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!
Back in 1994, the U.S. Army base at Fort Ord was closed in one of the base closure events that occur every once in a while. UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) acquired some 600 acres of the former base to establish the Fort Ord Natural Reserve, which serves as an outdoor laboratory and teaching space for students of all ages. University students from UCSC and California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB) take classes and have internships on the Reserve. Kindergarten students visit the Reserve for what may well be their first experience of Nature. And I take my community college students there every year.
This year, Joe Miller, the reserve manager, had a lot of things for us to learn about, and we were kept busy all day. The first thing we did, after an introduction to the reserve, was hike to the first of several areas where Joe had set some rodent traps the night before.
There were 30 of these Sherman traps to check.
They are live traps, baited to lure in a rodent. The doors shut on the rodent once it ventures inside to grab some seed.
There's a super high-tech method to getting a live rodent out of a trap without hurting either the rodent or the human. You hold the trap vertically, open the top end, slip a plastic bag over the open end, make sure there are no escape openings, then flip the trap over so the rodent falls into the bag. And voilà, instant mouse in a bag!
Then you work the rodent head-first into a corner of the bag with one hand, and reach into the bag and approach it from the back end. Follow the backbone forward, then grab the rodent by the scruff of the neck.
Holding a rodent by the scruff of the neck allows the biologist to handle the animal safely and minimizes the probability of getting bitten.
We caught three or four deermice, but the cutest rodent we saw was a pocket mouse (Chaetodipus californicus). Joe didn't bother with gloves because, as he said, these guys are really mellow. And it really was! He handed it to us and we took turns holding it.
Cute little guy almost fell asleep on a student's arm.
I think it's called a pocket mouse because it's so cute you want to put it in your pocket and take it home.
We had to let the rodents go because Joe had other things for us to do. In addition to the rodent traps, Joe had set up pitfall arrays to catch herps (reptiles and amphibians). A pitfall array consists of two strips of aluminum flashing set up in the shape of a capital T. At each end of the T there is a pitfall trap. The critter runs or slithers along the flashing and then falls into the trap, which is a small bucket buried so the lip is just at ground level.
We got skunked on the pitfall traps--all of them were empty. We did, however, get to see herps. Joe showed us a couple of tiger salamanders, which he had permits to keep as teaching animals. These two animals are hybrids between the native tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense) and a salamander that was introduced from Texas into California to be used as bait. As happened quite often, the bait species took hold in its new habitat and is proving to be a nuisance. In their larval stage they are voracious predators, gobbling up the larvae of other amphibians including those of endangered species such as the red-legged frog. In the area of FONR, pretty much all of the tiger salamanders are hybrids to some degree.
Joe's two "pet" salamanders are very cute!
As with all other amphibians, tiger salamanders require a variety of habitats to complete their life cycle. They reproduce in water, and the larvae live in water. California has distinct wet and dry seasons, and the salamanders must find vernal pools where the water will last long enough for their larvae to metamorphose into the terrestrial adult form. Sometimes the pools don't persist long enough, and in very dry years the pools may not form at all. During the dry season, tiger salamanders may estivate underground, waiting until the weather gets cool and damp enough for them to emerge from burrows and forage on insects and small vertebrates.
One of the students had her heart set on seeing horned lizards, and her wish came true. Some UCSC interns working on the horned lizard mapping project caught a couple of small lizards for us to see. The larger adults aren't coming aboveground yet.
Like the tiger salamanders, the horned lizards face an uncertain future of their own. Their main prey are native ants. California has been invaded by Argentine ants--those are the little black ants that get into houses. The Argentine ants are extremely competitive and form supercolonies, wherein two or more adjacent colonies will merge underground and function as a single colony with multiple queens. They can and do outcompete the native ant species, and predators don't seem to like them. Unfortunately, the horned lizards don't eat the Argentine ants. If the lizards' food source is threatened by the ants, then the lizards could be in big trouble.
One of the things Joe wanted to show us was a plant with a tiny purple flower, that is just now starting to bloom.
This little plant, called greater yellowthroat gilia or sand gilia, is a California endemic species, found nowhere else. The State of California lists it as threatened, and the federal government lists it as endangered. It's a pretty plant, growing low to the ground because although it's March, we haven't had any rain for about eight weeks. And this is supposed to be our rainy season. Joe showed us some Gilia plantlets that were grown in greenhouses and had plenty of water, and they were three or four times as tall as the ones we saw in the field.
