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On another glorious afternoon low tide the other day, with the help of a former student I collected six purple urchins, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus. Given that we're in about the middle of this species' spawning season, I reasoned that collecting six gave me a decent chance of ending up with at least one male and one female that hadn't spawned yet.

Yesterday, after the urchins had been in the lab for somewhat less than a whole day, I shot them up and waited. Three females began spawning almost immediately (yes!) and one male started a few minutes later. When all was said and done I ended up with four females and two males. It turns out that the largest individual, with a test diameter of almost 10 cm, was a male but didn't spawn very much at all. I infer from this that he had already spawned in the field before I collected him.

Female (left) and male (right) spawning purple sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus). 20 January 2015. Photo credit:  Allison J. Gong
Female (left) and male (right) spawning purple sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus), 20 January 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

At the current ambient sea water temperature of 14°C, hatching begins around 24 hours post-fertilization. Early this afternoon I checked on the beakers and they had indeed begun hatching. Sea urchins hatch at the blastula stage of development, when they are essentially a ciliated hollow ball of cells. The cilia allow the larvae to swim, but at this size they are at the mercy of even the weakest current. Thus, for the most part they act as particles, getting carried wherever the current takes them.

1-day-old embryos of S. purpuratus. The empty space inside each embryo is called the blastocoel. 20 January 2015. Photo credit:  Allison J. Gong
1-day-old embryos of S. purpuratus. The empty space inside each embryo is called the blastocoel. 20 January 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

As the embryos hatch, they swim up to the top of the beaker, then move down towards the bottom. I call this "streaming." At this point in our artificial culturing system the embryos are living in still water without any current, so this behavior is due primarily to their ability to swim. There is probably some interesting physics involved, but I'm not enough of a physicist to figure out what's going on at that level. But whatever it is, it's a really cool behavior to watch:

Rather mesmerizing, isn't it? Each of those tiny orange dots is an individual embryo. Once the embryos hit the water column I pour them off into larger jars and begin stirring them. Right now they're small enough to swim on their own, but once they start feeding and growing they get heavier and would sink to the bottom without some current to keep them suspended. The contraption we use to stir jars of larvae is a manifold of paddles connected to a motor that moves the paddles back and forth, creating the right amount of current to keep the larvae from settling on the bottom without getting beat up by the turbulence.

Here's the paddle table in action. It's a noisy SOB.

For now the embryos just hang out in the jars and get stirred. Their first gut, the archenteron, will be visible tomorrow and the larvae will be able to eat on Friday. Stay tuned!

The temperate rocky intertidal is about as colorful a natural place as I’ve seen. Much of the color comes from algae, and in the spring and early summer the eye can be overwhelmed by the emerald greenness of the overall landscape due to Phyllospadix (surf grass, a true flowering plant) and Ulva (sea lettuce, an alga). However, close observation of any tidepool reveals that the animals themselves, as well as smaller algal species, are at least as colorful as the more conspicuous surf grass and sea lettuce.

Take the color pink, for example. Not one of my personal favorites, but it is very striking and sort of in-your-face in the tidepools. Maybe that’s because it contrasts so strongly with the green of the surf grass. In any case, coralline algae contribute most of the pink on a larger scale. These algae grow both as encrusting sheets and as upright branching forms. They have calcium carbonate in their cell walls, giving them a crunchy texture that is unlike that of other algae. They grow both on large stationary rocks and smaller, easily tumbled and turned over rocks.

A typical coralline “wall” looks like this:

Coralline rock with critters, 18 January 2015.  Photo credit:  Allison J. Gong
Coralline rock with critters, 18 January 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

Mind you, this “wall” is a bit larger than my outspread hand. The irregular pink blotches are the coralline algae. Near the center of the photo is a chiton of the genus Tonicella; its pink color comes from its diet, which is the same coralline alga on which it lives. The most conspicuous non-pink items on this particular bit of rock are the amorphous colonial sea squirt (shiny beige snot-like stuff) and the white barnacles on the right.

