On this winter solstice, as we anticipate the return of light, I thought I'd write about a different kind of light.
Merriam-Webster defines fluorescence as "luminescence that is caused by the absorption of radiation at one wavelength followed by nearly immediate reradiation usually at a different wavelength and that ceases almost at once when the incident radiation stops". It is a type of luminescence that occurs in both biological and non-biological objects. For example, mushrooms and scorpions are notably fluorescent, as are several minerals. Technically, to qualify as "fluorescent" an object can absorb any wavelength of radiation and re-radiate any other, although the re-radiated wavelength is usually longer than the absorbed wavelength.
We humans, with our three (and occasionally four) color photoreceptor types, can see only the tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum that we call visible light. The visible light range (approximately 400-700nm) is bounded by UV on the short end and infrared on the long end. Other organisms have very different light perception capabilities. We know, for example, that insects can see in UV and pit vipers can see in infrared. And as for mantis shrimps, which have as many as 12 types of photoreceptors, we don't yet understand how they see the world, but you can bet it's nothing like the way we do. For practical purposes, fluorescence is most easily seen when an object absorbs UV light and re-radiates light of a longer wavelength that falls into the visible light range.
When you shine a UV light on one of these fluorescent objects, you see an apparent color change from whatever it looked like under visible light. This color change is most striking in the dark, because the fluorescent object will appear to glow. The same thing happens in daylight, but is obviously more difficult to see.
Here, let me show you. A few weeks ago I went to Natural Bridges to photograph the anemones, first under normal daylight conditions and then under UV light. I have a pretty wimpy UV flashlight, it turns out, but you can still see the fluorescence.
Here's Anemone #1, under daylight:
And here's Anemone #1 under UV light:
Striking difference, isn't it?
This is Anemone #2. It was getting dark by then, but this photo was also taken without flash and I did not increase exposure of the image.
And, under UV light:
Here's what's going on. Pigment molecules in the anemones' tissues are absorbing the UV radiation and re-radiating light in the visible range. It's easier to see the fluorescence in Anemone #2 because it was much darker when I took that set of photos. Fluorescence still occurs during the day, but we can't see it as well in the daylight. This is why our local bowling alley does their Atomic Bowling at night! They can dim the overhead lights, crank up the black lights, and let the tunes roll.
Incidentally, if you've ever wondered why so-called black lights are purple, there's a reason for it. A true black light emits only UV light. UV light is invisible to us, hence the term "black", as in pure darkness. UV lights that ordinary folks like us can buy are tinged purple so that we can see it. The purple isn't UV, of course, but seeing the purple light keeps people from looking into the beam and frying their retinas from the actual UV radiation.
Sea anemones, of course, do not celebrate the solstice, but they do perceive it. They, and just about every other living thing, can sense the cyclical changes in day length as the year progresses. After tonight the days will start getting longer as we move through winter and towards spring. Personally, I cannot wait until we get the early morning low tides in the spring.
For some reason, many of the sunburst anemones (Anthopleura sola) in a certain area at Davenport Landing were geared up for a fight. I don't know what was going on before I got there yesterday morning, but something got these flowers all riled up. We think of them as being placid animals, but that's only because they operate at different time scales than we are used to. A paradox about cnidarians is that they don't do anything quickly except fire off their stinging cells; that, however, they do with the fastest known cellular mechanism in the animal kingdom. Go figure.
What looks like an anemone wearing a tutu is actually an anemone ready to fight. The normal filiform feeding tentacles are easily recognized. But those club-shaped white tentacles below the ring of feeding tentacles are called acrorhagi. They are all about fighting. The tips are loaded with potent cnidocytes that usually aren't used to catch food. They are used to fight off other anemones, and possibly predators.
Here's another shot of the same animal, which shows how the feeding tentacles and acrorhagi are arranged in concentric rings:
So who would this anemone be fighting? This individual was the only one of its kind in the pool where it lives. I don't know why its acrorhagi are inflated. I suppose they could be used to fend off a would-be predator, but I didn't see any other animal in the pool that seemed a likely candidate.