There is a lot of very interesting work going on at FONR these days, and it's exciting for me to see how many students are involved. Some of my students said they would contact Joe about internship opportunities, and I hope they do so. If I'm teaching Ecology again next spring, we're definitely coming back to Fort Ord, and I think we'll do an overnight camping trip. I'm sure the reserve is a completely different place once the sun goes down!
The first field trip of the semester for my Ecology class is always a jaunt up the coast to Rancho del Oso and Waddell Beach. It's a great place to start the practice of observing nature, because we can explore the forest in the morning, have lunch, and then wander along the beach in the afternoon. We really are lucky to have such a wide variety of habitats to study around here, which makes taking students out into the field really fun. My passion and expertise will always belong with the marine invertebrates, but it's good for me to work outside my comfort zone and immerse myself in habitats I don't already know very well. During this year's class trip to Waddell Beach I was struck by some things I had seen before but never paid much heed to. And also one very big thing that caught everybody's attention.
Depending on how much rain has fallen recently, Waddell Creek may or may not flow all the way into the ocean. Since California has a short rainy season, there are months when the creek is completely cut off from the ocean, due to both a lack of flow and the accumulation of sand on the beach. So far this rainy season, which began on 1 October 2019, we've gotten about 93% of our normal rain. However, we had a very wet December, and almost no rain since then. I wasn't sure whether or not Waddell would be flowing into the ocean. It was.
The really big thing that we all stopped to look at was this guy lounging in the creek.
The students had many questions: What was he doing there? Was he sick? Was it a male? Was he dead? Well, no, he wasn't dead. And while I guessed from this view that it was a subadult male, I was secretly relieved to be proved right when we walked down the creek (keeping the mandated distance away from him) and looked back to see his big schnozz.
The elephant seal breeding season is coming to an end, but animals will continue to haul out and rest on the beach. This subadult male clearly isn't going to be dethroning any beachmasters this year, so he has taken the safe route and chosen a beach away from the breeding ground at Año Nuevo, which is ~2 miles up the coast. What I really liked about this particular animal was that we could see the tracks he made getting himself up the beach to the creek.
So that was the big thing. Eye-catching he certainly was, but to my mind not nearly as interesting as the small things we paid more attention to on the beach. It is tempting to think of sandy beaches as relatively lifeless places, compared to something like a rocky intertidal or a redwood forest. But for some reason, this trip I became intrigued by the dune vegetation. At first glance a sand dune seems to be a very inhospitable place for plants, and it is. Sand is unstable and moves around all the time, making it difficult for roots to hang on. Sand also doesn't hold water, so dune vegetation must be able to withstand very dry conditions. It's not surprising that dune plants have some of the same adaptations as desert plants.
Let's start with the natives.
I love this little sand verbena (Abronia latifolia)! It is native to the west coast of North America, from Santa Barbara County to the Canadian border. It is a sand stabilizer, decreasing the erosion that occurs. The sand verbenas also live in deserts; I saw them at Anza-Borrego and Joshua Tree last year. The beach sand verbena grows low to the ground, probably as a way to shelter from the winds that come screaming down the coast. Cute little plant, isn't it?
The other yellow beach plant we saw was the beach suncup (Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia), a member of the primrose family.
Like the yellow sand verbena, the beach suncup is a California native. It grows along the entire coast, including the Channel Islands. Also like the yellow sand verbena, the suncup grows low to the ground. Its leaves are thick and a little waxy, to help the plant resist desiccation.
And now for the non-natives. I must admit, I had given very little thought to the plant life on my local beaches. I'd seen and studied beach wrack, but to be honest most of my attention is usually directed towards the water instead of up high on the beach where the plants live. This day I decided to photograph the plants.
This plant is a little succulent called European sea rocket (Cakile maritma). As the common name implies, its native habitat is dunes in Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia.
Cakile maritima has several life history traits that enable it to be carried around the world. It produces a lot of seeds, more so than the native dune plants. The seeds are dispersed by water and can be transported long distances in the ballast water of ships, which is probably how it got to California in the first place. It tolerates disturbances better than native dune vegetation, which allows it to be a superior competitor. Cakile maritima is considered to be invasive, meaning that it can survive and spread on its own in a non-native habitat, but its effects seem to be restricted to beach dunes. Despite its ability to thrive and outcompete our native beach plants, it appears to be unable to expand away from the sand.