What really caught my eye today were the sea slugs Okenia rosacea, known commonly as the Hopkins’ Rose nudibranch. Now, it is very easy to love the nudibranchs because they are undeniably beautiful. The fact of the matter is that they are predators, and some of them eat my beloved hydroids, but that’s a matter for another post. Today I saw dozens of these bright pink blotches dotting the intertidal, both in and out of the water:

Okenia rosacea, the Hopkins' Rose nudibranch, emersed. 18 January 2015. Photo credit:  Allison J. Gong
Okenia rosacea, the Hopkins' Rose nudibranch, emersed. 18 January 2015.
© Allison J. Gong
Okenia rosacea, immersed. 18 January 2015. Photo credit:  Allison J. Gong
Okenia rosacea, immersed. 18 January 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

Only when the animal is immersed can you see that it is a slug and not a pink anemone such as Epiactis prolifera, which I’ve seen in the exact shade of pink. But anemones don’t crawl around quite like this:

Whenever I see O. rosacea I automatically look for its prey, the pink bryozoan Eurystomella bilabiata. Lo and behold, I found it! The bryozoan itself is also pretty.

The bryozoan Eurystomella bilabiata, preferred prey of the nudibranch Okenia rosacea. 18 January 2015.  Photo credit:  Allison J. Gong
The bryozoan Eurystomella bilabiata, preferred prey of the nudibranch Okenia rosacea. 18 January 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

Can you distinguish between the coralline algae and the pink bryozoan in the photo? Is it shape or color that gives it away? If you had to explain the difference in appearance between these two pink organisms to a blind person, how would you do it?

Every winter northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) return to their breeding rookeries in central and northern California. These animals spend the majority of their time foraging at sea, but as with all pinnipeds they must return to land to birth their pups. The breeding site in central California is Piedras Blancas, a few miles north of San Simeon. In the northern part of the state the elephant seals breed at Ano Nuevo, about 20 miles north of Santa Cruz. While elephant seals do occasionally haul out along other beaches, the best places to see them are at the rookeries during the breeding season.

The adult males typically show up first, in late November and early December. They arrive early to set up and defend territories. Adult females arrive mid-December and are herded into harems by the alpha males, who meanwhile continue to fight over territory and dominance. Since the seals' food is found at sea, all adults and subadults fast while at the rookery. They loll about in the sun, flip sand over themselves, and doze.

Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas, 3 January 2015. Photo credit:  Allison J. Gong
Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas, 3 January 2015. © Allison J. Gong

For female elephant seals, the first order of business is to give birth to their pups. The pregnant females arrive carrying a pup that was conceived during the previous year's haul-out. A given female will give birth about a week after her arrival, and pupping season lasts until around mid-January. Pups are born with very dark fur and loose, wrinkly skin, until they fill out and take on the e-seal look of fat sausages. On my visit I saw pups that still had their umbilical cords attached, as well as pups that had been nursing for a while and gotten fat.

Despite the apparent laziness of the seals themselves, a rookery can be a noisy place. Pups and mothers squawk to each other, and males bellow a sort of low-pitched rumble as part of their dominance displays. Listen to the various e-seal vocalizations in this video:

In the right side of this video clip a female e-seal is being forcibly mounted by a male. I say "forcibly" because she does seem to be protesting and trying to get away. Of course, this is all just sexual selection in action--it is in the female's best interest, in terms of the quality of next year's pup, to be mated by the strongest male on the beach. Thus if she makes it difficult for him to copulate with her and he still manages to succeed, she can be reasonably certain that the father of her pup is healthy and vigorous.

However, notice that large male on the left. He doesn't like seeing "his" female being approached by another male. We kept waiting to see if a full-blown altercation would develop, but when all is said and done the animals are pretty lazy and won't waste energy on fights that aren't absolutely necessary. That big male on the left made a couple of feints towards the interloper but it didn't seem that his heart was in it.

All in all it was a fairly peaceful late afternoon at the rookery. We watched a spectacular sunset and then left the e-seals to their own devices on the beach.

Sunset at Piedras Blancas, 3 January 2015.  Photo credit:  Allison J. Gong
Sunset at Piedras Blancas, 3 January 2015. © Allison J. Gong

 

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Yesterday I collected three very small Pycnopodia helianthoides stars. When I brought them back to the marine lab I decided to photograph them because with stars this small I could easily distinguish between the original five arms and the new ones:

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These guys began their post-larval life with the typical five arms you'd expect from an asteroid. At this stage they are pretty conspicuous because they are the largest arms. The other arms arise in the inter-radial regions between arms. For years now I've been wanting to watch juvenile Pycnopodia stars growing their extra arms, and it looks like I finally have my chance. I noted that these stars are all about the same size, but don't have the same number of arms. It would be interesting to see if the rate of arm appearance and growth is related to how much food the stars have. Hmmm, that sounds like a study I should do.

