Posts Tagged ‘behavior’

Benthic Natural History In Cowlitz Bay, Waldron Island.

Monday, February 4th, 2013

Passing into deeper water from the eelgrass beds found in the shallow nearshore environments of many embayments of the American San Juan Islands, the highly organic muddy sand substrate is typically replaced by a less organic or “cleaner” mixture of sand and silt.  Such a transition is certainly the case in Cowlitz Bay of Waldron Island.  I can verify that the silty-sand substrate continues to, at least, a depth of 50 m (165 feet).   Except for emergent rocky outcrops, this habitat type is likely characteristic of all the deeper water of Cowlitz Bay and the nearby San Juan Channel and Boundary Passages.

The tidal ranges that distinguish this region, coupled with its geography, mean that high tidal currents are the norm, and the volume of tidal water movement is immense.  All of this, added to the dense, rich plankton found in those waters creates a habitat that is probably nearly optimal for suspension feeders.  As a result, virtually all of the hard subtidal real estate is occupied some sort of organism specialized to grab food or nutrients from the water moving past them.  Subtidal rocky substrates are often characterized by dense populations of suspension-feeding epifaunal sea cucumbers.  And, although it may seem unlikely, some of the unconsolidated, silty-sand, habitats are also dominated by dendrochirote holothurians, albeit in this case these cases they are infaunal, not epifaunal.  Infaunal sea cucumbers dominate the subtidal Cowlitz Bay benthic environment below 10 m.    

0 - Pentamera cf populifera 11vii77 6m Cowlitz Bay, Waldron Id. 01 Juveniles

Pentamera individuals extending from the bottom of Cowlitz Bay, 11 July, 1977.  The abundance of the adult animals exceeds 20,000/m2 (about 0.2 m2) is visible.

Pentamera sp. indivdiual with some of the many juveniles in the sediment circled.  Taken 11 July, 1977.

Pentamera sp. adult indivdiual with some of the many juveniles in the sediment circled. Taken 11 July, 1977.  The juveniles become evident in the sediments in early summer, indicating spawning likely occurs in the spring.

Although a few other species are rarely found, the vast majority of these suspension-feeding, infaunal cukes belong to a few species of Pentamera.  The individuals belonging to the different species are relatively similar in size, shape, and coloration making them effectively indistinguishable in the field by non-specialists, so I will refer to them all as Pentamera.  Living buried in the sediments they feed by extending a small portion of the oral end of the body above the sediments.  This exposes just a bit of the animal, primarily the mouth, and its surrounding crown of highly-branched feeding tentacles.   

White, and only about 2 or 3 cm long, these relatively small sea cucumbers are often found in beds so very dense that in the summer, the benthic sediment appears snow-covered due to the many tentacles visible.  In the clear water of the late autumn and winter plankton-free periods, these holothuroids do not feed.  Presumably quiescent, they remain buried under the sediment surface.  During these seasons, the habitat looks relatively barren; with only scattered larger animals, such as individuals of tube anemones, Pachycerianthus fimbriatus, orange sea pens, Ptilosarcus gurneyi, snake-skin stars, Luidia foliolata, sunflower stars, Pycnopodia helianthoides, or weather-vane scallops, Patinopecten caurinus being evident to the casual observer. 

Patinopecten caurinus, the Weather Vane Scallop, about 15 cm (6" in) in diameter. Photographed in the Summer (June, 1977).  Note the visible Pentamera cukes.

Patinopecten caurinus, the Weather Vane Scallop, about 15 cm (6″ in) in diameter. Photographed in the Summer (June, 1977) on the benthic subtrate of Cowlitz Bay; note the abundant Pentamera cukes.

Patinopecten caurinus.  Area as before, except it was photographed in the ealry winter (December, 1976).  Note the lack of visible cukes.

Patinopecten caurinus. Area as before, except it was photographed in the ealry winter (December, 1976). Note the lack of visible cukes.

With beginning of the diatom bloom starting in February, smaller life “returns to”, or more correctly, becomes evident again on the benthos.  The sediment becomes covered completely with a thick and rather ugly, dense dark brown film, consisting of several species of microalgae, primarily diatoms and dinoflagellates. 

Unidentified Polyclad Turbellarian, photographed in April, 1983.  The "black material" is the diatom film that is found in this area in the spring.