Our surprise of the day was a beach mushroom! None of us had seen them before. This is Psathyrella ammophila, the beach brittlestem mushroom. Like sea rocket, it is also a European invasive. We were perplexed by this mushroom. Most of a fungus's body (mycelium) is underground. The mycelium spreads through soils as very thin threads called hyphae. Every once in a while the mycelium sends up a fruiting body, which is what we call a mushroom. There is no way to know, from the location of mushrooms, where and how far the mycelium spreads underground.
The presence of a mushroom on the beach means that a fungal mycelium is feeding on something in the sand. There isn't much plant matter buried on beaches, but we hypothesized that perhaps one of the logs from the forest had washed down the creek and been deposited on the beach. It would then be buried in sand, along with all the mycelium it carried, and a mushroom could have sprouted up through the sand.
Well, it was a good hypothesis.
I posted my photo to a mushroom ID page, and it was identified as Psathyrella ammophila. My submission to iNaturalist came back with the same result. A little research led me to another non-native invasive species, Ammophila arenaria, the European marram grass. Notice that the species epithet of the mushroom is the same as the genus name of the plant? That was my first clue. Marram grass is one of the most noxious weed species on the California coast. It was intentionally introduced to the beaches in the mid-1800s, to provide stability to the dunes. It is very good at that, but also spreads very rapidly, usually growing upwards away from the ocean. That said, marram grass also breaks off chunks that can survive in the ocean and float off to colonize new beaches.
The fungus Psathyrella ammophila grows as a saprobe on the decaying roots of Ammophila arenaria. No doubt the fungus was introduced along with the marram grass as an inadvertent hitchhiker. Since there is so much marram grass on our beaches, it's safe to assume that there is a lot of Psathyrella, too. That means it's time to start looking for mushrooms on the beach!
A while back now I went out on a low tide even though the actual low was after sunset. I figured that it was low enough that I'd have plenty of time to poke around as the tide was receding. And given that there were promising clouds in the sky, I took my good camera along just in case the sunset proved to be photo-worthy. Having had enough of crowds in the intertidal at Natural Bridges the previous day, I decided to venture up to Pistachio Beach, which isn't as heavily visited.
I ended up spending only 45 minutes in the intertidal, all the while watching the sun sink lower in the sky. It was already too dark to take many photos in the tidepools, but there were some interesting things on the beach.
The majority of shells that wash up on any beach are going to be molluscs, usually either gastropods or bivalves. I've often seen living red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) hidden in nooks and crannies at this site, so it's not surprising to find their shells on the sand. Usually, though, the shells are a little beat up. This one was intact, with a lovely layer of nacre inside.
This butterfly-shaped object is one of the shell plates of Cryptochiton stelleri, also known as the gumboot chiton. Cryptochiton is the largest of all chiton species; the largest one I've ever seen is the length of my forearm from elbow to fingertip. Like all chitons, C. stelleri has a row of eight shell plates running down the dorsal side of the body. Unlike other chitons, however, in Cryptochiton the plates are covered by a layer of tissue called the girdle and not visible from the outside. If you run your finger down the back you can feel the plates under the girdle. I never thought about it before now, but it seems that the name Cryptochiton refers to the hidden chiton-ness of the animal.
Anyway, Cryptochiton lives mostly in the subtidal, although you can occasionally see them in the very low intertidal. As subtidal creatures they have neither the ability nor the need to cling tightly to rocks, as their intertidal cousins do. This means that when big swells come through at low tide, they can get dislodged and wash ashore. I know from personal experience that the tissue of Cryptochiton is really tough. Once a pal and I were trudging back after working on a low tide and came across several dead Crytochiton scattered over the beach. We decided to do an impromptu dissection and try to salvage the plates, hacking away with her pocket knife. The smell was horrendous, and after several minutes we made practically zero progress, so we gave up. I've seen gulls pecking at dead Cryptochiton, too, and they didn't seem to have any success either. However, their bodies do eventually disintegrate, or something manages to eat them, and their naked plates can often be found on beaches.
One of the coolest pattern I've ever seen in the intertidal was this:
I've never seen anything like this before. It's hard to tell from the photo, but these two rock faces converge into the crevice, sort of like the adjacent pages in an open book. This side of the rock surface faces away from the ocean and will never be subject to the main force of pounding waves. The barnacle in the middle is attached pretty much in the deepest part of the crevice, and is surrounded by mussels, which are then surrounded by limpets.
Now, all of these animals recruited to this location after spending some period of time, from a few days to a few weeks, in the plankton. The barnacle certainly can't move once it has settled and metamorphosed. Newly settled mussels have a limited ability to scoot around a bit but are generally stationary once they've extruded their byssal threads and fastened them to something hard. The limpets, on the other hand, are quite mobile. The barnacle and mussels gave up their ability to move around after they became benthic, but limpets can and do locomote quite a bit--in fact, they have to, in order to feed. So in a sense, these limpets "chose" to aggregate together long after settlement.
