For some reason, the barn swallows at the marine lab like building their nests above doors. It seems that little 1/2-inch ledge of the door frame provides support for the mud nest. And the birds don't always choose little-used doors, either. This year a pair constructed their nest above one side of a double-door that people walk through all day. The mother laid and incubated her eggs, but would occasionally get flushed off the nest if someone came through the door. I always tried not to disturb her any more than necessary. The animal is always right, so I figured she knew what she was doing.
The eggs hatched about a week ago, I think. The mom would sometimes leave the nest when people approached, and even though I couldn't see anything in the nest I'd hear little cheeps. Earlier this week I thought I could see little heads poking above the edge of the nest.
It seems there are three baby birds in this nest!
I haven't spent much time watching the nest closely, because I don't want to scare the mother off and keep her away. Today I was lucky and stuck around just long enough, and with the big camera at hand, to capture both parents returning to feed the babies. The first parent arrived with an insect and landed on the nest. The other parent alit on the door frame.
After depositing the insect into one of the gaping yellow mouths, the first parent flies off. The second parent doesn't seem to have anything to offer the babies, though.
Ooh, maybe this parent has food!
The second parent lands on the nest. . .
. . . and promptly takes off again. . .
. . . leaving the babies alone in the nest again.
These babies still need to grow feathers, although they are clearly big enough to thermoregulate without a parent sitting on them. Growing feathers takes a lot of metabolic energy, and aside from when the parents arrive with food the nestlings will sleep. But it's funny. They seem able to keep an eye (or maybe an ear) out for the parents flying around, and whenever one flies past the doorway they all perk up and start cheeping. There are lots of swallows at the marine lab right now, and I wonder if these babies can identify their parents from among all the other adults in flight.
They'll grow fast, being fed frequently by their parents. They'll have to get big and strong, to prepare for their migratory trip south in the fall I've never noticed exactly when they leave, I think because by the time they head south they've dispersed from the nest site. I always look forward to their return in the spring, though.
This morning as I was doing my rounds at the marine lab I noticed a pile of eggs next to one of the bat stars (Patiria miniata) in a large table. Somebody, or more likely, multiple somebodies, had spawned overnight. I have absolutely zero time to deal with another ongoing project right now, but I have even less self-control when it comes to culturing invertebrate larvae. So I sucked up as many of the eggs as I could, along with a fair amount of scuzz from the bottom of the table, and took a look.
As I've come to expect with stars, the early embryonic stages are developing asynchronously. There were unfertilized eggs (obviously not going to develop at all), zygotes that hadn't divided yet, and other stages.
The coolest thing, though, will take some explaining. Animals begin life as a zygote, or fertilized egg. The zygote undergoes a number of what are called cleavage divisions, in which the cell divides but the embryo doesn't grow. A logical necessity of these two facts is that the cells get smaller and smaller as cleavage continues.
Now let's go back to the earliest cleavage divisions. One cell divides into two, each of those divides into two, and so on. The cell number starts with 1 and goes to 2, then 4, then 8, then 16, and so on. The process is more or less the same for all animals, but in only a few can these divisions be easily seen. Many echinoderms have nice distinct cleavage divisions and transparent-ish embryos, which is why the old-school embryologists in the early 1900s studied them.
Echinoderms are the major phylum in a group of animals called the deuterostomes. Incidentally, chordates (ahem--us) are also deuterostomes. The word "deuterostome" refers to the fact that during development in these animals the anus forms before the mouth does. That's right, folks, you had an anus before you had a mouth.
Another feature that is generally associated with the deuterostomes occurs in early cleavage. Picture this: A cell divides into two cells. Then each of those divides, resulting in four cells. Geometry dictates that the four cells form a plane. That makes sense, right? When the four cells divide again to make the 8-cell embryo, a second plane of cells is formed on top of the first. The second tier can either sit directly on top of the cells of the first tier (radial cleavage) or be twisted 45º so that the cells sit in the grooves between cells in the first tier (spiral cleavage).
Take a look at this embryo. Do you think it has undergone spiral cleavage or radial cleavage?
This is a textbook example of radial cleavage. In all the sea urchin embryos I've watched over the years, I've never seen radial cleavage as clear and unambiguous as this. It was one of those moments when you actually get to see something that you've known (and taught) about forever.
So yes, echinoderms and other deuterostomes generally undergo radial cleavage. And I will hopefully have larvae to look after again! They will probably hatch over the weekend. On top of everything else that's going on now, additional mouths to feed are the last thing I need. But fate dropped them into my lap and who am I to argue with fate?
Every year we are fortunate to watch a pair of red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) raise young in a tree across the canyon. We're not always sure if the parents are the same birds every year, and I think this year's female is a different bird from last year. Her mate may be the male who has used this nest site for a couple of years now, but again, we don't know.