But look at this duo:
Now, clearly there is (or had been) something going on between these individuals. They both have their acrorhagi inflated. I've been looking at this photo for a while and can't decide which is the aggressor. At first I assumed that the anemone on the right had initiated an attack on the other. But now I wonder if that is a defensive posture rather than an offensive one. That animal does seem to be more bent out of shape than the one on the left.
I've seen anemone fights before, and I've also seen anemones living side by side, tentacles touching, in apparently perfect amity. It's very clear that they can coexist peacefully. Why, then, do they sometimes choose to fight? It's important to point out that Anthopleura sola is an aclonal species. Unlike its congener A. elegantissima, whose primary mode of growth is cloning, each A. sola represents a unique genotype. With these anemones, whether or not two individuals fight is not determined by relatedness.
In a different pool these two anemones are sharing the carcass of a rock crab.
Maybe that third anemone at the top had also taken part in the feast, but at this point it seemed to be minding its own business. Given the demonstrated aggression of some A. sola, it would be interesting to know whether or not this trio ever fight amongst themselves. When we 'ooh' and 'aah' over them in the tidepools they look like passive flowers, and we forget that they are active predators. But we humans have access to the anemones' home for only a few hours every month, and I have no doubt that they get up to all sorts of shenanigans when we're not looking.
This morning I went to Natural Bridges. The tide this morning was the lowest of the season, but early enough that for the most part I had the intertidal to myself for a couple of hours. I always like those mornings best.
I did meet a docent out there, and we chatted for a few minutes. Towards the end of the excursion, when the tide had turned and I realized I had to get to the marine lab for the usual Friday feeding chores, she pointed out something that didn't make sense to her. She described it as two anemones side-by-side, but one was really stretched out down towards the water. She wondered what could be going on, as the other anemone looked normal.
Looks strange, doesn't it? What this anemone is doing, I think, is disgorging the remains of its most recent meal. If you look at the oral end, which is indeed stretched down towards the sandy bottom of the pool, you can see two things sticking out. The whitish blob is the internal part of the anemone's pharynx. It is not at all uncommon for anemones to sort of prolapse the pharynx, especially after a big meal. Remember, anemones have a two way gut with a single opening for both food ingestion and waste expulsion. The other thing sticking out of the mouth is a clump of mussel shells thickly coated with slime.
Here's a close-up of what's going on at the mouth of this anemone:
It's hard to tell whether or not the mussels have been opened and digested by the anemone. It looks like at least some of the acorn barnacles attached to the mussel might still be alive, although smothered in slime. Nor can we see how many mussels are still inside the anemone's gut. In any case, the anemone is getting rid of this part of the mussel clump. However, this isn't a phenomenon that can really be watched, unless you can watch in time-lapse. The docent asked, "Doesn't it use peristalsis, or something like that?" The answer is that no, anemones don't use peristalsis. They don't have the type of muscles that can contract in that way. The anemone still has to somehow expel wastes and undigestible matter from its gut, through that single opening that we call a mouth but functions as both mouth and anus.
Our human gut, of course, uses peristalsis to move food along from esophagus to rectum. And while for the most part we don't like to think about how that works, we have all experienced what happens when things don't go as planned. I doubt that anybody gets through life without vomiting, so it is probably safe to say we all know that it is a violent way to thoroughly expel food, toxins, and other noxious items from the stomach. Anemones, however, have no peristalsis and cannot vomit. How, then, does an anemone void its gut of something larger than the typical digestive waste?
This particular anemone is ideally situated to let gravity do the work. Hanging down like this and relaxing the simple sphincter muscle around the base of the tentacles will allow the mussel clump to eventually fall out. Without peristalsis to speed things along, it will probably take a while. Would it be finished by the time the tide comes back? I couldn't stick around to watch, so I can't say. But it was a very cool thing to see, even though it happens about as fast as paint drying.
It has taken me months to gather all the photos and videos I needed for this post. I could blame it on the stress of teaching online for the first time, the COVID-19 pandemic itself, or residual malaise from the dumpster fire that was 2020. But really, it's the animal's fault.