What are the ecological implications of this pattern?
Well, for one thing, that barnacle is a genetic dead end. I've written before about the bizarre sex lives of barnacles. This one lone barnacle, far from any others of its species, is not able to reproduce. It has nobody to copulate with. It is possible that other barnacles will recruit to the mussels (Pollicipes is often associated with Mytilus), but until then there will be no sexy times for this individual.
Another ecological consequence concerns the limpets. If these are owl limpets (Lottia gigantea), then some of them will grow up to be the big females that maintain farms on the rocks where they manage and harvest the crop of algal film that grows. These big females are territorial, and will bump or scrape off any creature found to be trespassing on their farms. Clearly, none of the limpets in the photo above are demonstrating any type of territorial behavior! So they are either some other species of Lottia, or are younger individuals of L. gigantea that haven't yet made the change from male to female.
In any case, I do think the pattern is very interesting, even though I don't understand it. Or maybe because I don't understand it. I'm always intrigued by something that I can't explain, which is a good thing because it means I don't get bored very often. If anyone reading this has an explanation for this pattern, let me know about it!
The intertidal sculpins are delightful little fish with lots of personality. They're really fun to watch, if you have the patience to sit still for a while and let them do their thing. A sculpin's best defense is to not be seen, so their first instinct is to freeze where they are. Then, if a perceived threat proves to be truly frightening, they'll scoot off into hiding. They can also change the color of their skin, either to enhance camouflage or communicate with each other.
Around here we have a handful of sculpin species flitting around in our tidepools. Sculpins can be tricky to identify even if you have the fish in hand--many of the meristics (things you count, such as hard spines and soft rays in the dorsal fin, or the number of scales in the lateral line) used to distinguish species actually overlap quite a lot between species. The fishes' ability to change color means that skin coloration isn't a very reliable trait. When I was in grad school there was another student in my department who was studying the intertidal sculpins, and she told me that most of the ones we see commonly are either woolly sculpins (Clinocottus analis) or fluffy sculpins (Oligocottus snyderi). I've developed a sort of gut feeling for the gestalt of these species, but I'm not always 100% certain of my identifications.
Anyway, back to the camouflaged sculpins. The ability to change the color of the skin means that sculpins can match their backgrounds, which comes in very handy when there isn't anything to hide behind. Since the environment is rarely uniformly colored, sculpins tend to have mottled skin. Some can be banded, looking like Oreo cookies. The fish in this photo lives in a pool with a granite bottom. The rock contains large quartz crystals and is colonized by tufty bits of mostly red algae. There is enough wave surge for these fist-sized rocks to get tumbled about, which prevents larger macroalgae from colonizing them.
Other shallow pools higher up in the intertidal at Asilomar have a different type of rocky bottom. The rocks lining the bottom of these pools are whitish pebbles that are small enough to be tossed up higher onto the beach. I don't know whether or not these pebbles have the same mineral content as the larger rocks lower in the intertidal, but they do have quartz crystals. The pebbles are white. So, as you may have guessed, are the sculpins!
Other intertidal locations have different color schemes. On the reef to the south of Davenport Landing Beach, you will see a lot of coralline algae. Some pools are overwhelmingly pink because of these algae. Bossiella sp. is a common coralline alga at this location.
What color do you think the sculpins are in these pools?
Give yourself a congratulatory pat on the back if you said "pink"!
Sculpins aren't the only animals to blend in with coralline algae. Some crustaceans are remarkably adept at hiding in plain sight by merging into the background. Unlike the various decorator crabs, which tuck bits and pieces of the environment onto their exoskeletons, isopods hide by matching color.
Turning over algae and finding hidden creatures like these is always fun. For example, I saw these isopods at Pescadero this past summer. See how beautifully camouflaged they are?
Sometimes, when you're not looking for anything in particular, you end up finding something really cool. Last weekend I met up with students in the Cabrillo College Natural History Club for a tidepool excursion up at Pigeon Point. We were south of the point at Whaler's Cove, where a staircase makes for comparatively easy access to the intertidal.