And then one of the stars started running. And I mean running. Watch:

You might wonder how in the heck they can run so fast, and it's a valid question. We can actually examine the animal's scientific name to get an answer. "Pycnopodia" means "dense foot" and "helianthoides" means "sunflower-like." So these guys have a lot of tube feet, and they use them to run and feed. Imagine how fast we could run if we had more than two feet and could co-ordinate them this well:

So, when these guys (gals?) grow up, they'll be at least half a meter in diameter with 20-24 arms. With all those tube feet, they'll be Speedy Gonzales! In fact, they will be the terror of the intertidal--big, fast, and voracious. Anything that can't get out of their way will be eaten.

We air-breathing land mammals should be grateful that echinoderms never managed to get out of the sea. Can you imagine this monster chasing you down a dark alley, or climbing through your bedroom window?

On 11 March 2011 a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred off the coast of Japan. About 14 hours later, at 11:15 a.m. local time a tsunami came through the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor. It sank dozens of boats and significantly damaged several of the docks. People were ordered to evacuate the area before the expected arrival of the tsunami, but of course there were those who chose to stay behind and shoot videos like this one (the real action starts at about 1:00):

 

As a result of the damage to the infrastructure of the marina itself, many of the docks have been replaced since 2011, including those that are closest to the mouth of the harbor. For several years now I have been taking marine biology students to the docks to examine the organisms growing on the undersides of the docks, and this year the biological community is finally getting interesting again. These particular organisms are described as "fouling" because they are the ones that colonize the bottoms of boats and have to be scraped off periodically. They are characterized by fast growth rates and short generation times; many of them are also colonial. The first arrivals settle onto the surface of the docks, and later arrivals can take up residence either on the docks or on their predecessors. A healthy fouling community has a rich diversity of marine invertebrates, algae, and the occasional fish. This semester's trip to the harbor occurred a few weeks ago, and as usual the students were amazed at the amount and diversity of life on the docks. I remembered to bring the waterproof camera and snapped some shots.

This is what you see when you lie on the dock and hang your head over the edge:

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It's a mosaic of color and texture, really quite beautiful. You can see that mussels are the largest organisms in this community, and in turn are substrate for a variety of other animals.

Peering a bit closer to take notice of individual animals, you start to see things like this:

A perennial favorite because of its beautiful coloring. It eats my hydroids, though, so I don't like it.
Hermissenda opalescens, a perennial favorite because of its beautiful coloring. It eats my hydroids, though, so I don't like it.

 

One of the colonial hydroids, Plumularia sp. that grow at the harbor.
One of the colonial hydroids, Plumularia sp. that grow at the harbor. This species always grows in this pinnate form. Absolutely gorgeous under the microscope.
These small white anemones (Metridium senile) are about 3 cm tall.
These small white anemones (Metridium senile) are about 3 cm tall.
Feather duster worm, Eudistylia vancouveri, easily one of the most conspicuous animals on the docks.
Feather duster worm, Eudistylia vancouveri, easily one of the most conspicuous animals on the docks.
Colonial sea squirts, Botryllus sp. and Botrylloides sp.
Colonial sea squirts, Botryllus sp. and Botrylloides sp.

Colonial sea squirts, those orange-ish blobs in the last picture, are extremely common in marinas. In this photo, each distinct colored blob is an individual colony, and each colony consists of several genetically identical zooids connected by a protective covering called a tunic. Each teardrop-shaped zooid has its own incurrent siphon (the visible hole) through which it sucks in water, and the zooids in a group within a colony share a single excurrent siphon through which waste water is discharged. In Botryllus, the zooids are arranged into flower-like configurations called systems. In Botrylloides the systems are much less distinctive and wind around over the substrate. I've outlined a nice colony of Botryllus in the photo below, so you can see the easily recognized systems.

A colony of Botryllus, with zooids arranged in flower-shaped systems.
A colony of Botryllus, with zooids arranged in flower-shaped systems.

Such a wonderful world of animals and algae, right under our feet. Even people who spend a lot of time around boats don't pay attention to the stuff on the docks. To me it is a secret garden that is easily overlooked but greatly appreciated when you take a moment to get your face down where your feet are.