This year the parents raised three youngsters, who have just begun leaving the nest. They prepare for their first flights by making their way to the edge of the nest and flapping their wings to exercise the flight muscles. This is usually fun to watch, as they don't seem to care whether or not a sibling is in the vicinity. This flapping activity begins before the bird is fully feathered, and they look like awkward punk-rocker teenagers, trying to be cool and not even close to pulling it off.
The hawk nest is in a eucalyptus tree. As the time to fledge approaches, one or both of the parents often perches at the top of a nearby cypress tree. Usually the youngsters' first flights are to the cypress tree. Cypress trees may be the ideal location for fledging, because they have lots of soft-ish branches to fall on when the birds biff the landing. The first flights don't go far from the nest, and the birds end up hopping along branches as they flap their wings. So they are called branchers.
With raptors, the females are bigger. Males tend to leave the nest before their sisters, who have more growing to do, so we always assume that the first one to depart is a boy. This year the females lagged by only a day or so behind their brother. And all three of them seem to be progressing pretty quickly, compared to cohorts we've watched in previous years. Good little branchers!
We watched these two for a while in the early evening. I don't know where the third one was. The branchers watch their parents soar around effortlessly. Here they are at the very top of the cypress tree:
Okay, my digiscoping skills need work. I did, however, get lucky enough with the spotting scope and my phone to catch a few video clips.
You can see them trying to maintain their footing as the wind blows the tree around. They're able to use their wings for balance, but then they catch a little lift and get knocked about. In the second clip one of the birds is hanging out when its sibling crashes into it. If they were human teenagers, you'd hear one yelling "Look out below!" while the other hollers "Get off me!" Yeah, landing is toughest part of flight!
Over the next few weeks the branchers will get better and better at landing, and their flights will get longer. They will learn how to find thermals and soar. Their parents will continue to provide food for them, but at some point the kids will learn how to hunt on their own. Rodents of the neighborhood, look out! Eventually the branchers will be as badass as their parents. Then they'll disperse to find territories of their own.
Every year, in June, my big whelk lays eggs. I have a mated pair of Kellettia kellettii living in a big tub at the marine lab. I inherited them from a lab mate many years ago now, and they've been nice pets. They've lived together forever, and make babies reliably. As June rolls around I start looking for eggs. This year I want to document the entire process, from egg-laying to larval development. Fortunately, I had the foresight to photograph the parents in May, as I didn't want to disturb the female once she began laying.
The female is significantly larger than the male. I know the big one is the female because that's the one that lays the eggs. I've never managed to catch the whelks copulating, but given the female's track record they either copulate regularly or she is able to store sperm for a long period of time.
In any case, she started laying eggs today. I went in to check on them and there she was!
I know from previous years that it can take over a week for the female to lay her entire clutch of eggs. Each of those pumpkin seed-shaped objects is an egg capsule, containing a few dozen embryos. The newly lain capsules are white, as you see above, and will gradually get darker as the embryos develop into larvae. The mother will lay the eggs and then depart. When the larvae are ready to leave the capsule, a small hole will wear through in the top of the capsule and the larvae will swim out. More on that later, hopefully.
I took some time-lapse video of the female, and was able to record her moving over the egg capsules and then leaving. I'd also put some food in the tub, and I think she got distracted.
I think it's really cool to see how well the snail can swivel around on her foot. Snails are attached to their shell at only a single point called the columella, the central axis around which the shell coils. Some snails can extend quite far outside the shell, and they can all pull inside for safety. The dark disc on the back of the foot is the operculum that closes up the shell when the snail withdraws into it.
Tomorrow when I check on things at the lab I'll see if she has resumed laying.
I've always known staurozoans (Haliclystus 'sanjuanensis') from Franklin Point, and it goes to reason that they would be found at other sites in the general vicinity. But I've never seen them up the coast at Pigeon Point, just a short distance away. At Franklin Point the staurozoans live in sandy-bottom surge channels where the water constantly sloshes back and forth, which is the excuse I've always used for my less-than-stellar photographs of them. Pigeon Point doesn't have the surge channels or the sand, and I've never seen a staurozoan there. I'd assumed that the association between staurozoans and surge channels indicated a requirement for fast-moving water.
Turns out I was wrong. Or at least, not completely right.
A few weeks ago I was doing some identifications for iNaturalist, and came upon some sightings of H. 'sanjuanensis' at Waddell Beach. I thought it would be a good idea to check it out--to see whether or not the staurozoans were there, and to see how similar (or not) Waddell is to Franklin Point.
Photos of the sites, first Franklin Point:
And now Waddell:
They don't actually look very different, do they? But I can tell you that the channels at Franklin Point get a lot more surf action, even when the tide is at its absolute lowest, than the channels at Waddell. When we were at Waddell yesterday the channels were more like calm pools than surge channels. It sure didn't look like staurozoan habitat to me.
Which just goes to show you how much I know. It took a while, but we found lots of staurozoans at Waddell! And since the water is so much calmer there, picture-taking was a lot easier. The animals were still active in their own way, but at least they weren't being sloshed around continuously.
