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A few days ago I was in the intertidal with my friend Brenna. This most recent low tide series followed on the heels of some magnificently large swells and it was iffy whether or not we'd be able to get out to where we wanted to do some collecting. Our first day we went up to Pistachio Beach, just north of Pigeon Point, where the rocky intertidal is bouldery and protected by some large rock outcrops.

Pigeon Point lighthouse, viewed from Pistachio Beach.
27 January 2017
© Allison J. Gong
27 January 2017
© Allison J. Gong

So while the swell was indeed really big, we were pretty well protected in the intertidal. The Seymour Center has a standing order for slugs, hermit crabs, and algae. I was easily able to grab my limit (35) of hermit crabs over the course of the afternoon, and while it's too early in the season for the algae to do much I had my sluggy friend with me to take care of finding nudibranchs, which left me free to let my attention wander as it would.

Codium setchellii at Pistachio Beach.
27 January 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The very first thing to catch my eye as we go out there was the coenocytic green alga Codium setchellii, which I wrote about last time. I've seen and collected C. setchellii from this site before, but don't remember seeing it in such large conspicuous patches. I need to review what I learned about the phenology of various intertidal algae, but here's a thought. Maybe Codium is an early-season species that gets outcompeted by the plethora of fast-growing red algae later in the spring. Red algae were present at Pistachio Beach but not in the lush (and slippery!) abundance that I'll see in, say, June. I'm willing to bet that Codium will be less abundant in the next few months.

Leptasterias sp. at Pigeon Point.
24 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

In my experience, the six-armed stars of the genus Leptasterias have always been the most abundant sea stars on the stretch of coastline between Franklin Point and Pescadero. Even though they are small--a monstrously ginormous one would be as large as the palm of my hand--they are very numerous in the low-mid intertidal. I've seen them in all sorts of pinks and grays with varying amounts of mottling. Alas, I don't know of any really reliable marks for identifying them to species in the field.

Unlike other familiar stars, such as the various Pisaster species and the common Patiria miniata (bat stars), which reproduce by broadcast spawning their gametes into the water, Leptasterias is a brooder. Males release sperm that is somehow acquired by neighboring females and used to fertilize their eggs. There isn't any space inside a star's body to brood developing embryos, so a Leptasterias female tucks her babies underneath her oral surface and then humps up over them. Leptasterias also humps up when preying on small snails and such, so that particular posture could indicate either feeding or brooding.

Here's a Leptasterias humped up on a rock, photographed last spring:

Leptasterias sp. at Pigeon Point.
5 May 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The only way to tell if a Leptasterias star is feeding or brooding is to pick it up and look at the underside. I did that the other day and saw this:

Brooding Leptasterias sp. star at Pistachio Beach.
27 January 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Those little orange roundish things are developing embryos. While the mother is brooding she cannot feed, and can use only the tips of her arms to hang onto rocks. Don't worry, I replaced this star where I found her and made sure she had attached herself as firmly as possible before I left her. In a few weeks her babies will be big enough to crawl away and she'll be able to feed again.

Looks like the reproductive season for Leptasterias has begun.


The next day Brenna and I went to Davenport, again hoping to get lucky despite another not-so-low tide and big swell.

Davenport Landing Beach and adjacent rocky areas.
© Google Earth

Davenport Landing Beach is a popular sandy beach, with rocky areas to the north and south. The topography of the north end is quite variable, with some large shallow pools and lots of vertical real estate to make the biota very diverse and interesting. The big rocks also provide shelter from the wind, a big plus for the intrepid marine biologist who insists on going out even when it's crazy windy. The southern rocky area is very different, consisting of flat benches that slope gently towards the ocean, with comparatively little vertical terrain. The southern end of the beach is always more easily accessible, which is why I almost always go to the north. But this day the north wasn't going to happen. The winter storms had washed away at least a vertical meter of sand between the rock outcrops. That and the not-so-low tide combined for conditions that made even getting out to the intended collecting site a pretty dodgy affair. So Brenna and I trudged across the beach to the south.

28 January 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Along the way we saw lots of these thumb-sized objects on the beach. At first glance they look like pieces of plastic, but after you see a few of them you realize that they are clearly (ha!) gelatinous things of biological origin. They are slipper-shaped and you can stick them over the ends of your fingers. They have a bumpy texture on the outside and are smooth on the inside.

Any guesses as to what they are?

Pseudoconch of Corolla spectabilis, washed up on Davenport Landing Beach.
28 January 2017
© Allison J. Gong

These funny little things are the pseudoconchs of a pelagic gastropod named Corolla spectabilis. What is a pseudoconch, you ask? If we break down the word into its Greek roots we have 'pseudo-' which means 'false' and 'conch' which means shell. Thus a pseudoconch is a false shell. In this case, 'false' refers to the fact that this shell is both internal (as opposed to external) and uncalcified.

The animal that made these pseudoconchs, Corolla spectabilis, is a type of gastropod called a pteropod (Gk: 'wing-foot'). Pteropods are pelagic relatives of nudibranchs, sea hares, and other marine slugs. They are indeed entirely pelagic, swimming with the elongated lateral edges of their foot. Like almost all pelagic animals, Corolla has a transparent gelatinous body. Even their shell is gelatinous, rather flimsier than most shells, but it serves to provide support for the animal's body as it swims.

You can read more about Corolla spectabilis and see pictures and video here.

Why, you may be wondering, do the pseudoconchs of C. spectabilis end up on the beach, and where is the rest of the animal? The body of Corolla and other pteropods is soft and fragile. When strong storms and heavy swells seep through the area, the water gets churned up and pteropods (and other pelagic animals) get tossed about and shredded. This leaves their pseudoconchs to float on currents until they are either themselves demolished by turbulence or cast upon the beach. Corolla is commonly seen in Monterey Bay, and it is not unusual to find their pseudoconchs on the beaches after a series of severe storms.

Brenna and I were wondering if we could preserve the pseudoconchs somehow. I took several back to the lab and tried to dry them, thinking that they might behave like Velella velella does when dried. Unfortunately, the next day they had shriveled into unrecognizable little blobs of dried snot, and the day after that they had disintegrated completely into piles of dust. Maybe drying them more slowly would work. Something to consider the next time I run across pseudoconchs in the sand.

1

When the most recent epidemic of seastar wasting syndrome (SSWS) began back in 2013, the forcipulate stars were the first to succumb. This group includes conspicuous members of intertidal and subtidal habitats, such as:

  • Pisaster ochraceus -- the intertidal ochre star
  • Pisaster giganteus -- the giant spined star, which lives in the low intertidal and subtidal
  • Pycnopodia helianthoides -- the sunflower star, a huge monster of the low intertidal and subtidal.