Unidentified Polyclad Turbellarian, anterior end to the left, photographed on April, 1983 on the substrate in Cowlitz Bay.  The “black material” is the diatom film that is found in this area in the spring.

By early March, many turbellarian flatworms of several visually distinctive types are commonly found gliding over the brown algal film and sediments.  These small worms, each only a few millimeters long, may be distinguished by their differing shapes and color patterns.  Although common, at least in the spring, virtually nothing is known of their natural history.  Shortly after the worms become common, small caprellid amphipods, otherwise known as “skeleton shrimp”, seem to appear out of nowhere and are soon found covering the diatom film.  These small, about a centimeter (0.4 inch) long, animals reproduce rapidly and soon reach abundances around 1 animal per square centimeter, or a density of 10,000 animals per square meter.  As they become common, pelagic predators, such as ctenophores and chaetognaths, may be observed grabbing copepods off the bottom and swimming back up into the overlying water.

A Sagitta (planktonic chaetognath carnivore) photograph near the bottom, hunting for caprellids.

A Sagitta (an almost completely transparent planktonic chaetognath and a predator normally on zooplankton) photographed near the bottom, where I have seen other individuals grab caprellids.

 By the middle of March, the spring plankton are in full bloom and the Pentamera are beginning to feed.  By moving up and down in the sediment, the resulting bioturbation soon destroys the diatom film, and the sediment becomes relatively clean again.  Snake-skin stars, Luidia foliolata, are common in this habitat where these sea cucumbers are their principal prey.  Caprellid amphipods, Caprella gracilior, and small hermit crabs are often seen on the aboral surface of the stars.  The Luidia-sized, star‑shaped, feeding depressions, along with the small piles of regurgitated remains attest to the star’s feeding habits.  Pycnopodia helianthoides is also commonly found in these beds and may also feed on the sea cucumbers.  Some aspects of the natural history of Luidia in this habitat will be discussed in subsequent post.

 Individuals of the large, up to 15 cm (6 inches) in diameter, weathervane scallops, Patinopecten caurinus, rather rare elsewhere in the San Juans, are found not uncommonly in these cucumber beds.  They are found lying in shallow, somewhat bowl-shaped, depressions probably created over time by the scallops’ feeding currents which might gently displace and excavate the sediments.  Eaten by the sunflower star, the scallops will swim in response to being touched by the predator.  They are not particularly vigorous swimmers, however, nor do they seem to start swimming immediately, thus they could be captured relatively easily.  Their shells are a common feature in this habitat, so presumably some predators are capturing them.  These large shells, either living or dead, provide about the only hard substrate in these habitats, and are often covered with barnacles, algae, or occasionally attached bryozoans or hydroids. 

Maroon more pachycerianthis

Both color varieties or “morphs” of  Pachycerianthus fimbriatus found in the benthos of Cowlitz Bay.

The tube-dwelling anemone, Pachycerianthus fimbriatus, is particularly common in this habitat, and becomes very abundant just below the dense Pentamera beds in the more silty habitats of the steeply sloping areas.  Pachycerianthus individuals may be colored either gray or a dark brown to maroon.  These do not appear to represent separate species, and the different colors have no known significance.  Close examination of the anemones will show some very small epifaunal, possibly stenothoid, amphipods visible as small dots moving over the anemone’s body and tentacles.  During the spring and early summer periods of dense plankton, it is possible to watch the Pachycerianthus catch copepods, and other small crustacean zooplankton, with their long tapering, thin, tentacles. 

An ectoparasitic or commensal stenothoid amphipod on a Pachycerianthus tentacle.  Assuming the tentacles are about the same size (and they are) compare this amphipod to the hyperiid amphipod captured as food by a different tube anemone (next illustration).

An ectoparasitic, or commensal, stenothoid amphipod on a Pachycerianthus tentacle.  Assuming the tentacles are about the same size (and they are) compare this amphipod’s size to that of the hyperiid amphipod captured as food by a different tube anemone (next illustration).

A small Pachycerianthus fimbriatus with a captured planktonic hyperiid amphipod (arrow).

A small Pachycerianthus fimbriatus with a captured planktonic hyperiid amphipod (arrow).

