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When I moved to the coast these many years ago and started poking around in the local intertidal, I became entranced with little animals called staurozoans. I can't claim to have been to every intertidal site in the area, but I've been to several of them and I personally know the staurozoans to occur at only two sites: Carmel Point (I've seen them there once) and Franklin Point (I used to see them there fairly regularly). In 2007 I went out to Franklin Point every month that had a negative low tide during daylight hours to monitor the abundance and size of the staurozoans; heck, once I even went out in the dark armed with a headlamp and a friend who was supposed to watch my back but instead fell asleep against the cliff. The staurozoans were easy to find that year and occurred in large numbers.

I used to be able to find the staurozoans in one particular area on the north side of Franklin Point where the water continually swashes back and forth.

Intertidal at Franklin Point, 3 July 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Intertidal at Franklin Point, 3 July 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

The staurozoans would always be attached to algae, often perfectly matching the color of their substrate. I remember seeing two versions, one a reddish brown and the other a vibrant bottle green color, of the same species of Haliclystus.

In March of this year I saw a lot of small staurozoans when I braved the afternoon winds at Franklin Point. The conditions were pretty horrid, with the water all churned up and murky so I couldn't take any pictures, but I was happy to see my little guys because it meant they were there. I hadn't seen them for a few years before this past spring and was beginning to doubt my search image. Huzzah for validating my gut feeling! I may have whooped and done the happy dance in my hip boots that afternoon.

Fast forward almost three months and three additional trips out to Franklin Point before I found a staurozoan this morning. One. And it was only about 0.5 cm tall, the same size that they were in March. And it was brown, the same color as most of the algae out there. Because they live where the water is constantly moving it's really hard to photograph them in situ. This is the best I could do:

Haliclystus sp. in situ at Franklin Point, 3 July 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Haliclystus sp. at Franklin Point, 3 July 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

It's hard to appreciate from this photo just how beautiful these animals are. They are very animated, swaying in the current and although they are attached they can slowly creep over surfaces or even detach, somersault around, and re-attach. Back in the day when I used to find them frequently I brought some back to the lab to observe them more closely. I could get them to feed, but they never lasted more than about a week in captivity.

So, what exactly are staurozoans? They are cnidarians, kin to sea anemones, hydroids, Velella velella, and jellies. Their common name is stalked jellies, and for a long time biologists considered them to be closely related to the jellies in the cnidarian class Scyphozoa. However, recent studies of the genetics of staurozoans have caused taxonomists to elevate these creatures to their own class, the Staurozoa.

Not much is known about the ecology of Haliclystus in California, probably because they are so damn difficult to find in the field. I have one or maybe two more trips out to Franklin Point this summer before we lose the minus tides for the season; hopefully they will still be there. I'd love to get some better pictures of them to show my students this fall. Wish me luck!

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I did a quick search, and there doesn't seem to be a collective noun for sea stars. I'm going to remedy that by declaring "constellation" to be the official term for a group of sea stars. And by "official" I mean that's the term I'm going to use. Who knows, maybe it'll take.

In any case, I certainly have a constellation of sea star larvae in each of my jars. Today I pipetted a lot of them into a bowl, and they look pretty cool all swimming together, like strange alien spaceships. What do you think?

The largest of the larvae are over 2 mm long now, and the brachiolar arms have grown much longer. They have three adhesive papillae on the ventral side of the anterior projection and well-formed juvenile rudiments, where the water vascular system is forming. They're much too big to fit under the compound scope, so the only way to get pictures of the entire body is through the dissecting scope:

Brachiolaria larva of Pisaster ochraceus, age 31 days. 3 July 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Brachiolaria larva of Pisaster ochraceus, age 31 days. 3 July 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

In the above photo you are looking at the larva's ventral surface, so the animal's left side on the right side of the photo, and vice versa. If you squint you might be able to convince yourself that you see a small whitish bleb on the left side of the stomach; that's the rudiment. Since it doesn't make much sense under this magnification, I removed this individual to a slide and put it under the compound scope. It doesn't fit in the field of view, so I took pictures of each half of the body. If I were clever with photo editing software I'd be able to mesh these photos into a single image. Alas....

Ventral view of the anterior end of a brachiolaria larva of Pisaster ochraceus, age 31 days. 3 July 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Ventral view of the anterior end of a brachiolaria larva of Pisaster ochraceus, age 31 days. 3 July 2015.
© Allison J. Gong
Ventral view of the posterior end of a brachiolaria larva of Pisaster ochraceus, age 31 days. 3 July 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Ventral view of the posterior end of a brachiolaria larva of Pisaster ochraceus, age 31 days. 3 July 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

This gives you a better view of the juvenile rudiment on the animal's left. Those three roundish blobs are tube feet! I think it's likely that at some point in the not-too-distant future the larvae will be competent, which means they'd be physiologically and anatomically capable of metamorphosis. It seems to me that they are still developing very quickly, and with seawater temperatures consistent at 15-16°C I don't expect that to change. So far, so good!

Edit 4 July 2015:  Look at what my online friend Becca can do! She was able to merge my photos into a single image. Now you can see the entire body! Thanks, Becca!

Composite image of brachiolaria larva of Pisaster ochraceus, age 31 days. 3 July 2015.
Composite image of brachiolaria larva of Pisaster ochraceus, age 31 days. 3 July 2015.

 

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