In the past year or so, I've noticed P. ochraceus making a comeback at local intertidal sites. At first I was seeing stars in the 2-3 cm size range, and now I'm regularly seeing hand-sized ones clinging to the rocks.

4 mm juvenile Pisaster ochraceus star at Pescadero State Beach.
11 May 2016
© Allison J. Gong

You read that right. 4 mm in diameter. This is the tiniest forcipulate star that I've ever been able to ID in the field with any certainty.

Pair of Pisaster ochraceus stars in the low-mid intertidal at Natural Bridges.
22 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong
A hand-sized (dark orange) and much smaller (dark purple, tucked far back in the little cave) Pisaster ochraceus at Mitchell's Cove.
28 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

It seems pretty clear that the ochre stars, at least, are making a comeback. It's likely that the larger ones are survivors of the SSWS plague. That little tiny one, though, may well be a post-SSWS recruit. Unfortunately we don't know how fast they grow once they recruit to the benthos. We do know that when they recruit they're about 500 µm in diameter, so even that little guy has grown a lot in however long it has been since it settled.

The really exciting news is that yesterday I saw my first P. giganteus since the SSWS outbreak began! I was up at Davenport Landing collecting sea urchins and saw this star in an urchin hole. The rock around here is a soft mudstone that is easily eroded. Urchins excavate holes by twisting their spines against the rock, and then live in them. Holes that are urchinless, for whatever reason, are quickly colonized by other organisms (including baby urchins).

A not-so-gigantic Pisaster giganteus star in an urchin hole at Davenport Landing.
13 December 2016
© Allison J. Gong

For a sense of size, this urchin hole is about 8 cm in diameter. The star is sharing it with a small anemone, most likely Anthopleura elegantissima.

Pisaster giganteus generally occurs lower in the intertidal than P. ochraceus, and I wouldn't expect to see it on a tide that isn't at least as low as -0.8 ft. It isn't as closely associated with mussel beds as P. ochraceus, either, because it lives lower in the intertidal. Fortunately, this week's low tide series includes a few days with tides below -1.0 ft, and I'm going back out today. I'll be keeping my eyes open for not only Pisaster stars, but also the Pycnopodia that disappeared a few years ago. Although Pycnopodia gets very large, I don't expect to see any really big ones running across the intertidal. However, Pycnopodia juveniles would indicate at least the beginning of a possible population recovery  from the SSWS plague.

So, wish me luck and keep your fingers crossed!

1

This week saw the last of the good morning low tides of 2016. By "good" I mean a minus tide that hits during daylight hours. There are two more minus tide series in August, with the lows occurring well before dawn. After that the next minus tides don't happen until mid-October; these will be late in the afternoon so loss of daylight will be an issue. I wasn't intemperate enough to risk the health of my concussed brain on this week's low tides but did want to get out if possible. And I'm so glad I tried, because having been out on the past few days' low tides I feel more myself than I have since the accident. My head hurts a little, but not nearly as much as it would have if I'd done any significant driving two weeks ago. And, I have pictures to share!

WEDNESDAY 22 JULY 2016 -- DAVENPORT LANDING

I went up to the Landing to collect some animals that I'll need for my Fall semester class. The full moon was still visible, as the sun hadn't yet risen above the bluff.

Full moon at dawn over Davenport Landing beach. 20 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Full moon at dawn over Davenport Landing beach.
20 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

A month after the summer solstice and the algae are still nice and lush. Here's a nice combination of mostly reds and greens, with some brown kelp thrown into the mix. How many phyla can you spot?

Mishmash of algae at Davenport Landing. 20 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Mishmash of algae at Davenport Landing.
20 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

One of the two local species of surfgrass, Phyllospadix torreyi, was blooming. A month ago I'd noticed the congeneric species P. scouleri blooming at Mitchell's Cove. These surfgrasses are vascular plants rather than algae, and as such they reproduce the way the more familiar land plants do, by pollen transfer from male to female flowers.

Flowers of the surfgrass Phyllospadix torreyi at Davenport Landing. 20 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Flowers of the surfgrass Phyllospadix torreyi at Davenport Landing.
20 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

In the case of these obligately marine surfgrasses, the pollen is carried by water rather than wind. Not having to attract the attention of animal pollinators, the flowers have not evolved elaborate morphology, color patterns, or nectar rewards. They actually don't look like much more than swellings near the base of the leaves. Some day I'll remember to take one of the flowers back to the lab and dissect it to see what it's like on the inside.

THURSDAY 21 JULY 2016 -- FRANKLIN POINT

This was the day I was most worried about. The drive up to Franklin Point takes about 30 minutes, and I hadn't driven that distance since the accident. To make things even scarier, I couldn't find someone to go with me. In the end I decided to try getting up there and back on my own, figuring that if my head wasn't happy with the driving I could always turn around and come home.

When I got there it was cold and very windy, and I was glad I'd worn an extra thermal layer. Up on the exposed coast it is often windy on the road but can be less windy below the bluff on the beach. Yesterday it was windy on the beach, too, more typical of an afternoon than a morning low tide. The wind rippled the surface of the tidepools, making visibility and picture-taking difficult. I tried and didn't have much success.

Coming over the last dune down to the beach I noticed four or five gulls and a couple of turkey vultures milling about at the mid-tide line. Something must be dead, I figured. And yes, it was very dead.

Scavenged elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) carcass on the beach at Franklin Point. 21 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Scavenged carcass of a California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) on the beach at Franklin Point.
21 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

During last year's El Niño we saw lots of sea hares in the intertidal up and down the coast. And they were big, heavy football-sized monsters. Yesterday I saw many sea hares, but none of then were larger than my open hand and most were quite a bit smaller. Nor were there any egg masses on the rocks. This guy/gal combo (they're both, remember?) was about 15 cm long.

Sea hare (Aplysia californica) at Franklin Point. 21 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Sea hare (Aplysia californica) at Franklin Point.
21 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

By far the most unusual thing I've seen in the intertidal this year was a swarm of shrimpy crustaceans. Last year at about this time I witnessed a huge population of small sand crabs (Emerita analoga) in tidepools at Franklin Point. Yesterday the swarmers were swimmers, not burrowers. I think they had gotten trapped in this large pool by the receding tide. Not having any better idea of what they were, I'm going to say they were mysids. Mysids are quite commonly encountered in local plankton tows but I'd never seen them in the intertidal before.