And a lot of them had been cooperative enough to pose on pieces of the green algae Ulva, where they contrasted beautifully.
I was even able to capture a few good video clips!
So, what have I learned? Well, I learned that I didn't know as much as I thought I did. And that's a good thing! This is how science works. Understanding of natural phenomena increases incrementally as we make small discoveries that challenge what we think we know. With organisms like these staurozoans, about which very little is known anyway, each observation could well reveal new information. The observations I made at Waddell have been incorporated into iNaturalist to join the ones that were made back in May, so little by little we are working to establish just where staurozoans live and how common they are. Maybe they aren't quite as patchy and ephemeral as I had thought!
This weekend we have some of the loveliest morning low tides of the year, and fortunately the local beaches have been opened up again for locals. The beaches in San Mateo County had been closed for two months, to keep people from gathering during the pandemic. For the first time in over a year I was able to get out to Franklin Point to check on the staurozoans. These are the elusive and camera shy animals that we don't know much about, except that they are patchy in both space and time.
Yesterday the beach at Franklin Point was quite tall, as a good meter or so of sand had accumulated. This is a normal part of the seasonal cycle of sand movement along the coast--sand piles up in the summer and gets washed away during the winter storms. The rocks that you can see only the tops of in this photo would be much more exposed in the winter.
It took a while to find the staurozoans. Every time I visit Franklin Point it takes my search image a while to kick into gear, but each time I find the staurozoans my intuition gets a teensy bit better calibrated. As usual, the staurozoans were very patchy. I'd not see any in the immediate vicinity, then I'd move a meter or so away and see them all over. Part of that is due to usual honing of the search image, but part of it is that the staurozoans really are that patchy.
They are always attached to red algae, often the most diaphanous, wispy filamentous reds out there. And they don't seem to like pools, where the water becomes still for a few moments between save surges. No, they like areas where the water sloshes back and forth constantly.
You can see why it's so difficult getting a decent photo of these animals! They're never still for more than a split-second. Staurozoans may have a delicate appearance, but they're very tough critters. Their bodies are entirely flexible, being made out of jelly, and offer zero resistance to the force of the waves. It's a very low-energy way of thriving in a very high energy environment. Who says you need a brain to be smart?
And, of course, they are predators. Being cnidarians they have cnidocytes that they use to catch prey. The cnidocytes are concentrated in the eight pompon-shaped tentacle clusters at the ends of the arms. To humans the tentacles feel sticky rather than stingy, similar to how our local anemones' tentacles feel. Still, I wouldn't want to put my tongue on one of them. The tentacles catch food, and then the arms curl inward to bring the food to the mouth, which is located in the center of the calyx.
The natural assumption to make is that animals tend feed on smaller and simpler animals. Somehow the predator is always considered to be "better" or at least more complex than the prey. I'm delighted to report that cnidarians turn that assumption upside-down. In terms of morphology, at least, cnidarians are the simplest of the true animals. Their bodies consist of two tissue layers with a layer of snot sandwiched between them. They have only the most rudimentary nervous system, and a simple network of fluid-filled canals that function as both digestive and circulatory system. That said, they have the most sophisticated and fastest-acting cell in the animal kingdom--the cnidocyte--which can inject prey with the most toxic venoms in the world.
They don't look like deadly predators, do they?
Cnidarians use cnidocytes to catch prey and defend against their own predators. The cnidocytes of Haliclystus are strong enough to catch and subdue fish. Anything that can be shoved even partway into a cnidarian's gullet will be digested, even if it isn't quite dead yet. This fish was long dead when we saw it, but its tail is still sticking out of the staurozoan's mouth.
Imagine being shoved head-first into a chamber lined with stinging cells. Death, inevitable but perhaps slow to arrive, would be a blessing. Although perhaps less horrific than being digested slowly feet-first.
Speaking of fishing, I caught one of my own yesterday. I saw it fairly high in the intertidal, above the reach of the surging waves. At first I saw only the pale blotchy tail, and even though I recognized it I didn't think it was alive.
I poked it with my toe. No reaction. Then Alex found a kelp stipe, and I poked it again. It seemed to move a little bit. I'm a lot less squeamish about live things than dead things, so I picked it up to see how alive it was.
It was a monkeyface prickleback (Cebidichthyes violaceus)!
Monkeyface pricklebacks are common enough around here that people fish for them. They (the pricklebacks) hide in crevices in the intertidal. Like other intertidal fishes, they can breathe air and are well suited to hang out where the water drains away twice daily. I put this one in a deeper pool and watched it slither away into the algae.
Staurozoans found always mean a successful day in the intertidal. Day after tomorrow I'm going to look for them at a different spot. iNaturalist says they're there, and I want to see for myself. I'm not sure exactly where to look, but I know the habitat they like. And even if I don't find them, it'll be a nice chance to explore a new site. Finger crossed!