In this case the animal is the orange cup coral, Balanophyllia elegans. I've written about this beast before, and lately I've been paying more attention to the corals that we have in the lab. In many ways it is the typical anthozoan—its life cycle consists of only a polyp stage (i.e., no medusa), it is benthic, and its body is vaguely anemone-like. Like the reef-building corals of the tropics, Balanophyllia is a scleractinian coral. This means that it secretes a calcareous base, or exoskeleton, upon which sits the living tissue of the polyp. But unlike the reef-building corals of the tropics, Balanophyllia is solitary, which means that it does not clone or form colonies. Nor does it contain photosynthetic zooxanthellae in its cells, as the reef-builders do. This means that Balanophyllia is a strict carnivore: unable to rely on photosynthetic symbionts to do the hard work of fixing carbon, Balanophyllia has to catch its own prey.
Balanophyllia has separate sexes and reproduces sexually. Males release sperm that are ingested by the female, and she then broods larvae for several months. What is strange about this is that, when you consider the anatomy of Balanophyllia (or any cnidarian polyp, for that matter) the question that comes to mind is, "Where are the larvae brooded?" So let's take a look at the basic cnidarian body plan.
The professor who taught my undergraduate course in invertebrate zoology described a cnidarian's body as a baggie inside a baggie, with a layer of jelly between the two baggies. The inner and outer baggies represent the tissue layers that developmental biologists refer to as endoderm and ectoderm, respectively. The jelly between the two tissue layers is called mesoglea. For the sake of this discussion, it's the endoderm that interests us. In a cnidarian, the endoderm is also called gastrodermis, because it is, literally, the skin of the digestive system. The cnidarian gut is a cavity that opens to the outside via a single opening. We could call that opening either a mouth or an anus, since both food and wastes pass through it, but for politeness' sake we call it a mouth. The gut itself does double duty as both the digestive system and the circulatory system, so its formal name is gastrovascular cavity (GVC).
It's easy to imagine the GVC as being essentially a tubular vase, but it's more complex than that. The GVC extends into each of the tentacles, so the tentacles are actually hollow. The main cavity of the GVC, in the stalk of the polyp, is partitioned by thin layers of endoderm. The partitions are called septa, and serve to increase the surface area of the endoderm for digestion. Think of a large office building, divided into small cubicles by movable partial walls—there's much more total wall space for hanging things such as calendars than there would be in the big room with only four walls. In anthozoans, gonad tissue is associated with the septa.
Now back to how Balanophyllia broods its larvae. As we've seen before, Balanophyllia's planula larva is an orange-reddish wormlike blob about 2 mm long, which is ciliated all over. It doesn't feed, but survives on energy reserves supplied by the mother in the egg; it may also be able to take up dissolved organic material directly from the seawater. After brooding larvae for some period of time in their GVC, Balanophyllia females release larvae. Or rather, the larvae ooze out of their mother's mouth and crawl around to settle and metamorphose nearby.
The planulation season, when larvae show up amongst the corals we keep in the lab, begins in the fall and runs through winter into the spring. Sometimes the larvae metamorphose right away—one day there are no larvae and the next day there are baby corals. Other larvae squirm around for days or weeks, not getting any smaller but not metamorphosing, either. This past season (Fall 2020-Spring 2021) we saw both extremes: planulae that settled and metamorphosed right away, and others that I collected weeks ago and are still worming around.
I peered into a bunch of corals, hoping to see what the larvae are doing inside the GVC, with no luck. Then I decided to try some time-lapse video under the dissecting scope, and had a bit of success with that. In the video below you'll see about two hours of action compressed into about 1 minute. Watch for a small red ball squirming around inside the GVC. And remember that the GVC extends into the tentacles, so the larva can wiggle its way in there, too.
All of which makes me wonder if the pathway from mother's GVC to the scary world outside travels in only one direction, or if the larvae can retreat back into the safety of the mom's digestive system. How strange is it, that the safer location might be inside the mother's gut!