 These slightly deeper habitats where Pachycerianthus is most common, ranging downward from about 10m (33 feet) in depth, have a silty sand substrate.  Pentamera are found in these regions, they are just not as abundant as they are in the dense assemblages in shallower water.  Individuals of the orange sea pen, Ptilosarcus gurneyi, are well represented in these deeper habitats, and although they are not as abundant here as they are in the dense sea pen beds of the lower Puget Sound region, they are nonetheless found relatively frequently.  Occasionally, a different type of pennatulacean, a sea whip, may be found.  In the genus Virgularia, these whips are narrow pennatulaceans, with short “leaves”.   At least two species within this genus found in our waters and they are not terribly difficult to distinguish in the field.  The species found in Cowlitz bay is small, tan to whitish, with small “leaves” and is seldom over 15 cm (6 inches) in height.  The feeding zooids often appear to arise from directly from the central stalk.   The other species, found in other areas, such as Lopez Sound, is larger and more robust, pink to orange, and often reaches heights of 50 or more centimeters.  This species has larger relatively distinct “leaves” with the gastrozooids on them. 

A small, about 8 cm (3.5 in) high, pennatulacean, probably a species of Virgularia.

A small, about 8 cm (3.5 in) high, pennatulacean, probably a species of Virgularia.

 Several nudibranch species are also found in these areas, most of which are probably preying on the cnidarians.  The largest and most evident of these are individuals of Dendronotus iris.  These are amongst the largest local snails; in this area they often reach lengths exceeding 25 cm (10 inches) which is probably due to the high abundances of their preferred prey, the Pachycerianthus anemones.  They approach the anemones by slowly crawling under the tentacle crown, to where the anemones extend from their tube.  They, then, reach up rapidly, bite, and hang on to either a mass of tentacles or even the anemone’s column.  Generally, the Pachycerianthus rapidly withdraws into its tube when it is bitten, and in these cases, it often pulls the predator in with it.  Sometime later, the Dendronotus iris often crawls out of the now empty tube, and may set off in search of another anemone.  The nudibranch may, at times, lay its loosely coiled egg masses attached to the Pachycerianthus tube, bits of shell, or just bits of the sediment.

0 - Dendronotus iris Cowlitz Bay, Waldron Id. -7m 11vii77 WA 01

A 10 cm (4 inch) long Dendronotus iris in Cowlitz Bay. Photographed at a depth about 7 m. This large nudibranch reaches over 30 cm (12 inches) in length, and eats Pachycerianthus. 

Other nudibranch specimens are found in the area, and they can be relatively common at certain times of the year.  Dendronotus albus specimens will be found occasionally, preying on those few hydroids that are found attached to the shell fragments or other hard substrata present on the sediment surface.  These nudibranchs are slender and may reach lengths of about 10 cm.  The basic ground color is white, but the tips of the branched cerata are tipped in orange.  Individuals of another dendronotid, Dendronotus albopunctatus, are often abundant in the spring.  These animals are brown to pink and freckled with small light dots.  They only reaches lengths of 2 to 3 cm (up to about 1.5 inches), but they are recognizable by their somewhat “oversized”, relatively large, “front” cerata, which are often about a centimeter in length.  Little is known of the natural history of this species, although it is likely a predator on small cnidarians.

Dendronotus albus.

Dendronotus albus is a not uncommon, small, about 3 cm, (1.2 inches) long, nudibranch in habitats such as those found in Cowlitz Bay.  It eats hydroids, as this individual was doing when photographed

0 - Dendronotus albopunctatus Cowlitz Bay, Waldron Id. -9m 28iv83 WA 01

Dendronotus albopunctatus, about 3 cm (1.2 inches) long on the sediment of Cowlitz Bay.  It also has been seen to eat hydroids.

0 - Acanthodoris brunnea, Cowlitz Bay, Waldron Id.,  -9m, 13v86  WA 01

Acanthodoris brunnea, about 2 cm (0.8 inch) long, photographed on the sediment of Cowlitz Bay.  Reported to eat bryozoans, this dorid species is found on muddy-sand, a habitat notably lacking in bryozoans.  In this region and habitat, it is likely eating something other than bryozans.

Acanthodoris brunnea is another nudibranch species that is somewhat common at times in this habitat; little is known of its natural history.  These animals are small dorids, roughly the same size as Dentdronotus albopunctatus, reaching lengths of 2 to 3 cm (up to about 1.5 inches).  Their basic coloration is brown; the individuals are covered with distinctive relatively large papillae on the back.   This species is considered to be predatory on bryozoans, but that is unlikely in this region as bryozoans are exceedingly rare in this habitat.