Swarm of mysids in a large tidepool at Franklin Point. 21 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Swarm of mysids in a large tidepool at Franklin Point.
21 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

All those brown, orange, and white streaks are mysids. They are about 2 cm long, zooming around super fast. See for yourself:

Swarming mysids at Franklin Point
2016-07-21
© Allison J. Gong

My first, rather idiotic, thought was that these were krill. They're about the same size as the krill species most common in Monterey Bay, so perhaps the thought wasn't quite that idiotic. (but krill in the intertidal? yeah, that's idiotic. although stranger things have happened and the animals is always right even when it does something that seems idiotic) However, it didn't take me long to realize that these critters didn't actually look like krill. They didn't have the feathery gills under the thorax that krill have. I also noticed that some of them were brooding eggs in a ventral pouch on the thorax, making them members of the Peracarida. Okay, then. Definitely not krill, so maybe . . . mysids? They look like mysids and so far nobody has told me that they're not mysids, so I'm going to call them mysids.

The sun came out as I finished up in the tidepools. I hiked back up the very steep sand dune and looked back at where I had come from. Wow. Talk about stunning vistas!

View of Franklin Point from atop the last (and steepest) sand dune. 21 July 2016
View of Franklin Point from atop the last (and steepest) sand dune.
21 July 2016

FRIDAY 22 JULY 2016 -- NATURAL BRIDGES

Today was by far the best day this week for picture taking in the intertidal. However this post is getting long so I'm going to showcase the crabs I saw this morning.

Pachygrapsus crassipes is the common shore crab, ubiquitous in the intertidal and at the harbor. It lives in the mid-tide zone and hangs out among the mussels. It is a shy beast, not aggressive and is more likely to drop into the nearest pool if it detects movement nearby. However, if you sit still for only a few minutes, you'll find yourself noticing many small crabs coming out to bask in the sun.

Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) at Natural Bridges. 22 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) at Natural Bridges.
22 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) at Natural Bridges. 22 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) at Natural Bridges.
22 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Here's a little tidbit about crab biology. All crustaceans breathe with gills. Any gas exchange structure, even your own lungs, functions by providing a surface across which oxygen can diffuse from the surrounding medium into the animal's blood. Aquatic animals breathe with gills (if they have any specialized gas exchange structures at all, that is) and air-breathing animals breathe with lungs.

These crabs are often seen out of the water, in the sun. How then, you may reasonably ask, do they breathe with gills? The answer is, they foam. They produce bubbles that keep the gills moist, allowing oxygen first to dissolve into a thin layer of water and then to diffuse into the blood. I'm not entirely certain exactly how the crab forms the foam, but suspect it has to do with manipulating a thin layer of secreted mucus to capture small air bubbles. You do see the crabs massaging the foam over their sides, where the openings to the branchial chambers are.

Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) bubbling at edge of mussel bed at Natural Bridges
2016-07-22
© Allison J. Gong

Hermit crabs are the undisputed clowns of the tidepools. Around here we have four species that are commonly seen in the intertidal, all in the genus Pagurus. Many other species in different genera can be seen subtidally.

The most easily identified hermit crab in these parts is, in my opinion, Pagurus samuelis. They have bright red unbanded antennae, and often have bright blue markings on their legs. This species usually inhabits the shells of the turban snail Tegula funebralis.

Blue-banded hermit crab (Pagurus samuelis) in tidepool at Natural Bridges. 22 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Blue-banded hermit crab (Pagurus samuelis) in tidepool at Natural Bridges.
22 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The other species that I saw today was the much smaller P. hirsutiusculus. The common name for this animal is "hairy hermit crab" but they don't seem all that hairy to me. They may be found in small Tegula shells, but I most often see them in shells of smaller snails such as Olivella biplicata.

"Hairy" hermit crab (Pagurus hirsutiusculus) in a tidepool at Natural Bridges. 22 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
"Hairy" hermit crab (Pagurus hirsutiusculus) in a tidepool at Natural Bridges.
22 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

There's another P. hirsutiusculus in that other Olivella shell in the right-side of the photo, but it did not want to have its picture taken.

All told it has been a very satisfying week. I may have overtaxed my concussed brain a little bit. My plan for the weekend is to revert back to the rest-and-do-nothing routine to let my brain recover. Totally worth it!

Every year, as early as Memorial Day or as late as Father's Day, there's about a week of really lovely low tides. This midsummer tide series usually includes the lowest low tides of the year, and we intertidal ecologists plan our field activities around them. Incidentally, there's a corresponding low tide series in the midwinter, too. However, at that time of year the lows are in the afternoon, and because the low occurs about 50 minutes later each day you're fighting darkness as you work the series. But in the summer, even if the first day of the tide series has a low tide before sunrise, that 50-minutes-later-each-day thing is really nice and you never have to worry about running out of daylight.

This year, the California Academy of Sciences sponsored several citizen science excursions called Bioblitzes to various locations on the California coast. The goal of these Bioblitzes was to document biodiversity in the intertidal in protected and non-protected areas of the coastline. Back in May I volunteered to lead a Bioblitz at one of the sites close to me, and planned to participate in a few others as well. In addition to actual organized Bioblitzes, citizens were invited to submit their own independent observations to the project.

Today is the three-week anniversary of the car accident that left me bruised and concussed. The bruises are pretty much healed at this point, and the soreness in my ribcage is also much improved. The medical advice I got for dealing with the concussion was, "Protect your brain from stimulation. Let it heal. And REST." So for the past three weeks I haven't been doing much of anything. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to go out on any of the midsummer low tides, as it didn't take much to overtax my injured brain and I didn't want to risk overextending myself. I did end up skipping the first Bioblitz of the week and modified my original plans for the rest of the tide series to play it safe and stay closer to home.

I'm still trying not to spend too much time on the computer (electronic screens are very bad for injured brains) so I'm going to summarize my week's activities in a single post. I'll keep the stories short. But I did want to share some of the things I saw.

Day 1 - Natural Bridges, Monday 6 June 2016, low tide -1.6 ft at 06:25

My first venture out by myself was to Natural Bridges. It's very close to my house and I figured that if I needed to bail I could walk out and be home within 15 minutes. It was cold and foggy and I felt energized just to be out there again.

Natural Bridges State Beach 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Natural Bridges State Beach
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Open ends of tubes of the polychaete worm Phragmatopoma californica. 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Open ends of tubes of the polychaete worm Phragmatopoma californica.
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Anthopleura sola in a tidepool at Natural Bridges. 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Anthopleura sola in a tidepool at Natural Bridges.
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

One of many healthy Pisaster ochraceus stars I saw at Natural Bridges. 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
One of many healthy Pisaster ochraceus stars I saw at Natural Bridges.
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Intertidal life at Natural Bridges. 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Intertidal life at Natural Bridges.
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

A woolly sculpin (Clinocottus analis) in a tidepool at Natural Bridges. 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
A woolly sculpin (Clinocottus analis) in a tidepool at Natural Bridges.
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) playing peek-a-boo at Natural Bridges. 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) playing peek-a-boo at Natural Bridges.
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Turns out this trip was about all my brain could cope with that early in the week. I skipped a Bioblitz up at Pigeon Point on Tuesday so I could stay home and rest, which ended up being a good call. A whole day of doing nothing was exactly what my concussed brain needed.