Eventually, whether it be a matter of hours or weeks, the planula larva settles (i.e., sticks to a surface and stops crawling) and metamorphoses (i.e., makes the anatomical and physiological changes into the juvenile body). There doesn't seem to be a clear connection between surface characteristics and whether or not larvae will settle there. You might think that they'd choose to settle nearby or maybe actually on the parent, but that's not always the case. At some point, however, the larva will have to either settle and metamorphose, or die. When they metamorphose into juveniles, they reveal other aspects of their nature as scleractinian corals.
From what I've seen, the larva begins the settlement process by sticking to a chosen spot and becoming a more circular (i.e., less elongated) blob. On the other hand, I've seen perfectly round red blobs that look for all the world as though they might be pushing out tentacles, change their minds and go vermiform again. But once they stick permanently and begin to metamorphose by forming the polyp's body, they have to continue.
The juvenile in the photo above has not yet pushed out any tentacles, but it does show signs of its scleractinian ancestry. The Scleractinia (stony corals) and Actiniaria (sea anemones) are both members of a group called the Hexacorallia. The Hexacorallia and Octocorallia are in turn grouped together as members of the class Anthozoa. As you might infer from the name 'Hexacorallia', animals in this group of a body symmetry based on the number six. And you can see in the photo above that the juvenile coral's body is divided into 12 wedges. When the juvenile begins growing tentacles and a more polyp-like body, the hexamerous symmetry becomes even more evident:
The young coral begins by forming six primary tentacles, which establishes the visible hexamerous symmetry. Then it grows the six shorter secondary tentacles. The bumps on the tentacles are cnidocyte batteries, clusters of stinging cells, indicating that the animal can already capture and kill prey. Good thing, too, because if it hasn't already then it soon will deplete the energy stores its mother partitioned into its egg.
By this stage in its development the coral will remain where it is for the rest of its life. As it grows it will deposit CaCO3 and grow taller, but the living tissue will always be restricted to a layer sitting on top of the calcareous base. Once the base grows more than a few millimeters tall, there is no living tissue in contact with the surface. Thus there is no mechanism for the animal to move to another location, or even to re-attach itself if it gets broken off its surface. There are many animals that are likewise unable to move once their larvae have attached and metamorphosed. The decision of where to put down roots becomes quite stark for them, as a bad one can result in a very short life indeed. The selective pressures that enforce a good decision are quite clear, and are important factors in the distribution patterns we observe in the intertidal.
On the afternoon of July 31, 2020 the world of invertebrate biology and marine ecology in California lost a giant in our field. Professor Emeritus John S. Pearse died after battling cancer and the aftereffects of a stroke.
John was one of the very first people I met when I came to UC Santa Cruz. Before we moved here, my husband and I came and met with John, who was not my official faculty sponsor but agreed to show us around so we could check out different areas for a place to live. In fact, I had applied to the department to do my graduate work in John's lab, but because he was considering retirement the department wouldn't let him take on a new Ph.D. student. But when we needed some help getting acquainted with Santa Cruz, John and his wife, Vicki Buchsbaum Pearse, graciously let us stay at their house and spent a day driving us around town and showing us eateries as well as potential neighborhoods.
By happenstance we ended up living down the hill from John and Vicki. We had met their blue duck, Lily, and I used to fill spaghetti sauce jars with snails from our tiny yard and trudge up the hill to feed them to her. She gobbled them up like they were her favorite treat.
As one of the regional experts in invertebrate biology, John was on all of my graduate committees. There were always a half-dozen or so of us grad students working with invertebrates, and we all tended to hang out together. John was one of the things we shared in common. And even if he wasn't technically on one's committee, he would always be available for consultation or advice as needed.
When John retired, he didn't leave the campus. He remained a presence at the marine lab, and still did field work. He started incorporating young students in his long-term intertidal monitoring research, which morphed into the LiMPETS project. The combination of working with students while producing robust scientific data was the perfect distillation of John's legacy. He said this about LiMPETS:
This is one of the best things I could ever do to enhance science education and conservation of our spectacular coastline. Working with teachers and their students is a wonderful and fulfilling experience.