Also found in these areas are pennatulid-eating nudibranchs in the genus Tritonia.  The most abundant of these are individuals of the small white Tritonia festiva, described in the earlier post on sea pen beds.  Here, as well, T. festiva individuals seem to prey on Ptilosarcus.  Individuals of the larger, orange nudibranch, Tritonia diomedea, are also occasionally seen in these areas.  They seem to prefer the larger Virgularia as prey.  

Large shelled gastropods are relatively rare in this particular habitat, although several smaller species can be very abundant.  Perhaps the largest commonly found gastropod, and certainly one of the most beautiful, is the wentletrap,  Epitonium indianorum.  These animals are often found buried near to the bases of the tube anemones upon which they feed.  As with most snails, wentletraps have a feeding organ called a radula; unlike the “classic” gastropodan radula which functions something like a rasp, filing off pieces of tissue, the wentletraps’ radulae are highly modified and look like an inverted thimble lined on the inside with sharp teeth.   A wentletrap crawls up to the anemone and pokes the anemone with its radula everting the “thimble” in the process.  This turns the radula inside out, which in turn, carves a circular hole in the tissues on the side of the anemone.   The lacerated tissues are eaten, and the snail extends its proboscis which has the radula on its tip through the hole and proceeds to use the radula to cut up and eat other internal anemone tissues.  These snails reach lengths of 3 cm or more, and don’t seem to move much once they have found an anemone to feed on.  It is recognized by the distinct axial ribs, the rounded aperture, and the relatively high spire.

 One cephalopod can be relatively common in the lower slope areas, the Pacific Bob‑Tailed Squid, Rossia pacifica.  This small benthic squid lives buried in the bottom during the day.  If a diver is careful, they can sometimes see the slight depression that the Rossia occupies, and then can make out the eyes watching him.  The hole for the siphon is generally visible and if approached carefully, one can see the regular breathing movements of the mantle.  Rossia pacifica reaches lengths of about 10 cm, and seems to live about a year or eighteen months.  They have an interesting, stereotyped, escape response which I have described, briefly, in a previous post.  This small squid preys on small shrimps, crabs, and fishes, and is a nocturnal hunter.

Well, that’s enough for now… :-)

More later,

Cheers, Ron







Thursday, August 18th, 2011


Recently I started scanning my images of scaphopods, an animal group from which very few people have seen living animals.  I did a lot of research on them actually starting about 1975, and becoming intensely active in 1983 and finally winding down about 1997.  I still have a paper or two to write but I haven’t done any field work in a long time.  I described two deep-sea species (1, 2) from specimens sent to me, but most of my work has been done on the scaphopods found in the shallow waters of the Northeastern Pacific.  Scaphopods are particularly common in many of the fjord environments north of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  I spent some small amount of time examining their distribution in the waters of Northern Puget Sound, particularly in the northern American San Juan Islands.  In this area, two species of scaphopods, Rhabdus rectius and Pulsellum salishorum are found, and may be reasonably common in a few areas.   There a couple of marine research laboratories/field stations in that region, but as far as I know, I am the only person in the last half century who has worked at one of those labs and done any kind of research on scaphopods.

During the period from 1981 until 2003, I taught at various times at a Canadian marine station located in Bamfield, British Columbia, situated on a small inlet on the southeast side of Barkley Sound, a large fjord system on the west side of Vancouver Island.  This marine laboratory, known as the Bamfield Marine Station from its beginning in the 1970s until it morphed into the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre in the early 2003, offers easy access to some of the scaphopod habitats of the Barkley Sound region.  For the two-year period from September of 1983 until September of 1985, I was the Assistant Director of the marine station, and actively carried out an intensive project on scaphopod ecology and natural history.  Subsequent to that time, I worked up data collected during that period, as well as initiating other scaphopod work, mostly with specimens sent to me by various researchers.   As a result, I have published about a half dozen research papers on scaphopods, and have a couple of more in the works… if I can only get my act together enough to finish them.

The Critters

Scaphopods, or “tusk” or “tooth” shells are mollusks that live as subsurface predators in the marine sandy or muddy sea bottom.  Covering an estimated 60% of the planetary surface, this is THE largest habitat in on the planet’s surface.  As the scaphopods are either abundant or dominant predators in this habitat, that makes them some of the most ecologically important animals. 