It's fun taking students to the intertidal because I enjoy helping them develop search images for things they've never seen before. There really is so much to see, and most of it goes unnoticed by the casual visitor. Often we are reminded to "reach for the stars," when it is equally important to examine what's going on at the level of your feet. That's the only way you can see things like this chiton:
Mopalia muscosa is one of my favorite chitons. It is pretty common up and down the California coast. However, like most chitons it is not very conspicuous--it tends to be encrusted with algae! This individual is exuberantly covered with coralline and other red algae and has itself become a (slowly) walking bit of intertidal habitat. It is not unusual to see small snails, crustaceans, and worms living among the foliage carried around by a chiton. Other species can carry around some algae, but M. muscosa seems to be the most highly decorated chiton around here. I showed this one to some of the students, who then proceeded to find several others. A search image is a great thing to carry around!
Compared to the rocky intertidal, a sandy habitat can be a difficult place to live. Sand is inherently unstable, getting sloshed to and fro with the tides. Because of this instability there is nothing for holdfasts to grab, so there are many fewer algae for animals to eat and hide in. Most of the life at a sandy beach occurs below the surface of the sand, and is thus invisible to anyone who doesn't want to dig. There's a beach at Whaler's Cove where I've found burrowing olive snails (Olivella biplicata) plowing along just below the surface. I wanted to show them to the students, so I waded in and rooted around. I did find Olivella, but I also found a burrowing shrimp. I think it's a species of Crangon.
Now that is some damn fine camouflage! If the shrimp didn't cast its own shadow, it would be invisible. Even so, it was clearly uneasy sitting on the surface like that. I had only a few seconds to shove the camera in the water and snap a quick photo before the shrimp wriggled its way beneath the sand again.
As I've said before, observation takes practice and patience. To look at something doesn't mean you truly see it. That's why it is so important to slow down and let your attention progress at the pace of the phenomenon you're observing. If the only things that catch your eye are the ones that flit about, then I can guarantee you will never find a chiton in the intertidal. And wouldn't that be a sad thing?
Autumn is migration season in California. We all know that, in the northern hemisphere, birds fly south for the winter and return north for the summer. And indeed, this is a very good time to go bird watching along the Pacific Flyway, as migrating birds stop to rest and feed at places such as Elkhorn Slough. Here in Santa Cruz, autumn is punctuated by the return of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), roosting in eucalyptus trees at Natural Bridges State Beach and Lighthouse Field.
Since 1997 the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has been tracking monarch sightings on their migrations between the western U.S. and Mexico. They conduct a volunteer butterfly count every Thanksgiving. More recently, community science data sources such as iNaturalist provide much of the information.
This morning, before it got warm, I went to Natural Bridges to see how the monarchs were doing. I wanted to photograph clumps of butterflies dripping from tree branches. It seemed, however, that there aren't as many butterflies as I remember from previous years. The clusters were not nearly as large or as dense as they should be. And the data shown in the figure below do demonstrate a precipitous decline in monarch since 2017. We're still a couple of weeks away from this year's Thanksgiving count, and there is still a chance that the butterflies might arrive in larger numbers.
Trained observers know how to estimate the number of butterflies in a cluster like this. The numbers of butterflies at various roosting sites are aggregated to assess overall population sizes.
This morning I did see one butterfly that had a tagged wing. It was wearing a green Avery round sticker, with some writing in what looks like black Sharpie. The color of the sticker was very close to the green of the surrounding foliage, so I wasn't even able to see the sticker until I downloaded the pictures from the camera.
At first I thought the tag resulted from an official scientific project or undertaking, but it turns out that anyone can tag a monarch. The tags are used to track migration of the butterflies. There doesn't seem to be a central depository of tags and their origins, so knowing the color of the tag doesn't tell me where this particular butterfly came from.
Once the sun hits the butterflies and they begin to warm up, the clusters start breaking apart. Butterflies open and close their wings, exposing the darker dorsal surfaces to the sun and warming up their flight muscles. Sometimes they dislodge one another.
On a cool morning like this, many of the butterflies that fell out of the clump couldn't fly yet, and landed on the ground. The boardwalk is perhaps not the safest place for a butterfly to wind up, but at least in a monarch sanctuary such as Natural Bridges the visitors are knowledgeable and look out for the butterflies' safety.
As I wrote before, the butterflies we see at Natural Bridges this year were not born here. This means that their survival to this point has depended on healthy conditions in the Pacific Northwest and the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains, where they lived as caterpillars and emerged from their chrysalises. This also means that planting milkweed for monarch caterpillars in California won't help the butterflies that we see here, although it would help butterflies that are destined to overwinter elsewhere. What will help local butterflies--monarchs and otherwise, and all nectar-feeding insects, in fact--is planting California native plants, to provide them with the nutrition they have evolved to survive on.