John S. Pearse, Professor Emeritus UC Santa Cruz
The last time I saw John was in the summer of 2019, during his annual Critter Count. He started these Critter Counts back in the 1970s, monitoring biota at two intertidal sites in Santa Cruz. These sites have since been incorporated into the LiMPETS program. I'm sure it made John smile whenever he thought of generation after generation of schoolkids traipsing down to the intertidal with their quadrats and transect lines, counting organisms the way he had for so many years.
When I started teaching my Ecology class, John suggested that I take the students out to Davenport Landing to monitor at the LiMPETS site there. That is another of his long-term sites, and he was worried about losing information if it were not sampled at least once a year. My students have done LiMPETS monitoring three years now, and John accompanied us on at least two of those visits. I tried to impress upon the students that having John Pearse himself come out with us was a Big Deal, but am not sure I was able to convince them of how fortunate they were. I bet there are a lot of marine biologists in California who would dearly love to go tidepooling with John. And now no one else will.
John Pearse and Todd Newberry, the other professor who gets the blame for how I think about biology, taught an Intertidal Biology class. I came along on many of the field trips the last year they taught it. I remember getting up before dawn to drive down to Carmel, park in the posh neighborhood streets, and walk down to meet John and Todd in the intertidal. I remember slogging through the sticky mud at Elkhorn Slough, digging for Urechis and hearing John shout "It's a goddamned brachiopod!" from across the flat. I remember bringing phoronid worms back to the lab, looking at them under the scope, and watching blood flow into and out of their tentacles. I remember John taking an undergraduate, Jen, and me out to Franklin Point, and showing me my very first staurozoans. That was probably around 1996, and I'm still in love with those animals.
I'm no John Pearse or Todd Newberry, but I'm a small part of their giant legacy in this part of the world. I strive to instill in my students the joy and intellectual pleasure in studying the natural world that I inherited from John and Todd. Partly to honor them, but mostly because it suits my own inclinations, I'm on a one-woman crusade to bring natural history back into modern science and science education.
I've spent the last two mornings in the intertidal at two of the LiMPETS sites, as part of a personal tribute to John. I thought there would be no greater way to memorialize John than by spending some quality time in the intertidal, where he trained so many young minds. I was thinking of him as I took photos, and thought he would be pleased if I shared them.
Natural Bridges—4 August 2020
And because, like me, John had a special affinity for the anemones:
And he would have loved this. What is going on here? How did this pattern come to be?
And look at this, three species of Anthopleura in one tidepool! Can you identify them?
Davenport Landing—5 August 2020
It was windy and drizzly this morning. I ran into a friend, Rani, and her family out on the flats; they were leaving as I arrived. I hadn't seen her since before the COVID-19 lockdown began back in March. She was also visiting the tidepools to honor John Pearse. We chatted from a distance and exchanged virtual hugs before heading our separate ways.
It felt like a John Pearse kind of morning. I recorded the video clip I needed for class, collected some algae and mussels for a video shoot tomorrow, and took a few photos.
And even though I'm not very good at finding nudibranchs, even I couldn't miss this one. It was almost 4 cm long!
The ultimate prize for any tidepool explorer is always an octopus. When I take newbies into the field that's what they always want to see. I have to explain that while octopuses are undoubtedly there and common, they are very difficult to find. You can't be looking for them, unless you really like being frustrated.
But John must have been with me in spirit this morning, because I found this:
It was just a small one, with the mantle about as long as my thumb. I found it because I spotted something strange poking out from a piece of algae. It was the arm curled with the suckers facing outward. I touched it, and the arm retracted. It didn't seem to like how I tasted.
And lastly, for me this is the epitome of John Pearse's legacy: Working in the intertidal, showing students how to identify owl limpets. I hope they never forget what it was like to learn from the man who with his wife, literally wrote the book about invertebrates and founded LiMPETS.
