The last of my Pisaster ochraceus stars waited until today, three whole days after all of its conspecifics had died, to start ripping itself into pieces. This is the sight that greeted me when I checked on my animals this morning:
I spent some time examining the severed arm because it is freakishly fascinating to watch autotomized parts continue on as though they were still attached to the main body. They literally don't know that they're dead. I've seen almost completely eviscerated sea urchins lumber around a seawater table on about 10 tube feet for days before finally giving up the ghost. This arm remained very active for quite a while--at least an hour--before I gave up and threw it away.
While I had this severed arm in a bowl under the dissecting scope I thought I'd take a few photos of the surface. Beautifully complex animals, sea stars are, when you look at them up close.
Meanwhile, the remaining 4/5 of the star continued to walk around the table. It ended up behind one of the quarantine tanks in which I had sequestered the bat stars, where over the course of the next couple of hours it dropped another arm. Because of its location I wasn't able to get a decent photo of it, but here is a shot of the wound from the first autotomization:
And I'm not the only one at the lab dealing with this disease outbreak. The lab next door is losing a couple of stars, and the Seymour Center lost one of their Pycnopodia helianthoides (sunflower star) yesterday. And, I heard second-hand that a student in the Santa Cruz area saw some dying stars on a dive in the past few days. What happened in my seawater table over the past few weeks may be just the beginning of something really, really bad.
As of today, I am cautiously optimistic that the Pisasterwasting disease I've been dealing with for the past couple of weeks has run its course. There has been quite a cost, however, as a mortality rate of 90% leaves me with one lonely star remaining.
This lone survivor reminds me of Brother John Clyn, a Franciscan monk and chronicler in Ireland who recorded the deaths of his fellow brothers during the Black Death in the 14th century and may have been the only inhabitant of his monastery not to die of the plague. It remains to be seen whether or not my star eventually succumbs and starts wasting away. But given how quickly all the other Pisasters were affected and killed, I think it's a good sign that this individual isn't sick already.
In the meantime, the quarantined Patiria miniata (bat stars) and Dermasterias imbricata (leather star) remain apparently unaffected. Keep your fingers crossed!
And I don't mean plague as in "too many stars to know what to do with," but as in "disastrous sickness that you don't want to catch." Some of the stars in my seawater table have been succumbing to some awful disease lately. A week ago today I noticed that many stars had been busy cannibalizing one of their compadres. Sometimes this just happens, and it doesn't necessarily indicate that things are about to go south. But when I looked more closely I noticed that the victim, instead of just being eaten, had autotomized its arms. Autotomy occurs in most sea stars and other invertebrates, and in fact is used as a method of clonal replication in some stars and many cnidarians. The species of star that is being affected by this plague (Pisaster ochraceus, the common ochre star) isn't one that readily autotomizes except in response to some external stress, such as a predator pulling on an arm.
So something was going on in this table. On Monday (Labor Day) I popped in for a quick check and although nobody had lost any arms I couldn't be absolutely sure that everything was okay. Some of the Pisasters were a little squishy and had arms that were a little twisted. On Tuesday morning there was no autotomy but in the afternoon a star had lost an arm, greatly disturbing the student lab assistant who discovered it. On Wednesday the table looked like an asteroid battlefield:
Many of the other Pisasters were also showing signs of sickness: curly arms (visible in the yellow star in the lower right corner of the photo above. Another ominous sign is that some of the apparently sickly stars were kind of squishy, indicating that the water vascular systems were somehow compromised.
Severed arms littered the table. The autotomized arms retain mobility for quite a while after being cast off--they literally don't know that they're dead.
After removing the corpses and cleaning the table as best I could I was able to take a closer look at the survivors. I noticed that most of the remaining Pisaster stars had twisty or crossed arms, and some showed pretty severe stretching in the interambulacral area ("armpit" between adjacent rays), which I think is the first stage of autotomy.
The disease progresses very rapidly, and within an hour a star in this condition had pulled off one arm and was working on another.
Unfortunately, this disease also affects other species. My Orthasterias koehleri (rainbow star) decided to join the fun. When I arrived Wednesday morning it was intact. It dropped an arm. I went away for about 40 minutes to take care of tasks in a different building, and when I returned it had lost two more arms:
Alas, my one and only Orthasterias succumbed later in the day and was dead on Thursday. Interestingly, the disease does not seem to affect either Patiria miniata (bat stars) or Dermasterias imbricata (leather stars). In fact, the Patiria have been eating pretty well over the past week, scavenging on the carcasses of the plague victims. I don't know if eating the diseased tissue will cause problems later on.