Day 2 - Mitchell's Cove, Wednesday 8 June 2016, low tide -1.1 ft at 08:02

The day of rest was enough to get me back out there on Wednesday. My friend Brenna met me at Mitchell's Cove for a morning of tidepooling. Mitchell's Cove is a popular, dog-friendly beach in Santa Cruz, particularly busy in the mornings and evenings. Last September it was visited by a juvenile humpback whale, which came right into the Cove and hung out there for several days. I didn't see any whales this week, but there was a surprising diversity of life in a relatively small area of rocky intertidal.

Rocky intertidal on the west end of Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Rocky intertidal on the west end of Mitchell's Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Pisaster ochraceus regenerating an arm, at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Pisaster ochraceus regenerating an arm, at Mitchell's Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

A small (~2 cm long) chiton, Mopalia muscosa, nicely camouflaged on a rock at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
A small (~3 cm long) mossy chiton, Mopalia muscosa, nicely camouflaged on a rock at Mitchell's Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

We have two species of surfgrass in northern California. At this time of year they are very lush and conspicuously green.

Two species of surfgrass at Mitchell's Cove. Phyllospadix torreyi (front) and P. scouleri (rear). 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Two species of surfgrass at Mitchell's Cove. Phyllospadix torreyi (front) and P. scouleri (rear).
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Phyllospadix scouleri, the species that has flatter, more ribbon-like leaves, was blooming. Its congener, P. torreyi, growing in almost exactly the same place, has narrow leaves that are more cylindrical in cross-section, and was not in bloom. Phyllospadix is a true marine plant; the flowers are inconspicuous swellings near the bottom of the leaves and the pollen is carried by water, rather than wind, to nearby plants.

Surfgrass (Phyllospadix scouleri) in bloom at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Surfgrass (Phyllospadix scouleri) in bloom at Mitchell's Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Flower of surfgrass Phyllospadix scouleri at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Flower of surfgrass Phyllospadix scouleri at Mitchell's Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

And I saw two species of hydroids! This one is easy to ID to the genus Aglaophenia, but I would need to examine it under a microscope to determine the species. I wasn't collecting anything on Wednesday so I don't know which species it is.

Hydroid (Aglaophenia sp.) at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Hydroid (Aglaophenia sp.) at Mitchell's Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This second hydroid is, I think, a species of Abietinaria. The hydroid colony is the pale orange stuff; the pink stuff is coralline alga.

Small clump of the hydroid Abietinaria sp. at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Small clump of the hydroid Abietinaria sp. at Mitchell's Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

And I saw an octopus! We know that they're in the intertidal, but they are so cryptic and clever at hiding that we don't see them very frequently. This one was definitely smarter than I was. Instead of scooping it out and placing it on dry ground so I could photograph it more easily, I chased it around a tidepool with my camera. Thus, this is the best picture I could get:

Small octopus (Octopus rubescens) in a tidepool at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Small octopus (Octopus rubescens) in a tidepool at Mitchell's Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Okay, you'll just have to take my word for it.


Day 3 - Davenport Landing, Thursday 9 June 2016, low tide -0.7 ft at 08:52

This was the day of my "official" Bioblitz. I had four participants--Brenna, Alice, Martha, and Andy. As of right now (Brenna hasn't yet uploaded her observations) the other four of us have made 120 observations, documenting 50 species. Here are some of mine:

Nudibranch (Hermissenda opalescens) at Davenport Landing. 9 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Nudibranch (Hermissenda opalescens) at Davenport Landing.
9 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Can you see Pisaster ochraceus hiding in this clump of mussels (Mytilus californianus)? 9 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Can you see Pisaster ochraceus hiding in this clump of mussels (Mytilus californianus)?
9 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Looking north towards Davenport Landing beach. 9 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Looking north towards Davenport Landing beach.
9 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

There are kelps, such as Egregia menziesii (feather boa kelp) whose habitat is the rocky intertidal. Most kelps, though, live subtidally, often in kelp forests. Nereocystis luetkeana, the bullwhip kelp, is one of the subtidal canopy-forming kelps. This one recruited to the intertidal. It is quite small and extremely cute; the float is only 2 cm in diameter.

A baby bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) at Davenport Landing. 9 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
A baby bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) at Davenport Landing.
9 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

A small moonglow anemone (Anthopleura artemisia) at Davenport Landing. 9 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
A small moonglow anemone (Anthopleura artemisia) at Davenport Landing.
9 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Algae look their best when immersed. Out of the water they usually collapse into stringy or gooey masses, making it difficult to appreciate their structural beauty. This piece of Microcladia borealis was submerged in a tidepool, and fortunately there was enough light that I could take this picture.

The beautifully delicate red alga, Microcladia borealis, at Davenport Landing. 9 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
The beautifully delicate red alga, Microcladia borealis, immersed in a tidepool at Davenport Landing.
9 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong


Day 4 - Natural Bridges, Friday 10 June 2016, low tide -0.2 ft at 09:42

Yesterday I returned with a former student, Daniel, to Natural Bridges. It was sunny and warm, completely different from how it had been on Monday. There were many boaters out on the bay, taking advantage of the glassy flat sea.

View of Monterey Bay from Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
View of Monterey Bay from Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

I've seen a lot of shore crabs running around on the rocks this year. On cool, damp days they just scurry about, but on warm sunny days they often sit still and literally foam at the mouth. The bubbles they produce keep their gills moist so they can still breathe even while emersed. This biggish shore crab was working up quite a froth.

Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) at Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) at Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Hermit crabs don't usually end up out of the water. This one was immersed in a tidepool, wearing the shell of the snail Olivella biplicata.

Hermit crab (Pagurus sp.) in shell of the snail Olivella biplicata, at Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Hermit crab (Pagurus sp.) in a tidepool at Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Nuttallina californica is one of the most common chitons seen around here. They often hunker down into small crevices where water will collect even at low tide. This individual was nestled among a clump of Phragmatopoma tubes; being closely surrounded by other animals will help keep its own body moist.

Nuttallina californica, one of the most common chitons at Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
The chiton Nuttallina californica at Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Unlike the hard granite that you'd find at the southern end of Monterey Bay, the rock at Natural Bridges is a soft, easily eroded mudstone. You can scratch it with your fingernail. Limpets take advantage of this soft rock by digging themselves little home scars, which conform perfectly to the contours of their shells and make a snug, water-tight fit. The limpet leaves its home scar to forage when the tide is in and returns to it as the tide recedes. The owner/occupant of this scar has likely died, as it wouldn't have abandoned its home scar when we were there at low tide.