By last count there are about 8 to 10 people living today who have published papers on scaphopods, which may make them the most understudied of all important marine animals.  Given that a number of those people are museum workers whose entire conception of the Molluscan Class Scaphopoda is that it is a collection of oddly shaped shells, it is evident that the world-wide scientific interest in the group is probably so close to nil as to be statistically indistinguishable from it.

This means that to a very real extent, that anybody who works on scaphopods as a full, or even part-, time venture is on their way to committing, or has committed, scientific/academic suicide.  While it is true, to paraphrase one of my old profs, “If only five people work on your group, you can’t be ranked any lower than the fifth most prestigious worker on the group.” 

However, if only five people work on your group of interest, it means nobody will care what you write.  So, the good side is that everybody working on the group knows who you are. On the other hand, nobody else in the world – or known universe – cares who you are or anything about the animals…  If there is so little interest in group worldwide, no matter how good your publications are, they will simply disappear into the large black cesspool of unread papers as nobody will care about you write.  

Well, who am I to argue?  I will state, however, in my defense, after that statement that I am the senior author of the definitive reference about the animals published to date:  Shimek, R. L., and G. Steiner.  1997.  Scaphopoda.  In:  Harrison F., and A. J. Kohn, Eds. Mollusca IIMicroscopic Anatomy of the Invertebrates. Volume 6B: 719-781.  Wiley-Liss Inc. New York, NY.  ISBN 0-471-15441-5.   Whooopty-doooo…


Five species of Scaphopods found in the Barkley Sound region of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.  The scale bar is in millimeter.

From top to bottom, Pulsellum salishorum, upper two rows, females on the left, males on the right, next single row, Cadulus tolmiei, female left, male right, below that species is a single row of two Gadila aberrans, female left, males right, The next two individuals are Rhabdus rectius, female on the top, male on the bottom, and the lower-most individual is a single specimen of Antalis pretiosum (formerly Dentalium pretiosum), the “Indian Money Shell.”  These individuals were alive at the time, and in the high definition of the moment, the top four species have shells that are thin enough to be translucent, and the gonads from each gender are differently colored, so I could discrimate the sexes.  It is hard to see in the low res image here, but if you look at the top animals on the left, you can see a hint of pink in the shell, and that is the color of the ovaries of Pulsellum salishorum.


Scaphopods were very economically important animals in the North American native cultures.  Given the common name of the “Indian Money Shell,” one species, at one time called “Dentalium pretiosum,” was collected and traded throughout large parts of Northern North America.  Here is an image from a National Geographic Magazine article about the trade; I was a technical advisor to the NGM for that article.  The scaphopods were harvested in by some of the tribes from the Pacific Northwest, both in what would become Canada and the U.S.  There are numerous “tales” about how the shells were collected, and at least two different and likely ways of collecting them.  Knowing what I found out about the habits of that species (now called Antalis pretiosum), it appears that very few of the actual living animals were collected, but rather shells containing small hermit crabs the primary source of “scaphopods.”  There is a hermit crab in the region were the scaphopods are found that is not coiled to fit into a snail shell as are most hermit crabs, rather this one, Orthopagurus mimumus, has a straight body and lives preferentially in the large “dentalium” shells.  The crabs crawl around on the surface of the habitat, while the living animals are generally deeply under the surface, at least a foot (30 cm) below the water/sediment interface.  In fact, the living scaphopods all have a rapid burrowing response – an exposed scaph is a dead scaph – as crabs and fish eat them.  In text books and references, they are often illustrated as having their pointed ends exposed from the sediments, and some are found this way,  between1 in 60, to 1 in about 10,000 depending on the species I have looked are exposed at any one time.   So much for the standard references…  More about why this should be so in my next issue of this blog.

