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All dressed up with nowhere to go

For animals that do essentially nothing when you see them where they live, chitons have a lot of charm. They are the kind of animal that, once you develop the search image for them, you start seeing everywhere. It helps that they are easily recognized as being chitons because of their eight dorsal shell plates—nothing else looks like them. Depending on species, those shell plates can be smooth or sculpted, and pigmented or not. Patterns of sculpting and pigmentation (or lack thereof) are diagnostic features used to distinguish different species. Some species are reliably consistent in appearance and look the same wherever you happen to see them. Other species show a lot of phenotypic variation, often even at a single site.

One of my favorite chitons is Mopalia muscosa, the mossy chiton. It's one of the easiest of our chitons to identify, because its girdle (the layer of tough tissue in which the shell plates are embedded) is densely covered by long, curved spines. They're called spines, but they're quite soft and flexible. Your basic Mopalia muscosa looks like this:

Mossy chiton with bare shell plates, in the rocky intertidal
Mossy chiton (Mopalia muscosa) at Pigeon Point
2016-04-24
© Allison J. Gong

Mopalia muscosa is one of the species whose appearance is quite variable. Many of them wear algae, usually reds but occasionally greens or browns, on their shell plates. Not all species of chiton do this. I've often wondered why some chiton species wear algae and others do not. This individual is probably fairly old, judging by the worn condition of the shell plates. The plates show signs of erosion, but are not decorated. There are some small pieces of coralline algae amongst the spines of the girdle, though, which I always associate with age. Smaller, and presumably younger, M. muscosa tend not to have algae on the girdle even if they are wearing some on the shell plates.

The degree of shell decoration in M. muscosa varies from none, as above, to heavy encrustation. This individual below has been colonized by only a small bit of coralline algae and perhaps some brown diatom-ish film on the edges of the shell plates:

Mossy chiton (Mopalia muscosa) at Pistachio Beach
2021-02-09
© Allison J. Gong

This next one has only a small bit of coralline alga, but sports a jaunty sprig of something quite a bit larger.

Mossy chiton (Mopalia muscosa) at Asilomar
2019-07-04
© Allison J. Gong

This season's fashionable chiton will go all out with the coralline algae, wearing both encrusting and upright branching forms. Look at this:

Mossy chiton (Mopalia muscosa) at Pigeon Point
2017-06-28
© Allison J. Gong

and this:

Mossy chiton (Mopalia muscosa) at Pigeon Point
2018-01-01
© Allison J. Gong

Sometimes the chitons wear the larger leafy red algae, in addition to or in place of the coralline algae. I always think that these individuals must be very old, by chiton standards.

Mossy chiton (Mopalia muscosa) at Pigeon Point
2020-11-14
© Allison J. Gong

And sometimes the chitons are so covered with algae that they blend in perfectly with the surrounding environment.

Mossy chiton (Mopalia muscosa) at Pistachio Beach
2021-04-06
© Allison J. Gong

These chitons can get very heavily fouled by algae. Is there any benefit to the chiton, to carry around a load of red algae? And if wearing algae is for some reason advantageous, is there a way for a chiton to attract algae to settle on their shell plates? Well, let's think about that. Chitons' main predators would be sea stars, crabs, and birds. Sea stars do not locate prey visually, so camouflage would not be very helpful in avoiding them. Birds such as oystercatchers and surfbirds certainly do pry up chitons and limpets, and blending in with the background just might help a chiton go unnoticed by an avian hunter.

Regarding the matter of how the algae end up living on chitons' bodies, I want to start with the question of how prevalent algal fouling is on Mopalia muscosa, and the extent of fouling on the chitons that are wearing algae. A little research study might be a fun way to spend my time in the intertidal. Pigeon Point is a lovely site on a foggy summer morning, and many of the most heavily decorated M. muscosa in my photo library are from there. Yes, I can foresee several visits up the coast over the next few months. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

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