On Friday I lost two more Pisasters and isolated the Patiria and Dermasterias into tanks. A colleague of mine calls this the Molokai treatment, and I probably should have done it sooner, but I figured that at this point all the stars in the table were exposed to whatever pathogen is causing this disease so at that point why bother? However, I will need to sequester the healthy stars in order to disinfect the table once the disease has run its course, so into tanks they went.
After checking on the stars Saturday morning I am cautiously optimistic that the plague may have run its course. One more Pisaster, that was looking sickly the day before, had died, but my last two appeared healthy. Their arms were not curly, I didn't see any interambulacral stretching, and they felt nice and hard when I poked at them. All of these are good signs, but I will continue to keep close watch on them. If they make it to Monday we just might be out of the woods.
As of today, one week after I noticed the first severe symptoms, I have lost 80% of my Pisaster collection. To put that in to context, this mortality rate is every bit as bad as some villages that were virtually wiped out by the medieval Black Death.
It has been almost a month since my big female whelk started laying her eggs, and the embryos seem to be developing nicely. The first time I witnessed this phenomenon I saw the egg capsules begin to turn black, and worried that the eggs inside were dead and decomposing. But the cool thing about Kelletia development is that the larvae themselves become darkly pigmented as they develop, which we see as an overall dingy grayness of the egg capsules:
Nosy as ever, I pulled one of the egg capsules off the side of the bin and took it back to my desk for closer examination under my dissecting scope. At the "top" of the capsule (the end that is attached to the bin), the material was quite thin, and I could some vague dark lumps inside. They were slowly moving around, so I knew they were alive.
Viability! This makes me happy and encourages me to "liberate" a few larvae to look at under higher magnification. I squeezed out a few veligers and put them under a coverslip with just enough water to keep their shells from cracking but not enough to let them swim away. Here's a tip for observing small aquatic critters under a microscope: If you make their universe (i.e., the drop of water you are observing) small, they will be less able to swim away from you. Flattening the drop of water with a judiciously placed coverslip will also help immobilize the creature, as well as taking best advantage of the microscope's optics.
Not too much to look at while stationary, is it? You can see a coiled shell (this is a snail after all) and some blobby structures inside it. At this stage the larva isn't feeding and relies on yolk reserves provided by the mother when she deposited the eggs. Some of the opaque stuff inside the shell is yolk and other bits are various parts of the digestive system. At about 11:00 just underneath the shell there is an elongated transparent area: the larva's heart; you can see it beating in the video below. The light mohawk-looking structure facing to the right is the larva's velum, a lobed ciliated structure that the animal will use to swim after it hatches. The last structure of note is the wedge-shaped thing that points to about 5:00; this is the larva's foot, on the back of which sits the operculum that is used to close up the shell.
After a bit of trial and error I was able to catch some decent video footage through the microscope of a trapped larva:
The larva rhythmically extends and retracts its velum. Because of the coverslip the larva can't go anywhere, but if unencumbered it would be able to use that velum to zip around really fast. It is very difficult to keep up with swimming veligers under a microscope!
My guess is that the larvae will begin hatching on their own in the next couple of weeks. They will be washed out of their tub and down the drain of the seawater table, to take their chances in the big ol' Pacific Ocean.
This week my female Kellet's whelk (Kelletia kelletii) started laying eggs. She's been doing this every summer for the past several years. She lives with one other whelk, presumably the father of her brood, as the eggs are both fertilized and viable even though I've never seen the snails copulating.
That's right, copulating. Whelks are predatory marine snails, some of which get quite large. My big female's shell is a heavily calcified 12 cm or so; she's a beefy mother! Her mate is smaller, but other than the size difference I wouldn't be able to tell them apart. Anyway, whelks copulate, with the male using a penis to transfer sperm into the female's body. Not very different from the way we humans do things, actually.
So at some point in the recent past my whelks copulated, and this week the female began depositing egg cases on the walls of their shared tub. I first noticed them on Monday, but she may have started over the weekend.
Those pumpkin seed-shaped objects are the egg capsules. Each is actually about the size and shape of a pumpkin seed and has a tough outer covering that contains 20-50 developing embryos. After the entire clutch is lain, which usually takes this particular female a week or so, the mom will leave the eggs to develop on their own.
I'll keep an eye on these eggs for the next week or so, and might be able to get some photos of the embryos and larvae as they begin developing. Keep your fingers crossed!