Anyway, one of the more recent “proofs” of the hypothesis that it was mostly dead scaphopod shells inhabitated by hermit crabs that were collected actually comes from one of the National Geographic Magazine sites.  They have a series of images purported to be Antalis pretiosum, all of dead scaphopod shells taken by David Doubilet, and  all showing hermit crabs showing hermit crabs in the shells.  Doubilet was apparently in search of the wily dentalium and, by golly, he got some pictures of it… or at least of its shell.   Interestingly enough, there is an image also on their site showing Antalis pretiosum feeding below the sediment surface.  This wonderful image is a painting by Gregory A. Harlin, and it clearly shows that scaphopods don’t have legs…  Of course, Doubilet didn’t look at the painted image.   One further note that adds even more humor to this bit of fubardom (fubar = fucked up beyond all recognition) is that Harlin’s painting was done for the previously mentioned earlier article in NGM about the dentalium trade for which I was a technical advisor.  Harlin based his painting on my drawing of Rhabdus rectius feeding below the sediment surface that was used in Shimek and Steiner, 1997. 

A diagram of Rhabdus rectius shown in its feeding posture below the sediment surface, drawn in life from animals in aquaria. Compare with the painting by Gregory A. Harlin,

The dentalium shells collected on the coast were traded through out North America, at least as far east as the Great Lakes and were quite valuable.  They were used in the construction of jewelry and as ornamentation on clothing.  I have read, with no real estimate of the validity of the statement, that one or two of them could be exchanged for a tanned buffalo hide.  Consider that when you look at the image I have imbedded below.


Plains Indian neck ring jewelry in the collection of the Burke Museum,University of Washington, Seattle, Washington.

It has been reported, that given that the shells of the animals were quite valuable, it stands to reason that the one of the first things the Europeans did (in the guise of the Hudson’s Bay Company) was to “devalue the currency” by flooding the market with “counterfeit” shells.  When the HBC traders began to realize how valuable the shells were, they sent word back up the communications chain, and European shells were harvested in some relatively great numbers.  The European species, Dentalium entale, is/was essentially identical to Dentalium pretiosum and easily collected (and remember, both are now in the genus Antalis).  These were sent to HBC traders throughoutNorth America and used to purchase all sorts of trade goods.  So many shells became available that this sufficiently brought the value of the shells down so low as to make them worthless as trade goods for the coastal tribes as they could not harvest enough to get the traditional materials (such as buffalo robes, and they became dependent upon the HBC to sell them blankets).  If this is true, it is a great (?) lesson in market economics…

More on scaphs later….

Until then…

Cheers, Ron



Monday, August 8th, 2011

Although they look like they are nudibranchs, the two snail species featured in today’s posting are surely not nudibranchs, even if one is kind of sluggish in form and fashion.  The larger of the two, Gastropteron pacificum, is a bubble shell, meaning it has a shell that looks quite like a soap bubble and it is about as durable.  When sitting on the bottom, the animal is about the size of a grape.  The sides of the animal’s foot are expanded into two long lateral lobes that are normally folded up over the animal, but virtually nothing of the animal is normally visible as it is generally covered in a mucous sheet which, in turn, is covered by sediment particles.  The animal looks like a lump of mud on a bottom that is covered in lumps of mud, and so this is pretty good camouflage.  

Gastropteron pacificum, a stationary lump of pseudo-mud. The pink structure is a fleshy, tubular, siphon that brings in breathing water. 

Gastopteron pacificum individuals are found frequently in the spring in waters of the North American “Pacific Northwest” and if a diver ventures into its gorpy, mucky, muddy habitat – otherwise known when I was working in these areas, as a “Shimek study site” –  one can often see the trails left by these little guys as they move around, presumably in search of food or a mate. 

Gastropteron pacificum, leaving a trail in the mud as it crawls from there to here.

They are probably detritivores, as they are reported to eat detritus and diatoms in the laboratory, but I am not sure what they eat in nature, and neither, to the best of my knowledge, is anybody else.  I don’t think they have been studied in any detail which, if true, is quite a pity as they are neat little critters.  When something startles them – a diver (me) in my case for the photograph, or the presence of a bottom-feeding fish, such as the ratfish, Hydrolagus colliei, the little snail unfolds its foot flaps and flaps away.  They are quite strong swimmers and this appears to often be an effective escape response.  

Hydrolagus colliei

This “rat fish,” or “chimerid,” is a cartilaginous-skeletoned fish but obviously not a shark.  Individuals in this particular species can reach about 70 cm (28 inches) in length. Rat fishes are some of the most common predators in the soft-sediment ecosystems of the NE Pacific, and some of my unpublished data indicate they feed on mollusks, annelids, and echinoderms. 

A Gastropteron pacificum individual.