Sometimes dead things can be very informative. Not in the same way as their living counterparts, of course, but there are times when observing a dead specimen reveals details that cannot easily be discerned when the creature is alive. For example, most living birds don't let you get a close look at their feet. Dead birds, on the other hand, don't complain and try to maim you when you spread their toes and look for webbing. What does webbing have to do with anything? It tells you whether and how a bird swims, of course.
Cormorants are fish-eating predators. Like their relatives, pelicans, they do plunge-dive from the air into the water. However, cormorants are much more streamlined than pelicans and also chase their prey underwater. A bird locomoting in water has two options for propulsion--it can use its wings to "fly" underwater or use its feet to paddle along.
Take a look at the foot on that dead cormorant. It is clearly webbed, eminently suitable for a bird that uses its feet to swim underwater. The location of the feet also has functional significance. Note how far back they are on the bird's body. Obviously this helps increase the overall streamlining of the body. Now think about how submarines move through water: the prop of a submarine is also positioned on the back of the boat. That's probably not a coincidence.
Any trip to the beach brings opportunities to see creatures that have washed up. Or are in the process of washing up. Sometimes even (relatively) large animals end up beached. The big scyphozoan medusae, for example, have little control over where the currents take them, and find themselves in shallow water close to shore.
Animals made of jelly do not fare well when they encounter land. There were several of these dinner-plate-sized jellies drifting and pulsing lazily in very shallow water. A few had been left stranded by the receding tide and were already drying up. Even the ones that were still alive would probably never get back to deeper water. Fortunately for them, they are blissfully unaware of their imminent demise--sometimes lacking a centralized nervous system with its all-knowing brain would be a blessing.
Death, of course, is a part of life and a very important part of nature. Even knowing that, it can be disturbing to see dead animals washed up on the beach. For most people, the shells and whatnot of invertebrates don't seem to count as dead things, but everybody recognizes a dead bird. And there is a natural human tendency to feel sorrier for things that are more like us. From a biologist's perspective, keeping track of dead animals on beaches can give us a lot of information about conditions in the sea. There is a sort of standard death rate, but deviations above what is considered normal may signify that something is going on. There are volunteers who make monthly patrols along beaches in the Monterey Bay Area, collecting data on the various carcasses that wash up. These data are used to evaluate the overall health of the waters within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Knowing about dead things can teach us about what's going on with the living things.
This time of year is when California earns its nickname as the Golden State. It isn't only the dried vegetation blanketing the hillsides. The light itself takes on a golden hue, especially in the morning and evening when the sun is low on the horizon. Photographers call the time periods just after sunrise and just before sunset the 'golden hour' and with good reason. Some of my favorite photos were taken in either the early morning or late evening.
Today the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (ESNERR) held an open house event. Booths were set up on the field outside the visitor center, with information on native plants, research projects taking place at the slough, a watershed demonstration, mosquito abatement tactics, face painting for kids, and even a food truck. I hadn't been to the slough since early summer, and when I got the notice about the open house I decided to spend the morning there. I'd hike around a bit, take some pictures, and do some nature journaling.
It certainly was a beautiful morning. It had been swelteringly hot earlier in the week, and fortunately the heat had lessened. There was a strong cool breeze and the sky was a clear blue.
In the spring, when I bring my Ecology students to the slough, the landscape is green. The grasses are green and wildflowers are in bloom. Even the pickleweed looks nice and fresh in the spring. Six months later, however, those same grasses are brittle and brown, and most of the wildflowers have long gone to seed and senesced. The live oaks retain their foliage throughout the year, and after two successive wet winters they are lush and green.
When I arrived at the reserve this morning I spent a few minutes touching base with acquaintances and meeting some new people, then wandered off on one of the trails. It was a little chilly, very welcome after the previous heatwaves, and I sat on a bench to do some painting and looking around. After about half an hour I heard something behind me that didn't sound like the wind blowing through the grasses. It was much more rhythmic and regular--definitely some critter walking through the brush. Very quietly, I stood up and sneaked around the oak tree to see a group of three or four juvenile wild turkeys disappearing into a thicket.
All in all I had a pretty good two hours of bird watching. I don't consider myself a birder, really. I enjoy watching birds, just like I enjoy watching other animals. The competitive aspect of birding is a real turn-off for me. I don't care about keeping a life list and comparing it to anybody else's. That said, I do like to keep note of what I see at a given time and place, because it helps me understand the natural world a little better. For example, the other day I heard my first golden-crowned sparrow of the season, and although I haven't seen it yet, knowing it is there makes me think that autumn has truly arrived.