Home scar of a limpet (Lottia sp.) at Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Home scar of a limpet (Lottia sp.) at Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

And speaking of limpets, Daniel and I spent a lot of time observing the owl limpet, Lottia gigantea. This limpet is noteworthy not only for its large size, but for its territorial behaviors. They are indeed large--the biggest ones I've ever seen are about the size of the palm of my hand--and the big ones are all females. Lottia gigantea is a protandrous hermaphrodite: individuals begin sexual maturity first as males, and then the lucky few turn into females.

Owl limpet (Lottia gigantea) at Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Owl limpet (Lottia gigantea) wearing a smaller limpet (Lottia sp.) at Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The truly remarkable thing about L. gigantea is its ability to modify the environment. The large females maintain an area called a farm, from which they diligently remove interlopers. They will scrape off settling larvae of barnacles and mussels, and will push off other limpets. Lottia farms are very common at Natural Bridges; if you are here and see a suspiciously empty patch of rock amid the mussel bed, look for a big limpet hanging out on the edge of the empty spot.

Farm of an owl limpet (Lottia gigantea) at Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Farm of an owl limpet (Lottia gigantea) at Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The owl limpet has a good reason for keeping other animals off her territory. It provides her food. This animal is indeed a farmer. See the pale zig-zag markings in the Lottia farm? Those are marks made by the limpet's radula as she grazes over the rock. All limpets are grazers, but L. gigantea actively manages her farm so that she feeds on one area while allowing the algal film to grow on other areas, then rotates to a new feeding spot as the old one becomes depleted. Pretty clever for a snail, isn't it?

It felt really good to spend some quality time with Mother Nature again. I'm still taking it very easy, careful not to get overtired and to continue letting my brain heal. Getting outside for even short periods definitely seems to help.

In recent years, citizen science has become a very important provider of biological data. This movement relies on the participation of people who have an interest in science but may not themselves be scientists. There is some training involved, as data must be collected in consistent ways if they are to be useful, but generally no scientific expertise is required. The beauty of citizen science is that it allows scientists and science educators to share the experience of discovery with people who might not otherwise know what it's like to really examine the world around them. I think it is a great step towards creating a less science-phobic society, one in which science informs policy on scientific matters.

LiMPETS stands for "Long-term Monitoring Program and Experiential Training for Students." The program seeks both to give students experience doing real science and to establish baseline and long-term ecological data for California's sandy shores and rocky intertidal areas. As an intertidal ecologist myself, I naturally wanted my students to participate in the rocky intertidal monitoring.

The LiMPETS coordinator for Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties is a woman named Emily Gottlieb. She and I decided to have my class monitor the site at Davenport Landing. Emily came to class two weeks ago to train the students in identifying the relevant organisms and recording the data.

Practice tidepooling, training for real-life monitoring in the intertidal. 15 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Practice tidepooling, training for real-life monitoring in the intertidal.
15 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Tidepooling is easy and comfortable when you do it inside a classroom seated at a table. But today was all about the real thing. It was overcast and breezy when we met up with Emily at 09:30 and headed out to the site. At first the students seemed to be a little skeptical about the whole thing.

Students get their first look at their morning workplace. 29 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Students get their first look at their morning workplace.
29 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

We were extremely fortunate to be joined this morning by Dr. John Pearse, Professor Emeritus of Biology at UC Santa Cruz, one of my graduate advisors, and the founder of LiMPETS. Dr. Pearse has been monitoring some sites, including this one at Davenport Landing, since the 1970s. He is THE person to talk to about intertidal changes in California over the past 40 years.

Years ago John set up permanent transect lines and plots at Davenport Landing, marking the origin of each transect with a bolt. The first thing we had to do when we got to the site was find the bolt. Then John ran out the transect line to the lowest point that students could work safely, given the conditions of tide and swell; this happened to be about 15 meters.

Dr. John Pearse runs out the vertical transect line. 29 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Dr. John Pearse runs out the vertical transect line.
29 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

For the vertical transect, 1/2-meter square quadrats were placed at each meter. Some organisms were counted as individuals and others were marked as either present or absent in each of the 25 small squares within each quadrat. Emily gave the students their assignments and data sheets, and they spread out along the transect line.

Students working the vertical transect. 29 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Students working the vertical transect.
29 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

LiMPETS sampling 29 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
LiMPETS sampling
29 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

LiMPETS sampling 29 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
LiMPETS sampling
29 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

LiMPETS sampling 29 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
LiMPETS sampling
29 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Aside from the experience of learning how to do this kind of data collection, I hope the students understand what a privilege it is to have been in the field with John Pearse. He has such a thorough understanding of the intertidal that he is a treasure vault of knowledge. Here he is explaining what owl limpets are all about:

Dr. John Pearse explains what owl limpets are and how to find them. 29 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Dr. John Pearse explains what owl limpets are and how to find them.
29 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Interestingly, we didn't find many owl limpets. And certainly not any of the big ones that I see all the time at Natural Bridges. John said that this is one of the differences between a protected area (Natural Bridges) and an unprotected one (Davenport Landing). Collecting is not allowed at Natural Bridges, and the owl limpets are left unmolested--by humans, at least--to grow large (10+ cm long is not uncommon). On the other hand, people do collect at Davenport and I've heard it said that owl limpets are good to eat; today we saw fewer than a dozen owl limpets and they were all small, none larger than 3 cm long.

The sun came out after a while, but the wind also picked up. The tide came up as well, and some of the students got more than a little wet. Overall they were real troopers, though, and I didn't hear much complaining. Next week is the last lab of the semester, and we'll be participating in another citizen science project. But that's a tale for another day.

I did take advantage of the beautiful setting to have one of Emily's LiMPETS volunteers (and a former student of mine!) take our class photo. Here we are, the Bio 11C class of 2016!

Class photo, taken at Davenport Landing. 29 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Class photo, taken at Davenport Landing.
29 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This morning I drove up the coast to Pigeon Point. It was cold and very windy, and I was grateful to have decided to wear all of my layers. I don't remember any cold mornings from last year's low tides, which made me think that perhaps we're returning to a more normal non-El Niño weather pattern. The wind was screaming down the coast from the north, and if it keeps up we should get some upwelling in a few days. Fingers crossed!