This little animal is swimming away from the most fearsome and horrific predator of all, a diver – in this case, of course, me.  I was sensed, probably by my water disturbances, and it then took off, and stayed waterborne for about 2 minutes.  Although Gastropteron swimming appears to be undirected, given the currents in the region, it will likely cover some distance before it quits swimming and falls back to the bottom.

If the Gastropteron is successful in its life, it find a good friend and they will do the snaily version of the “wild thing” resulting some time later in the deposition of some jelly-like “egg masses” attached to the bottom.  These are filled with small fertilized eggs (zygotes) that develop within the misnamed egg mass, which eventually dissolves releasing the larvae into the plankton. 

A group of Gastropteron “egg,” actually embryo, masses. I don’t know if all of these are deposited by one individual or if they aggregate during spawning to deposit the jelly-like masses (many snails in this region do form spawning aggregatations).

However, they don’t get a break!  There is a small sacoglossan slug, Olea hansinensis, in the area that searches out and eats the eggs of Gastropteron and its relatives.    

Olea hansinensis.

This is a small sacoglossan slug that eats eggs of cephalaspidean snails, such as Gastropteron.  This one was about 3 mm (1/8th inch) long, but larger individuals are said to reach about 13 mm, or half an inch in length.

More later,

Until then,






Saturday, February 12th, 2011

One of my favorite animals is the little sepiolid squid found in the Pacific Northwest, Rossia pacifica.  So…

I thought I would just post a few images of this wonderful small squid.  The next two images were taken sequentially as rapidly as my strobes would recycle.   The color change occurring in response to the strobe’s flash was impressive and “instantaneous.”

Rossia pacifica, in one of my research localities.

A Rossia that has changed color in response to my strobes. This is the same individual shown in the preceding image.

 The animal below saw me coming and watched me.  It moved a bit but not too much as I approached, presumably a predator, such as  a dog fish (Squalus) would try to catch a swimming squid, and .  When I got about a meter away, it turned “white;” at the ambient light at that depth it really just matched to bottom color.

A Rossia that "went white" when it saw me approaching. NOT a happy critter!

 Individuals of Rossia have a very stereotyped escape response.  It appears to be a response to slow patrolling predators on the bottom fauna, particularly dogfish sharks.  The sepiolid lauches from the bottom and swims about 30 to 40 cm above the bottom more-or-less in a straight line inking every few meters.  When it should ink the last time, it doesn’t, but it turns dark, throws its arms up in a “scatter” posture and drifts like an ink blot until it hits the bottom, whereupon it bleaches (which makes it effectively disappear) and rapidly covers itself with sediments.

Rossia in its "drifting" posture. This posture will occur prior to the animal dropping to the bottom and covering itself with sediment.


This is an ink blot made a swimming "escaping" Rossia. Unfortunately, the sediment in the water obscures it somewhat, but it mantains a coherent shape roughly that of a swimming squidlet.

Rossia drifting and mimicking an ink blot. It has already inked a couple of times, and is not actively swimming, but is just drifting in the current.

After the successful escapes, eventually eggs are laid and after several months they hatch.  The first image is of an egg clutch.  The next two are of a newly-hatched, itsy-bitsy, baby Rossia


Rossia pacifica egg capsules on an old discarded coffee mug. The capsules are about a centimeter long.

A newly-hatched Rossia. Less than a 1 cm long, this animal is probably only a few days post hatching..

A baby Rossia swimming. When this color pattern occurs as the animal is swimming, it effectively "disappears" and becomes very cryptic as it swims or drifts over the substrate.

This last image is of a Rossia watching me as I took its picture.  Who could resist those eyes? 

A Rossia watching me; it was about 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) long.

Until next time,

Angels of Death

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Hi Folks,

Here are a couple of great links pirated from the Deep Sea News blog.

The subject of that blog’s discussion is what the author calls “sea angels,” rather beautiful predatory swimming snails in the genus Clione.   Embedded below is a movie of one swimming lifted from YouTube.   These pretty liddle snails were called “sea butterflies” in the Pacific NW – off the British Columbia and Washington coasts, where I had many chances to observe them, both during and after my graduate studies.

In that area, the common species reaches lengths of about 2 cm – 3cm, roughly an inch or so, but most of the individuals I have seen have been smaller.   These are shell-less snails, found in the water of the colder oceans through out the world.  They swim all their lives.