This past Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon I took my marine biology students to the rocky intertidal at Natural Bridges State Beach. We completely lucked out with the weather; the storm system that brought some of the rain that we desperately need had cleared out, leaving calm, clear seas and little wind. Perfect weather for taking students out in the field, in fact.

First of all, we didn't see any stars. Not that I was looking for them, particularly, but I was keeping an eye out for them and at this time last year I would have seen many Pisaster ochraceus hanging out in the pools and on the rocks. Here are a couple of pictures I took at Natural Bridges in years past:

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The stars, when present, are prominent residents of the mid-intertidal zone, where they feed on mussels. But now, alas, there don't seem to be any. They WILL come back, and it will be interesting to monitor their population recovery.

I enjoy taking students in the field because many of them have never been there before, and it's always fun looking at a familiar scene with fresh eyes. When everything is new, it is very easy to be excited and enthusiastic, which these students are.

We saw, among other things:

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Fish! The fish on the right was about 15 cm long. I think it's a woolly sculpin (Clinocottus analis), but IDing sculpins in the field is pretty tricky.
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This fish was much smaller, only about 10 cm long. It could be a fluffy sculpin (Oligocottus snyderi), or it could be a smaller woolly.
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This is an encrusting sponge, Haliclona sp. I've seen it in shades of rosy pink, too. The large holes are oscula, the sponge's excurrent openings. And that's a big gooseneck barnacle (Pollicipes polymerus) hanging down from the top of the picture.
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An assortment of intertidal critters sharing space on a rock. How many chitons can you spot?  How many barnacles?  How many limpets?
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This is one of my favorite intertidal animals, the owl limpet (Lottia gigantea). These large limpets are farmers. They keep an area clear of settlers by grazing at high tide. You can see the marks left by this individual's radula. The limpets also manage their farms, letting the algal film grow on one section while feeding on another.
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I love macro shots like this! The green tufty stuff is Cladophora columbiana, a filamentous green alga. Isn't it a vibrant green color? To give you an idea of how fine the Cladophora filaments are, that snail in the background is about the size of a quarter.
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And last, a gratuitous anemone shot. Ahhh, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, what a photogenic creature!

4

"Perhaps" being the operative word here. I was up at Davenport Landing the other day to do some collecting, and saw some healthy stars. Alas, no pictures, as I'm not coordinated enough to do photography and collecting on the same trip. But here's what I saw:

  • 5 healthy Pisaster ochraceus stars. This was the first species to start melting in my seawater table back in September, and they've suffered a lot subtidally as well. These five were all at least as big as my outstretched hand, so were several years (decades?) old. They were nice and stiff, unlike the flabby ones that died, and firmly attached to the rocks, indicating that the water vascular system was functioning normally. Yippee!
  • 6 healthy Dermasterias imbricata stars. I haven't personally observed this species being affected by wasting syndrome, and the stars I saw the other day all looked good. This species as a whole does not have the sticking power of P. ochraceus, but the ones I picked up had the right texture and consistency to make me think they were in good shape.
  • 1 tiny Pycnopodia helianthoides, about the size of my thumbnail. It had 10 arms of various lengths and was very active. I really wished I had my camera when this little guy floated into view on a piece of algae.

So what does this all mean?

Probably not much, in and of itself. This is a single observation at one site on one day. But finding live,  healthy stars is a lot more encouraging than seeing only dead or dying stars. The fact that I saw a very small P. helianthoides makes me wonder. Usually at Davenport Landing I see a few hand-sized or larger Pycnopodia stars. . . I saw none the other day, so does that mean they've all died? And how old is this little 1-cm star? Did it recruit before or after the wasting event?

I also noticed something else, which may or may not be related to the recent star deaths: Turban snails (Chlorostoma funebralis and C. brunnea) seemed to be more abundant than usual. Also, the C. funebralis, which are typically roughly spherical and the diameter of about a quarter, were larger and had the more slightly conical shape of C. brunnea. Just a coincidence? Hard to say, without quantifiable data, but I'm guessing "Yes."

4

Today is Monday.

Last Friday morning I was at the marine lab doing my usual feeding and cleaning stuff, and everything was fine. I was back at the lab Friday afternoon to return some animals that we had borrowed for one of the classes I'm teaching, and as soon as I got out of the car I knew something was wrong. I could smell it. Plankton bloom.