RIP, John S. Pearse. You left behind some enormous shoes to fill and a legacy that will stretch down through generations. I count myself lucky to have spent time with you in the field and in the lab. While I will miss you sorely, it is my privilege to pass on your lessons. Thank you for all you have taught me.
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!
I'm willing to bet that when you think about coral, what comes to mind is something like this:
The reef-building corals of the tropics are indeed spectacular structures, incredibly rich in biodiversity and worthy of a visit if you ever get the chance. These coral colonies come in many shapes, as you can see in the photo above. Each colony consists of hundreds or thousands of tiny polyps, all connected by a shared gastrovascular cavity, or gut. The living polyps secrete a skeleton of CaCO3, which grows slowly over decades or even millennia as successive generations of polyps live their lives and then die. It's this slow accumulation of CaCO3 that makes up the physical structure of the reef.
Reef-building corals are members of the Scleractinia, the so-called stony corals. The stoniness refers to the calcareous skeleton that they all have. But not all corals live in the tropics. We actually have two species of stony corals in Northern California. The brown cup coral, Paracyathus stearnsi, lives subtidally, and I think I've seen maybe a handful in all my intertidal explorations. The orange cup coral, Balanophyllia elegans, extends up into the low intertidal, and can be very common at certain sites I visit regularly. When I see them at low tide they are emersed and look like orange blobs. But if you touch one with your finger, you can feel the hardness of the calcareous base.
Stony corals they may be, but Paracyathus and Balanophyllia are both solitary; that is, they aren't colonial. Each polyp developed from its own larva and lives its own life independent from all other corals. Its bright orange color makes Balanophyllia pretty conspicuous, even though most of them are less than 10 mm in diameter. They do occur in patches, which makes one wonder. If they're solitary rather than clonal or colonial, how do these patches arise?
To answer this question we need to venture into the lab and examine the biology of Balanophyllia more closely. Fortunately, they grow in the lab quite happily. Years ago my friend Cris collected a bunch of Balanophyllia and glued them to small tiles so they could be moved around and managed in the lab. Cris has since moved on to other things, but the corals remain in the lab to be studied. They are beautiful animals, and can't really be appreciated in the intertidal because at low tide they're all closed up. But look at how pretty they are when they're relaxed and open:
Like all cnidarian polyps, these corals have long tentacles loaded with stinging cells, or cnidocytes. See the little bumps on the otherwise translucent tentacles? Those are nematocyst batteries, clusters of stinging cells.
Let's get back to the biology of this beast and how it is that they seem to live in groups. Balanophyllia is a solitary coral with separate sexes--each polyp is either male or female. They are also brooders. Males release sperm, which are ingested by a nearby female. The female broods fertilized eggs in her gastrovascular cavity. After a long period, perhaps several months, a large reddish planula larva oozes out of the mother's mouth and crawls around for a while, generally settling and metamorphosing near its parent.
This planula is a very squishy elongate blob, and can measure anywhere from 1-4 mm in length. It is an opaque red color, has a ciliated epidermis, and lacks a mouth or digestive system. Instead of feeding, it survives on energy reserves that its mother partitioned in the egg. You might surmise that not being able to eat would necessitate a quick metamorphosis into a form that has a mouth, but you'd be wrong. While some of them do indeed settle and metamorphose very close to their parent, others crawl around for several weeks, showing no inclination to put down roots and take on life as a sessile polyp. Perhaps they can take up enough dissolved organic matter from the seawater to sustain them through a long period of fasting.
At some point, though, the larva settles and metamorphoses into a little polyp. In the lab at least, Balanophyllia larvae settle on a variety of surfaces--glass, various plastics, even the fiberglass of the seawater tables.
The little coral measures about 2 mm in diameter and has 12 tentacles. It feeds very happily on brine shrimp nauplii and should grow quickly. Those three larvae, though, may hang around forever. I got tired of waiting for them to do something and released them into the seawater system. It might or might not have been an accident.
