of which can be found in coastal regions of California. The species have some overlap in habitat, with C. granulosa usually living on bark and occasionally on wood or rock, while C. xanthina can regularly be found on bark, wood, and rock. Nor is color by itself an entirely useful characteristic: C. granulosa is described as brilliant yellow, and C. xanthina can be brilliant yellow, yellow-green, or yellow-orange. There are certain tests that would be able to distinguish between the species, but field ID when the lichen is 'brilliant yellow' remains problematic. So while I'd guess that this specimen is Chrysothrix granulosa (based on a combination of color, location, habitat, and good old-fashioned gut feeling) I can't be at all certain.

The discussion of lichens brings us around to the animals. Did you know that fungi are more closely related to animals than they are to plants? Well they are, despite being included in more botany than zoology courses. And of course we did see animals on our plant hike. Hawks and turkey vultures soared overhead, song birds and hummingbirds flitted among the trees and shrubs, alligator lizards mated, and there was that one rattlesnake, which even the people on the herps walk didn't get to see. As we hiked through the various plant communities in the Reserve, Joe occasionally called out "If you see a horned lizard, catch it!" A woman in our group, Yvonne, managed to do so, despite being loaded down with a backpack and a camera. She pounced on it and held it up for us to photograph.

Horned lizard (Phyronosoma sp.) at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Horned lizard (Phrynosoma sp.) at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Cute little thing, isn't it?

The last critter we saw as we were walking back to the gate after lunch was a juvenile gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer). By the time I got there the snake was resting in the road. It was a very pretty snake. I wanted to take it home and release it into my yard, where there are enough gophers to feed an entire family of snakes, but alas, collecting is not allowed at the Reserve. I do wish that a gopher snake would move into my yard, though.

It is now about 24 hours since we got home. We did our tick checks and didn't find anything, thank goodness, then showered and scrubbed. There's no doubt that we were both exposed to poison oak; it is impossible NOT to be, this time of year. This is the real test for whether or not I am allergic to it. I haven't been so far, but there's a first time for everything and I will never say that I will never get it. My husband, who gets poison oak very easily and very badly, says it could take up to two days to be sure. I'm not itchy today. Tomorrow may be a different story, though.

 


1Sharnoff, S. 2014. A Field Guide to California Lichens, Yale University Press

%d bloggers like this: