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Yesterday I drove up the coast to Pigeon Point to do a little poking around. I had originally planned to search for little stars, survivors that had made it through the most recent outbreak of wasting syndrome. But I got distracted by other things and gave up on the stars, for now. I need to do some thinking about the best way to find tiny animals in a very complex 3-dimensional habitat.

I did spend quite a bit of time turning over rocks in tidepools. The most common critters I found were the usual suspects--porcelain crabs, limpets, snails, the odd sculpin or two, and chitons. One rock yielded a gold mine: five chitons of a species I didn't recognize (which doesn't mean I haven't seen it before, just that I didn't immediately know its name) that demonstrated a most interesting behavior.

Stenoplax heathiana, on underside of rock, 31 January 2015. Photo credit:  Allison J. Gong
Stenoplax heathiana, on underside of rock, 31 January 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

I turned the rock over and watched as the chitons ran away from the exposed surface onto the other side. Yes, RAN. I've never seen a chiton do anything this fast. Chitons, for the most part, lead apparently inactive lives. When we do get to see them in their natural setting, at low tide, they are usually scrunched down hard on the rock waiting for the water to come back. Obviously they are much more active when covered with water, but we don't get to see them then. In the lab, where they can be immersed all the time unless they crawl up the walls, they do wander around a bit; however, to see a chiton do much of anything requires time-lapse photography.

Don't believe that a chiton can run? Well, get a load of this:

This is in real-time, not sped up. Watch the chiton push a limpet and the snail out of the way. Okay, I'll grant that a limpet and a snail are not the strongest obstacles one could face when trying to flee from the light. But you can't deny that this chiton seems to be feeling a sense of urgency.

This species, Stenoplax heathiana, spends its days buried in sand on the underside of rocks. It comes out to feed at night, not on algal scums as most chitons do, but on bits of algae that drift by and get caught between rocks. Apparently the chiton can be found exposed in the very early morning. I'm going to have to try finding some this spring when we get our morning low tides back.  Anybody want to come with me?

 

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

 

At last, a publication on the causative agent for sea star wasting syndrome! Several co-authors have written a paper that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), in which the culprit was identified as a densovirus.

The Smithsonian wrote up a nice article summarizing the findings here.

While it remains to be seen why the virus caused such widespread disease this time, at least now researchers have something to focus their work on.

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.

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