So there we have it. Our local cold-water coral, which doesn't form reefs or live in colonies. Balanophyllia may seem atypical for corals, but what it really demonstrates is the diversity within the Scleractinia. It reminds us that generalities do indeed have some value, and that for the discerning mind it is the exceptions to the generalities that are most interesting.
Of course, sea anemones don't have faces. They do have mouths, though, and since a mouth is usually part of a face, you can sort of imagine what I'm getting at. The sunburst anemone, Anthopleura sola, is one of my favorite intertidal animals to photograph. Of the four species of Anthopleura that we have on our coast, A. sola is the most variable, which is why it keeps catching my eye.
This afternoon I met the members of the Cabrillo College Natural History Club for the low tide at Natural Bridges. Here are some of the A. sola anemones we saw.
Such an amazingly photogenic animal, isn't it?
This past Fall semester the NHC went tidepooling at Pigeon Point. Today we were at Natural Bridges, and later in the spring we are going to Asilomar. I didn't intend it, but this school year the club is getting a look at three very different intertidal sites.
It has been a while since I've spent any time in the intertidal. There isn't really any reason for this, other than a reluctance to venture out in the afternoon wind and have to fight encroaching darkness. There's also the fact that I much prefer the morning low tides, which we'll have in the spring. However, this past weekend we had some spectacular afternoon lows, and although I was working on Friday and couldn't spare the time to venture out, I went out on Saturday and Sunday.
Saturday was a special day, because I had guests with me. A woman named Marla, who reads this blog, contacted me back in the fall. She said she wanted to do something special for her husband's birthday, and asked if I'd be willing to take them to the intertidal. It turns out that Andrew's birthday was around this past weekend, and he had family coming out from Chicago to celebrate. They picked the perfect weekend, because the low tides we had were some of the lowest of the year. So on Saturday I met up with Marla, Andrew (her husband), and Betsy (Andrew's sister) and we all traipsed out to Natural Bridges.
This was our destination for the afternoon:
Taking civilians into the intertidal can be tricky, because they often come with expectations that don't get met. Like expecting to see an octopus, for example. I explain that the octopuses are there, but are better at hiding from us than we are at finding them, but that never feels very satisfactory. This trio, however, were fun to show around. The tide was beautifully low and we had fantastic luck with the weather. It had rained in the morning, but the afternoon was clear and sunny. I congratulated Marla on remembering to pay the weather bill. And the passing stormlet didn't come with a big swell, so the ocean was pretty flat. We were able to spend some quality time in the mid-tidal zone, with occasional forays into the low intertidal.
The typical Natural Bridges fauna--owl limpets, mussels, chitons, anemones, etc.--were all present and accounted for. Of course, there isn't much algal stuff going on in mid-January.
Given the time of year (mid-January) and the time of day (late afternoon), the sun was coming in at a low angle. This was tricky for photographing, both in and out of water. However, sometimes good things happen, as in this photo below:
That's a big kelp crab (Pugettia producta) nestled among four sunburst anemones (Anthopleura sola). Kelp crabs are pretty placid creatures, for crabs, and usually take cover when approached. But this one remained in plain sight, holding so still that I thought it was dead. Even when I hovered directly over it and blocked the sun, it didn't move at all. Then it occurred to me that maybe he was having the sexy times with a lady friend. So I very carefully reached down and gave him a tap on the carapace. He flinched a little, so I knew he wasn't dead, but made no move to get away. And I caught a glimpse of a more golden leg underneath him.
Crabs live their entire lives encased in a rigid exoskeleton, and can mate only during a short window of opportunity after a female molts. Early in the breeding season, a female crab uses pheromones to attract nearby males. When a suitable male approaches, she may let him grab her in a sort of crabby hug. That's what this male kelp crab is doing to his mate. They may remain in this embrace for several days, waiting until the female molts and her new exoskeleton is soft. At that point the male will use specialized appendages to insert packets of sperm into the female's gonopores. The two will then go their separate ways.
We didn't disturb these crabs, and let them go on doing their thing. By now the sun was going down, so we headed back up and were rewarded with a glorious sunset.