Even the pelicans, which can fly through strong winter storms, were having a bit of trouble with the wind:

Pelicans in flight over turbulent seas at Pigeon Point. 24 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Pelicans in flight over turbulent seas at Pigeon Point.
24 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

My favorite kelp grows in the intertidal, and it wasn't having any difficulty at all with the strong surf. It's not large and doesn't form the magestic kelp forests that divers flock to, but it is very charming in its own way. The sea palm Postelsia palmaeformis is a small  (1/3-1/2 meter tall) kelp that lives only on exposed rocks sticking out into the brunt of the waves. It requires the full force of the crashing waves, where other algae would get broken off. They have a thick flexible stipe that bends with the waves and then pops back up. Postelsia is a protected organism and I can't collect it even with my scientific collecting permit, which is fine with me.

Postelsia palmaeformis on exposed outer coast at Pigeon Point 24 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Postelsia palmaeformis on exposed outer coast at Pigeon Point
24 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This is the kind of environment in which Postelsia thrives:

You can tell how windy it was by the sound of the wind and my inability to hold the camera steady. As the tide comes in the pounding from the waves will only get worse. These little algae are pretty damn impressive!

Pigeon Point has always been a good place to see the 6-armed stars of the genus Leptasterias. Unlike the five arms that most of the local asteroids have, Leptasterias has six. And unfortunately for us naturalists, the taxonomy of the genus is incompletely understood. All that is agreed upon is that there are several species in the genus. This is referred to as a species complex, acknowledging that the genus contains more than one species but that the species have yet to be definitively described.

Leptasterias sp. at Pigeon Point. 24 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Leptasterias sp. at Pigeon Point.
24 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Leptasterias sp. at Pigeon Point. 24 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Leptasterias sp. at Pigeon Point.
24 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Leptasterias sp. at Pigeon Point. 24 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Leptasterias sp. at Pigeon Point.
24 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Leptasterias sp. at Pigeon Point. 24 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Leptasterias sp. at Pigeon Point.
24 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

As you can see, these stars vary quite a bit in terms of arm thickness and color pattern. Most of the time they are blotchy but the blotches can be pink, gray, orange, or cream-colored. Some of the stars have slender arms with very little taper, while others have thicker arms that taper strongly to the tips. For the time being, until the sea star systematists come to consensus about the species in this genus, I'll refer to all of them as Leptasterias sp.

Most of the Leptasterias that I see in the field are in the size range of 1-4 cm in diameter, usually no longer than my thumb. Today I saw a big one, which would have been about the size of the palm of my hand.

Leptasterias sp. at Pigeon Point. 24 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Leptasterias sp. at Pigeon Point.
24 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The reason this star doesn't look quite as big as that in the above photo is that it was eating when I disturbed it. The star was humped up over its breakfast!

Leptasterias sp. at Pigeon Point 24 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Leptasterias sp. at Pigeon Point
24 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The unfortunate breakfast item, the turban snail Tegula funebralis, was about 2 cm in diameter. It seems like a very large and well-protected prey item for a star this size, doesn't it? And yet, there it is. The animal is always right, and Leptasterias certainly knows what it should be eating.

And lastly, because they were just so beautiful and I can't help myself, I'm going to close with photos of anemones.

Anthopleura sola at Pigeon Point 24 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Anthopleura sola at Pigeon Point, surrounded by encrusting and upright coralline algae
24 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Anthopleura xanthogrammica at Pigeon Point 24 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Anthopleura xanthogrammica at Pigeon Point
24 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Anthopleura sola at Pigeon Point 24 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Anthopleura sola at Pigeon Point
24 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Take that, charismatic megafauna!

After pretty much neglecting us in February, El Niño has returned with a bang in March. Late yesterday and last night a weather station near me, more or less at sea level, recorded 4.67 inches of rain and wind speeds of 15 mph. Stations in the Santa Cruz mountains recorded close to 6 inches of rain yesterday, and there were patchy power outages throughout the county. This morning I woke to sunny, clear skies. Beautifully clear, with white puffy clouds. The forecast calls for another storm to head in this evening, giving me a window of opportunity to run up the coast and grab some mussels.

I have to say, El Niño's timing could be better. We have alternating weeks of spring and neap tides, and this winter the storms seem to be arriving during the spring tides. More than one tide series has been washed out because of storm surge and majorly big swell. I had figured that this would be the case today, so I didn't expect to get very far down in the intertidal. However the only thing I absolutely had to collect was mussels and I don't need a very low tide for those. It was very unlikely that I'd be unable to collect them, and at the very least I'd be able to take some photos.

Walking across the beach to the rocks, I noticed my first Velella of the season. As usual for these strangely wonderful animals they were gathered into windrows at the high tide level. Many of them were very small, less than 1 cm long, and the largest I saw was about the length of my thumb.

Velella velella stranded on the beach at Davenport Landing. 6 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Velella velella stranded on the beach at Davenport Landing.
6 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

While it is not at all unusual to find Velella washed up on the beach, I did find some in a place that I didn't expect. More on that in a bit.

Conditions in and on the water were pretty rough. There were no surfable waves, therefore no surfers. They'd have been beat up by the waves crashing in all directions.

Rough water at Davenport Landing Beach. 6 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Rough water at Davenport Landing Beach.
6 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

On a calmer day, the water at this beach can be glassy smooth with very gently breaking waves. Not so today:

Easily accessible beaches such as this one are typically crowded for these afternoon low tides. Most of the people there are just hanging out with their friends, family, and dogs. Every once in a while, however, I run into people who might not be entirely on the up and up. Much of the coast in California is designated as a marine protected area (MPA), and while allowed activities vary from MPA to MPA, in general I don't have permission to collect at any of them with my current state-issued scientific collecting permit. This means that collecting, both scientific and recreational, is concentrated into the few places where it is allowed.

Today I arrived at the parking area at the same time as a family of three adults and about five kids. The men were wearing wellies and carrying 5-gallon buckets. It was clear that they were going to be collecting something. I can't really say that I looked any different, in my hip boots and with my own bucket, so I just smiled a greeting to them and headed out on my way. Given that there was so little exposed rock, we were bound to keep running onto each other. At one such meeting I asked what they were doing, and they said they were collecting mussels to eat. I said I was, too, to use as food for animals at the marine lab. They asked what the limit was. I told them that I didn't know what the limit was for taking with a marine fishing license (assuming that they had one), but the limit for my collecting permit is 35. We nodded and went our separate ways.

Now, I'm not a game warden and it's not my job to enforce the state's rules about collecting, or even to see if other citizens have the appropriate permits or licenses. I generally feel that the better part of valor is to mind my own business. These guys today were friendly enough and completely non-threatening, but my gut instinct tells me that they didn't have a fishing license. Is that any of my business? I don't think so; yet as a citizen of this state I have a vested interest in protecting our wildlife from unlawful take. I know there aren't enough wardens to patrol all beaches all the time, and now that I think about it I don't know that I've ever been stopped by a warden on an afternoon low tide. The enforcement strategy seems to be to let citizens patrol each other, in the sense that skullduggery is less likely on a crowded beach in the broad daylight of afternoon than at the crack of dawn on a morning low tide.