We are fortunate to have a lot of wildlife in our backyard, which is actually a canyon. On any given day we can look out and see finches and hummingbirds squabbling over their respective feeders, jays trying to steal whatever they can, and hawks either swooping through the brush or soaring overhead. The soundtrack of afternoons around here is punctuated by the sharp high-pitched "teek" of towhees and the chickadees can be heard just about any time of day. And every once in a while a mockingbird tricks me into thinking that I'm hearing something that I'm not.
Among our favorite birds is our state bird, Callipepla californica, or the California quail.
In our canyon we have quail year-round, and we call them collectively the "dudes." The males, with their typically gaudy male plumage, are the dudes and the females are dudettes. In the winter, the quail form a covey of anywhere from 15-25 adults of both sexes, banding together for safety.
Once the days begin to lengthen in the spring, however, the males begin squabbling for territory and females, and the covey breaks up. After that we see the quail in male-female pairs. Interestingly, the pairs will forage in more or less the same area, but when one of the males crosses some invisible (to me) line the other will get all bent out of shape. Females seem to forage wherever they want.
Nesting occurs in the bushes somewhere, and in July we see the babies for the first time. Usually it's the dads who bring out the dudelets; I think the females may be incubating a second clutch of eggs at this time.
Needless to say, the dudelets are very cute. The youngest we've ever seen were little speckled fluffballs. It's hard to see in this photo, but at this age the dudelets already have tiny plumes.
Like most baby birds, the dudelets grow fast. After a couple of weeks they've grown more feathers and begin to look more like their parents. This year (2013) we missed the fluffball stage and today we saw the dudelets for the first time. They were brought up by both parents; we saw two males, one female, and 4-5 dudelets. It's hard to get an exact count because these birds are so good at melting into the shrubs and becoming invisible. Even though there was a dudette present, it was the dudes that were watching over the dudelets.
Eventually the dudelets will grow up and the males will have to disperse to find and defend their own territories. The winter covey will re-form, and next spring we will be on the lookout again for the next generation.
Over the Memorial Day weekend I took my students out on the early morning low tides at Natural Bridges State Beach. While they were ooh-ing and ahh-ing and filling out their assignment worksheet, I was playing around with my new camera, taking pictures in the water. Because I am not a photographer and sea anemones just sit there, they quickly became my favorite subjects. Not to mention the fact that they are simply beautiful and photogenic creatures.
At Natural Bridges we have four species of anemones in the genus Anthopleura:
A. xanthogrammica - giant green anemone
A. sola - sunburst anemone
A. elegantissima - aggregating anemone
A. artemisia - moonglow anemone
Of these species, the first two are notable for their large size. At Natural Bridges they can get to be the size of a dinner plate. They live side-by-side in tidepools, and since there are many deep-ish pools at Natural Bridges they are among the most conspicuous animals in the intertidal along the northern California coast.
It's easy to identify these animals when they're sitting right next to each other. The difficulty comes when you see only one in a pool by itself with nothing to compare it to. In a nutshell, here are some things you can use as clues to determine which species you have in front of you.
Let's start with Anthopleura xanthogrammica, the giant green anemone. This animal's oral surface and tentacles are a solid color, varying from bright green to golden brown. There are no conspicuous stripes on the central disc and the tentacles are relatively short and stubby, without any white patches.
Anthopleura sola, on the other hand, usually has distinctive radiating lines on the oral disc. Hence the common name of Sunburst Anemone. Its tentacles are generally longer and more slender than those of A. xanthogrammica, and often have sharp-edged white patches. Sometimes the tips of the tentacles are tinged a pale purple. Anthopleura sola are usually brownish-green in color, and I haven't seen any that are as bright green as the A. xanthogrammica anemones.
That's all well and good, but sometimes you come across an individual that doesn't completely follow the rules. Or rather, it looks like it could belong to both species. Such as this fellow (fella?):
The animals obviously don't read the descriptions. This one has xanthogrammica shape and overall color, but those lines on the disc read as sola-ish. I would call this one a xanthogrammica. What do you think?
The birds do it, the bees do it, and now the frogs are doing it. There's a small clump of trees between two of the houses across the street, and I think that's where a male Pacific chorus frog has staked his claim. Every evening for the past few weeks I've heard him singing away. Often you'll hear several frogs singing at the same time, but this particular guy's call is much louder and more piercing than the others. What I particularly like about this sound recording is that it begins with a solo, and other frogs join in to make a joyful noise.