When I opened the door to one of the wet labs, it felt like walking into a wall of stench. It is a peculiar smell of excessive fecundity, which we occasionally see at the lab this time of year, due to a rapid population increase, or "bloom," of one or a few phytoplankton species. I'm not sure if the smell is actually bad or if it just seems bad because of all the negative things I associate with it. Negative things such as:  Sludge accumulating and decomposing on any horizontal surface in a table, including the surfaces of animals; said animals being fouled and dying because their respiratory surfaces are gunked up; seeing water straight from the tap coming in brown.

But whenever we get a nasty bloom like this, I am always curious about which critter it actually is. Back in the summer of 2010 there was a phytoplankton bloom in Santa Cruz that was at least partially caused by a dinoflagellate in the genus Alexandrium, some of which are known to produce toxins that work their way up the food chain and cause paralytic shellfish poisoning in people.

I took a sample from some build-up from this current bloom and looked at cells under the microscope (fun!). I was able to identify a couple of dinoflagellates right off the bat.

This is Ceratium.  I saw a lot of cells that look like these:

Ceratium cells.
Ceratium cells.
© Kudela lab, UCSC

Various species of Ceratium are present in plankton tows most of the year and as far as I know are pretty innocuous.

I also saw lots of these cells, too. This is Prorocentrum, a dinoflagellate that is pretty easy to recognize because of the little spine at one end of the cell. I don't think these guys are toxic, either.

Prorocentrum cells. ©2013 Allison J. Gong
Prorocentrum cells.
© 2013 Allison J. Gong

Lastly, there were a lot of these cells. I wasn't able to get a very good look at them and don't know for sure who they are, but they may be a species of Cochlodinium polykrikoides. I saw single cells and chains of two cells. C. polykrikoides is not nearly as harmless as the other two algae I saw. It has been responsible for fish kills in Asia.

These cells in a short chain might be Cochlodinium polykrikoides. ©2013 Allison J. Gong
These cells in a short chain might be Cochlodinium polykrikoides.
© 2013 Allison J. Gong

On my way out of the marine lab yesterday I stopped by the overlook to see what the surf looked like. I could see that the water was discolored with a brownish tinge. Look at the water as it recedes from the rocky bench. It would normally be white, but here it is kind of a dirty gray-brown color.

The good news is that today, Monday, the bloom seems to have abated quite a bit. I cleaned all of my tables and tanks on Saturday (extremely gross) and Sunday (not nearly as gross) and this morning there wasn't very much sludge at all. And the smell was nothing like it had been on Friday afternoon. So maybe we're getting a reprieve and won't have to deal with weeks and weeks of this stuff. That would be nice. My poor animals need a break from environmental conditions that are trying to kill them.

1

What better way to start a new blog than to talk about sex?

This morning at the Seymour Center I noticed a blob of what looked like nudibranch eggs on the wall of one of the tanks. Looking around for the likely culprit I saw three big nudibranchs on the tank. Ooh, cool!

One of two slugs of this species in this tank.

This is Dendronotus iris, a large nudibranch, or sea slug. This bad boy/girl had a foot (the flat white bit that you see reflected in the aquarium glass) that was about 15 cm long. The brownish branched structures on the slug's back are its cerata, which function as gills. These animals do not have the ctenidium, or gill, that is typical of marine snails. Other nudibranchs carry their gills in a single plume that surrounds the anus.

This species is distinguished from D. iris by its coloration and some details of its anatomy.

There is one other big slug in this tank. It has a paler body color and cerata that are banded with orange and tipped with white.

Nudibranchs are among the rock stars of marine invertebrates--they are flamboyantly colored, have short adult lives with lots of sex, and leave beautiful corpses when they die. After a planktonic larval life of a few weeks, adult nudibranchs spend their time eating, copulating, and laying eggs. Each slug is a simultaneous hermaphrodite, capable of functioning as both male and female, and mating involves an exchange of sperm. In some other species of nudibranch the act of love can be followed by an act of cannibalism.

Nudibranchs lay egg masses in ribbons or strings that are characteristic of the species. It turns out that Dendronotus egg masses look like Top Ramen noodles:

Egg mass of Dendronotus.

Each of those individual little white blobs is an egg capsule that contains 10-30 developing embryos. These eggs were deposited yesterday (3 June) and the embryos have been developing but are not yet at any distinct stage. With water temperature at about 13C, I think they'll develop pretty quickly.

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