In past decades, several different groups of people have been working to restore natural habitat to the slough. One of the earlier ideas was to build artificial islands, hoping they would encourage the marsh plants such as pickleweed to recruit and expand to their former abundance. It didn't really work, but the islands do provide places for resident and migratory birds to stop and rest.
More recently, a consortium of stakeholders has worked to restore marshlands closer to the ocean. They filled in areas that had been completely flooded, and pickleweed recruited there on its own. That area has been restored to a much more natural condition, with meandering waterways and pickleweed that isn't drowned by seawater. Elkhorn Slough falls into several jurisdictions at the federal, state, and local levels, and getting these groups to work together for a common goal can be difficult. The success that they have had speaks to their willingness to cooperate. I think it helps that any actions taken are based on science, rather than politics or economics.
Over the summer, a lot of work was done to eradicate non-native plant species. This work is ongoing, and may very well never be finished, but it is good to the ecosystem to try. An island called Hummingbird Island has been rid of invasive eucalyptus trees, and now the only trees there are native live oaks and cypress. The trail I hiked went through several areas where trees has been cut down.
Remember that train I mentioned? Here it is, traveling through the slough at about midday.
Sometimes visitors to the slough don't believe that those tracks are actually used.
Much of the land that the ESNERR sits on used to be a dairy. These barns are, I think, the only dairy buildings that remain. Visitors aren't allowed into Little Barn, but we can walk through Big Barn. It is used for occasional equipment storage and is inhabited by barn owls. Sometimes we find owl pellets on the ground beneath the owl boxes mounted in the barn. It is also not unusual to find pieces of those old-fashioned glass milk bottles near the trails.
When I was a little kid I disliked autumn because the shortening days meant that summer was over and winter was coming. As I grow older, though, and gain a presumably more mature outlook on life, I am more able to appreciate the glory of autumn. I still think spring is my favorite season of the year, but autumn in California is indeed golden and lovely.
A few weeks ago I was contacted by a woman named Kathleen, who reads this blog and is herself a student of the seaweeds. She said that she studies a site up at Pescadero, about an hour up the coast from me. We decided to meet up during the series of low tides around the Fourth of July so we could explore the area together, and she could help me with my algal IDs. My friend and former student, Lisa, joined us for the fun.
The most prominent landmark along the coastline in this region is Bird Island, which is accessible only at minus tides, when it is revealed to be a peninsula. It smells pretty much as you probably imagine, especially if you happen to be downwind. Given the prevailing wind direction, that means that the closer you get to Bird Island from the south, the stronger the smell. Kathleen's site is the south side of Pescadero Point, fortunately far enough south of Bird Island that the smell isn't noticeable from that distance. She has a permanent transect that she surveys regularly, taking note of algal abundances and distributions.
One of the notable things we all noticed was the conspicuous presence of big, healthy ochre stars (Pisaster ochraceus)--many hand-sized or larger. I also saw many smaller stars, in the 2 cm size range, but these were hidden in crevices or under algae. The big guys and gals, were out there in plain sight.
However, not all was perfect for the sea stars at Pescadero Point. One of the ochre stars showed symptoms of sea star wasting syndrome (SSWS). It had autotomized two of its arms and had a sloppy, goopy open wound that extended into the oral disc. It was also mushy when I touched it and didn't firm up the way healthy stars do. This star is a goner, even though it doesn't know it yet. That's the beauty (and in this case, tragedy) of an entirely decentralized nervous system.
After I mentioned having seen a sick sea star we compared notes on the current status of SSWS. What more do we know about the syndrome, and any recovery of stars? We came to the consensus that the oubreak was probably caused by a perfect storm of ecological conditions--an opportunistically pathogenic virus that is ubiquitous in the environment, environmental stresses, and high population densities both intertidally and subtidally. Kathleen asked me what I had been seeing recently. I told her that Pisaster ochraceus, one of the species that melted away in spectacular fashion, seems to be making a strong comeback in the places where I used to see it in large numbers. Even though every once in a while i see a sick star, places like Natural Bridges and Davenport Landing are again populated by lots of hand-sized-or-bigger ochre stars. Which of course brings up the question of where these large stars suddenly came from. I think they were tiny stars when the outbreak occurred, hiding in the mussel beds. Many of them died, but as with any plague there are always some survivors. Those lucky few managed to hang on and creep into the niches that opened up when so many adults died. But would little juveniles only a few millimeters in diameter be able to grow to the sizes that we're seeing now, in ~5 years? I suppose that's not out of the question, and we know that when fed well in the lab they grow very quickly, but individual growth rates in the field are difficult to measure.