Anyway, on to the matter at hand. I've noticed that recently my eye has been drawn to patterns that occur among whatever objects happen to be around. Scrambling down a little cliff and continuing up the coast I noticed these smears of algae growing on the vertical sandstone face. It's not that I hadn't seen them before, but because of the recent rain there was water running down the cliff face, which added a sheen to the green algae that they don't have when they're dry.

Streaks of green algae on sandstone cliff face at Davenport Landing. 6 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Streaks of green algae on sandstone cliff face at Davenport Landing.
6 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

At this site there are some little caves that you can get to at low tide. The tide wasn't low enough to reach the caves that go back any appreciable distance, but I did get to a small one. It was more of deep fissure than a cave, really, large enough to duck into but only a couple of meters deep. The really cool thing about it was the waterfall cascading over the opening. Again, without the runoff from yesterday's rain this little waterfall wouldn't even exist.

Also, there is quite a bit of stuff living inside the cavelet. Not much in the way of algae, of course, with the exception of both encrusting and upright corallines, but in terms of animals there was more or less the same fauna that I'd expect in the high-mid intertidal.

Cavelet at Davenport Landing Beach. 6 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Cavelet at Davenport Landing Beach.
6 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The biggest surprise in this little cave was Velella! A bunch of them had apparently gotten washed up into the fissure by the last high tide. I found them stuck amongst barnacles and algae.

Velella velella stuck to coralline alga inside cave at Davenport Landing. 6 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Velella velella stuck to coralline algae inside cave at Davenport Landing.
6 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This one was maybe half the length of my thumb. On the opposite side of the cave a crab was taking advantage of this unusual bounty.

Small shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) dining on a mangled Velella velella in a cave at Davenport Landing Beach. 6 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Small shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) snacking on a mangled Velella velella in a cave at Davenport Landing Beach.
6 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

I can't imagine there's much nutrition in a Velella for a crab, but the animal is always right even (especially?) when it doesn't make sense to us. The crab knows what it's doing.

All told, it was a short but very satisfying little jaunt to the intertidal. The clouds had spent the afternoon talking about whether or not to build to anything, and by the time I left they'd come to consensus. The wind is picking up now, the rain should start soon, and the National Weather Service says we may be in for thunderstorms tonight. I'm tucked up at home, warm and dry. Have a good evening, everybody!

Davenport Beach

While much of America was glued to the television watching a football game, I went out to the intertidal at Davenport Landing to do some collecting and escape from Super Bowl mania. The Seymour Center and I have a standing agreement that some animals--small hermit crabs and certain turban snails, for example--are always welcome, which gave me an excuse to look for them. I also needed to pick up some algae for labs that I'm teaching later this week, so it was an easy decision to be alone in nature for a couple of hours.

As usual, I was easily distracted by the animals, especially the anemones. They are simply the most photogenic animals in the rocky intertidal. And we have an abundance of beautiful anemones in our region; I feel very lucky to photograph them where they live. I would like to share them with you.

First up, Anthopleura sola:

Anthopleura sola 7 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Anthopleura sola specimen #1
7 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Anthopleura sola 7 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Anthopleura sola specimen #2
7 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong


Second species, Anthopleura xanthogrammica:

Anthopleura xanthogrammica 7 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Anthopleura xanthogrammica
7 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

One large and one small Anthopleura xanthogrammica 7 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
One large and one small Anthopleura xanthogrammica
7 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong


Along the central California coast we have four species of anemones in the genus Anthopleura. Two of them, A. xanthogrammica and A. sola, are large and solitary; in other words, they do not clone. The geographic ranges of these two species overlap in central California. Anthopleura xanthogrammica has a more northern distribution, from Alaska down to southern California, while A. sola typically lives from central California into Mexico.

I've seen these congeneric anemones living side-by-side in tidepools at Natural Bridges and at Davenport. Here is a photograph from yesterday. The animals are almost exactly the same size, and are separated by about 30 cm. Can you tell which is which?

So, which is which? 7 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
So, which is which?
7 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong


The pièce de résistance yesterday was a treasure trove of Anthopleura artemisia anemones. I'd seen and photographed them several times before, and always appreciated the variety of colors they come in. For some reason, though, yesterday they really caught my eye. I had a number of "Wow!" moments.

Anthopleura artemisia specimen #1. 7 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Anthopleura artemisia specimen #1.
7 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Anthopleura artemisia specimen #2 7 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Anthopleura artemisia specimen #2
7 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Anthopleura artemisia specimen #3 7 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Anthopleura artemisia specimen #3
7 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Sometimes two colors are combined:

Anthopleura artemisia specimen #4 7 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Anthopleura artemisia specimen #4
7 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Stunning, isn't it?

But this next anemone is unlike any I've ever seen before. Get a load of this:

Anthopleura artemisia specimen #5 7 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Anthopleura artemisia specimen #5
7 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

These stark white tentacles are new to me. The anemone measured about 4 cm across. In every other aspect it looks like A. artemisia, and I'm almost entirely certain that's what it is. It does feel special to me. I will hopefully be able to keep an eye on this individual and see if its colorless tentacles are a temporary or long-term condition. And now that my eye has been primed to see the colors that A. artemisia comes in, I may notice more unusual color morphs.

One of the best things about teaching is the opportunity to keep learning. Case in point: yesterday I attended an all-day teacher training session for the LiMPETS program, so that I can have my Ecology students participate in a big citizen science project in the rocky intertidal later this spring. In the Monterey Bay region LiMPETS is organized and run out of the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, where yesterday's training took place. LiMPETS has two ongoing citizen science projects, one looking at populations of mole crabs (Emerita analoga) on sandy beaches and the other monitoring population of several invertebrate and algal species on rocky shores. Of course, my interests being what they are I signed up for the rocky intertidal monitoring project.

We spent the morning learning about the history of the program and how to identify the organisms that are monitored, then after lunch went out to Point Pinos to collect some data and work through the process that we need to teach to our students. The day before we'd had a high surf advisory on the coast, and yesterday the swell was still big. We hiked out to the study site and set up the transect line, which runs from the top of a rock through the entire range of tidal heights to the low intertidal.

LiMPETS study site at Point Pinos. 6 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
LiMPETS study site at Point Pinos.
6 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

One of our instructors, the intrepid Emily, sets the transect line. 6 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
One of our instructors, the intrepid Emily, sets the transect line.
6 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Where Emily is standing is about 10 meters along the transect line. The monitoring protocol calls for sampling at every meter on the transect. One of the other teachers, Phaedra, and I were the only ones wearing hip boots, so we volunteered to work at the lowest spot. We thought we'd start with the 10-meter quadrat and hopefully get down to the 11-meter quadrat once the tide receded a bit more. Then we got hit by a few big waves and decided that discretion is the better part of valor and gave up. It was a pretty easy decision to make, especially after the quadrat got washed away and we had to go fetch it when the waves brought it back.