The Pacific chorus frog (Pseudacris regilla), sometimes erroneously referred to as the Pacific tree frog, is the only frog that ribbits. It couldn't possibly be mistaken for anything else. In fact, its song is so iconic of "frogness" that it is universally used in movies and other Hollywood products taking place anywhere in the world, despite the fact that this little singer lives only along the western coast of the US.
Why is it wrong to call these guys tree frogs? Because they don't live in trees, silly! At least, not exclusively in trees. Along the central California coast they live in grassy areas from the coast up into the hills. I start hearing them in winter, as the rains form puddles and small ponds, but they stop singing when they hear people approaching. To me, they are part of the soundtrack of spring in California. While most of the singing happens at night, I often hear them singing during the day at the marine lab. Many times the males are singing together -- hence the name chorus frogs.
Considering their ability to make a lot of noise, Pacific chorus frogs are little guys. Big ones are only 5 cm long. They vary in color from brown to green, and the color of an individual can change throughout the year. They have a very distinctive dark horizontal stripe that runs through the eye, making them look like, well, chorus frogs.
Like all frogs, chorus frogs are tied to water for reproduction. Once the rains have started, male frogs migrate to wet areas and set up shop. Their "krick-et" calls attract females, and the frogs pair up and do what comes naturally to most animals in the springtime. The female lays eggs in calm, still water and the male fertilizes them as they are deposited. Tadpoles develop in the water and, hopefully, metamorphose into froglets in due time.
Eventually the mating season will end, and the frogs will stop singing until next year's rains. I will miss them when they go away, but for the next little while the soundtrack of spring will play every evening.
We are still about a few days away from the vernal equinox, but it is impossible to mistake the signs of spring: Trees are blooming (gesundheit!), bees are buzzing, and birds are singing. In our canyon, the California quail have disbanded their large winter covey and are foraging in male-female pairs. In the past few weeks I've watched and listened to red-shouldered hawks claiming their territory. All that I'm waiting for is the return of the downy woodpeckers drumming on the utility poles and the arrival of mud-carrying swallows at the marine lab to know that spring has truly sprung.
One of my favorite spring sights--and sounds!--is the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). They are in California year-round, but their raucous mating displays make them much more visible in springtime.
Male red-wingeds are a glossy black with puffy red epaulettes, which they flash as they are calling. This time of year it is common to see a bird perched on the end of a twig, showing off his shoulders and his loud, clear voice.
The conspicuous markings and piercing call serve to advertise a male's territorial claim. He states very emphatically, "This is my patch of rushes, so BACK OFF, DUDES!" If he is successful in holding off interlopers, a male may mate with several females within his territory. This is a Good Thing, no? Females benefit from this arrangement because a male who can stake out and defend a territory is presumably vigorous and will pass those healthy alleles to his offspring. So it's a win-win situation and the best possible baby blackbirds are produced every generation.
Sometimes even a naturalist gets to go on vacation, and I was fortunate enough to get to spend a week in Kaua'i. My favorite spot on the island was the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on the north shore of the island, where I got to see albatrosses, frigatebirds, and boobies in flight, as well as humpback whales breaching and flipper-slapping offshore. Amazing!
As much fun as it was to watch all these birds flying around, it was just as entertaining to drive through the adjacent neighborhood and watch albatrosses in people's front yards. I'd love to have albatrosses in my front yard, but alas, it's not going to happen in California.
Just what are those albatrosses doing in people's front yards, you ask. Good question.
The Laysan albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis, is a north Pacific species which breeds primarily in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Like all seabirds, their food comes from the ocean. Albatrosses are known for their super-efficient gliding flight; their long, narrow wings are the inspiration for the design of gliding planes. The Laysan albatross has a wingspan of 6-7 feet. On the ground they look somewhat like ordinary gulls, but in flight and close-up they are truly magnificent birds.
Albatrosses are also extremely long-lived birds. The bird in the photograph below has a band on her right leg. The information on the band tells biologists when the bird was banded. This female bird was 60 years old when she was photographed at Midway Atoll in 2011 by John Klavitter of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
It turns out that albatrosses return to the sites where they hatched as they get old enough to breed. The Kaua'i albatrosses had been using the north shore of the island as a breeding ground when the housing developments were built, and apparently don't mind either the construction or the people living there. The human residents take great pride in their avian neighbors, putting up signs telling tourists to keep their distance and leave the birds undisturbed.
We made several passes through the neighborhood to look at the albatrosses, and finally got some good pictures.
Some of the albatrosses on lawns are incubating eggs, and some are juveniles hanging out and scoping out future mating possibilities. If all goes well, albatrosses will be nesting in and fledging from this neighborhood for many decades to come.