Another animal goody that we saw were clusters of the bryozoan, Flustrellidra corniculata. Unlike most bryozoans, which are calcified and crunchy, Flustrellidra colonies are soft and flexible. They look more like strange, thick pieces of brown algae than anything recognizable as a bryozoan.
We were there to do some basic marine botany, and although I kept getting distracted by the invertebrates I did also pay attention to the floral aspect of Kathleen's site. She pointed out that Laminaria sinclairii, one of the small low-intertidal kelps, was always abundant. It's true, there were rocks that were entirely covered with L. sinclairii, like this one:
Laminaria sinclairii and L. setchellii are the most common intertidal species of the genus on our coast. They are easily distinguishable because L. sinclairii has a single undivided blade arising from the stipe, and L. setchellii has a blade that is subdivided into fingerlike sections; in fact, the former species epithet for L. setchellii was dentigera, referring to 'finger'.
See the difference?
There is a third species of Laminaria on our coast, that I knew only by reputation. What I'd heard is that Laminaria ephemera resembles L. sinclairii except for the morphology of the holdfast: L. ephemera has a discoid, suction-cup holdfast while L. sinclairii has the more typical hapterous holdfast (made of intertwined cylindrical projections). I think I might have seen a few L. ephemera at Pescadero. These thalli appear to have suction-cup holdfasts, don't they?
We didn't spend much time on the south side of the point, but scrambled over the rocks to the north side, where there are stretches of sandy beach between rocky outcrops. Bird Island is that peninsula in the top of the picture. As I mentioned above, it is connected to the beach only at low tide, so while I think of it as a peninsula, it really is an island most of the time.
Once on the north side of the point we slowed down and made some more attentive observations of the flora. It turns out that this portion of our intertidal visit was sponsored by the letter 'P'. One of the things we all noticed was the prevalence of Pyropia, the filmy red alga that is common in the high-mid intertidal. The thallus of Pyropia consists of a single layer of cells connected to form a very thin elastic tissue. It dries to a crisp in the sun, but rehydrates when the tide returns. You've probably encountered Pyropia before without realizing it: nori is made of Pyropia that has been shredded and processed into paper-like sheets, used for things like sushi rolls.
Although it looks uniformly blackish-green when packaged for human consumption, Pyropia's color in life is a glorious iridescent mixture of greens, olives, and purples. It is another of those easily overlooked denizens of the intertidal that deserves a much closer look than it usually gets.
Another common red alga at Pescadero Point is the delicate and lacy Plocamium cartilagineum. This is one of the hobbyist phycologist's favorite species because it presses like a dream and makes great gifts or wall decorations. As I wrote about here, Plocamium has a doppelganger: Microcladia coulteri. These algae share a similar morphology, but as I mentioned in the previous post, natural history makes it easy to distinguish between the two in the field. Microcladia is epiphytic, growing on other algae, and Plocamium is not.
Plocamium grows on rock surfaces in the mid-to-low tide regions. It sometimes gets surrounded or even buried in sand, but if you dig down far enough you'll always find the holdfast attached to a rock (or shell or other hard object).
Last month I wrote about Postelsia palmaeformis, the sea palm. We found a most handsome specimen washed up on the beach. Note that, as per usual, it wasn't the holdfast of the kelp that failed. The holdfast did its job perfectly well, and it was the mussel it was attached to that broke free of the rock.
The sad thing about finding great specimens like this on the beach is the realization that it will soon be dead. In fact, so will the mussel. Such is the price organisms pay for failing to hang onto their substrate (or for their substrate's failure to hang on). The rocky intertidal is a harsh place to live, and can be unforgiving of mistakes and bad decisions.
That's part of the reason I find it so fascinating. Most wild organisms live on the knife-edge of survival, with only the thinnest margin between life and death. Every organism has its predators, pathogens, and parasites to deal with on a daily basis, in addition to the physical stresses of its habitat. All of the organisms that I study in the intertidal are marine--not freshwater or even brackish, although some can tolerate reduced salinity (and on the other extreme, some tolerate very high salinity). They evolved to live in the ocean, in a habitat where the ocean abandons them for a few hours twice a day. Yet as improbable as that sounds, the diversity in the intertidal is astonishingly high. Obviously, for those that can live there, the trade-off between stability and safety is worthwhile. Nature will always find a way.