Field gear. 6 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Field gear.
6 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

All told the group collected eight quadrats of data. We had a little time to poke around (i.e., take pictures) before heading back to the museum for data entry.

A gorgeous chiton! 6 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
A gorgeous chiton! I don't know which species it is.
6 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Codium fragile, a filamentous green alga. 6 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Codium fragile, a filamentous green alga.
6 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Codium is an interesting alga. These cylindrical structures are composed of many filaments, which in turn contain multi-nucleate cells. Yes, the cells contain multiple nuclei. Codium fragile has the common name "dead man's fingers," I suppose because. . . well, I actually have no idea. As far as I can tell they don't feel anything like a dead man's fingers, or the way I imagine a dead man's fingers would feel.

There were quite a few empty abalone shells scattered among the rocks. As we were hiking out I found this shell. When I tried to pick it up I found that it was still alive, and well stuck to the rock. This is a very good sign, as the black abs have been suffering from withering syndrome, in which the animal gradually loses its ability to hang on.

Haliotis cracherodii, the black abalone, wearing a few barnacle friends. 6 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Haliotis cracherodii, the black abalone, wearing a few barnacle friends.
6 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

All in all, this workshop was a lot of fun. If I have to give up an entire Saturday to do training, it couldn't get much better than spending at least part of it in the intertidal. And Point Pinos is such a fabulous intertidal site that I certainly wouldn't turn down an opportunity to explore there again.

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The new moon is tonight, which of course means that we are in spring tides. Yesterday afternoon my friend and colleague Scott joined me for my first visit to the intertidal in 2016. And where to go for this inaugural field excursion of the new year, but to Franklin Point? Low tide was at 15:53 yesterday, so we met up at 14:00, stopped to fill up the gas tank, and headed up the coast. Expecting it to be crazy windy as afternoons tend to be on the coast, I had dressed in extra layers. Scott and I were surprised to emerge from the car and find it wasn't windy at all, so even though the air temperature was cool at least we didn't have to deal with any significant amount of windchill factor.

Hiking over the dunes we saw Unusual Thing #1--a bridal photo shoot. A couple of stretches of the trail are covered by a boardwalk, and on the first of these we encountered a bride decked out in full regalia--wedding dress, flowers, hair, make-up--and two photographers. They were very nice and let us pass through in our decidedly inelegant boots and field gear. I didn't think it would be very nice to take their picture. However, I did think that they'd lucked out and gotten a great day for photography: the aforementioned lack of wind meant that the bride wasn't freezing in her slip of a wedding dress, and the afternoon light was flat so there were no shadows or harsh glare.

Descending onto the beach we came across Unusual Thing #2--an elephant seal.

Male elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) hauled out on the beach at Franklin Point. 8 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Male northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) hauled out on the beach at Franklin Point.
8 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

It is e-seal haul-out time at Año Nuevo State Park a few miles down the road from Franklin Point, and I've seen them on the beach a few times before. This was the first time I'd seen an adult male, though, and he was HUGE! Without being stupid and going over to stand next to this animal it's hard to depict how large he is, and unfortunately there wasn't anything in the vicinity to give a sense of scale. So trust me, or look it up for yourself, male elephant seals are ginormous. This big guy was taking a siesta, and we could hear him snoring. He did wake up and lift his head to look at us, but we gave him plenty of room as we walked past and he returned to his nap.

One of the reasons I wanted to see Franklin Point after the El Niño storms of the past week was to see how much sand had been washed away from the beach. Sand typically accumulates on California coastal beaches during the dry storm-less months of summer and autumn, only to be flushed away by storms the following winter. After a particularly violent storm or a series of storms occurring in a short time, very large amounts of sand can be removed from a beach. For the past four years we haven't had much of a winter storm season (hence the awful drought) and the beach at Franklin Point has been tall and gently sloped. I'd grown accustomed to this state of affairs, which makes what we saw yesterday qualify as Unusual Thing #3--rocks that had been covered with sand for years and are now exposed.

To set the stage, here's a picture that I took on an afternoon low tide last year on 17 March 2015:

Franklin Point beach on 17 March 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Franklin Point beach on 17 March 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

And here's yesterday's photo from the same general area:

Franklin Point beach on 8 January 2016. © Allison J. Gong
Franklin Point beach on 8 January 2016.
© Allison J. Gong

Can you see how much steeper the beach is in yesterday's photo? And those rocks on the left side? They are not visible in the photo from last spring because they were under sand!

Here's a closer look at the newly exposed rocks:

Newly exposed rocks at Franklin Point. 9 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Bare rocks at Franklin Point.
9 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

You can see exactly how high the sand was last summer. What's really exciting is that these rocks represent pristine habitat that has yet to be exploited. I can look at primary ecological succession this spring! Well, at least until the sand returns and buries the rocks again.

As we meandered among the rocks in the intertidal, Scott and I both noticed an abundance of abalone shells. Fairly early on we spotted this black ab shell lying emersed above the water line:

Black abalone (Haliotis cracherodii) at Franklin Point. 8 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Black abalone (Haliotis cracherodii) at Franklin Point.
8 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Turning the shell over we saw Unusual Thing #4--an abalone showing signs of withering syndrome:

Ventral view of a black abalone (Haliotis cracherodii) at Franklin Point. 8 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Ventral view of a black abalone (Haliotis cracherodii) at Franklin Point.
8 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

We were actually surprised to see that the animal was alive. Healthy living abalone are firmly attached to rocks, tucked into crevices. This one wasn't attached to anything, just lying on the sand. We picked it up, turned it over, and found the body of the animal shriveled up and filling up only about half of the space it should have occupied. It didn't respond to gentle pokes but wasn't dead yet, or at least not dead enough to pass the stink test for deadness.

Withering syndrome is a bacterial disease that inhibits digestive function in abalone. To stave off starvation the infected animal begins to digest its own body tissues. As a result the entire body shrinks and eventually the foot can no longer stick to rocks. In California it affects black abs and red abs (H. rufescens). Until the recent years of warmer-than-usual water black abs (H. cracherodii) had been most common in southern California, but I've been seeing more of them in the past few years. Now it looks like the disease that plagues them has accompanied them up the coast. It's not surprising, given the current El Niño conditions.

This gives me another thing to keep an eye out for in my intertidal excursions. I'll start keeping track of abalone and see if withering syndrome becomes more prevalent. Might as well start with this afternoon's low tide!

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