“Sea angels” and “sea butterflies” ….. ah…. such cute names…

Sorta like calling a hunting tiger, “Fluffy,” or a semi-starved, very hungry, fresh-from-hibernation-and-in-a-(REALLY)-bad-mood Grizzly bear, “Snuggles.”  

Individuals in Clione species snails are specialized predators that appear obligately bound to eat only another pelagic swimming snail.  At least that is the reading from the snail biology gospel; in reality I don’t think they have been studied well enough to know if they have any alternative prey.   While Clione individuals lack shells, their prey do have shells and look rather like a regular snail; both species have large extensions of their foot which they flap like wings.  This gives all of these snails the group name of Pteropods, or “wing-foot,” snails. 

I have embeded another movie, this one showing Clione individuals attacking and eating their prey, Limacina.  And as you watch the movie, I think you will see why I consider the name of Sea Angel to be a bit…. inappropriate.  Unless, that is, it is modified to be the “Sea Angel of Death.”

Swimmers near bathing beaches should be thankful that Clione individuals don’t reach about 2 m long (6.6 ft) and have a taste for humans.

A few times when I was teaching a course about Marine Invertebrates at a university field station/marine laboratory on Vancouver Island, I was lucky enough to be able to have had my theaching assistants collect some individuals both Clione and Limacina within a day or two of one another.   For the class, I would take a large graduated cylinder – these are about 3 feet long and several inches in diameter.  And then I would put in one or two Clione individuals and let them become acclimated, typically that only took a minute or two.  Then I would have the students gather around, and would introduce two or three Limacina.   The rapidity and apparent “ferociousness” (this is a anthropomorphic adjective, but after watching the Clione at work, it seemed to fit, but probably a better adjective is “efficiency”) of the attack would typically leave the students, quite literally, speechless.

Most of the time marine biologists (and I suppose other folks who see such things) typically regard snail predation as a slow and rather leisurely process (albeit animals like Cone snails will also demonstrate the other extreme).  After all, an oyster drill (a muricid whelk) drilling a hole through a bivalve shell is hardly action that is exciting, except, perhaps, to the participants.  

Then, if you are very lucky, you get to see something like Clione attacking a Limacina.  Wow!!!  It kinda blows away the stereotypes and misconceptions…

If you think about this system, wherein one pelagic snail lives by preying only on another pelagic snail, a bit further, I think it is really cause for wonder.  At best, Clione – the predators – are found in aggregations (I really don’t think one could call them “schools,” or “herds” or “flocks”) or patches maybe several meters in volume, and with a few snails per cubic meter.  More often the patches arel larger a few hundred meters on a side, and the density is one or two snails per 5 or 10 cubic meters.

So… lots of water… not many predators….just swimmin’ along being their little sea angelic selves, and with a LOT of water between them.  

Now… the prey – and the same sort of situation.  Lots of water, not many prey.

Two diffuse patches of animals in a very large body of water, what are the odds that any one snail of either species will encounter an individual of the other species?

Well, the odds have to be pretty good or the animals wouldn’t be here!  But still, it is not like these are pedestrians on the sidewalk along a busy street bumping into one another. 

I don’t know of any research that has been done investigating these interactions ecologically in nature.  I suspect the logistics of such research would make it prohibitively expensive (lots of ship time, for example), but the questions raised by the necessity of such interactions are really pretty interesting, I think you will agree.

Perhaps they are being studied at the present.  The author of Deep Sea News blog mentions a student/researcher/photographer, Natalia Chervyakova of Moscow University, who has taken some images of Clione feeding in nature – an amazingly difficult proposition.  Here are some of her images from the White Sea.  These are some of the most spectacular underwater macro photographic images I have ever seen.   And having taken thousands of underwater shots, including a number of planktonic macro shots, I can attest to the skill and effort involved and demonstrated by these images.  I would have killed to have been able to get one – 1 – image like these.  I would have killed a lot more, to have had the skill to be able to do it repeatedly.

Finally, shelled pteropods, similar to Limacina in some regards, are at the base of the zooplankton food chain throughout much of the world’s ocean.  They are especially abundant in the very rich fishery regions of the cold temperate and boreal seas, where they eat phytoplankton and convert it into their tissue. In turn they are eaten by many other organisms.  Two or three times removed, they are the fish flesh or krill that is harvested for human consumption or use, to say nothing of the top predators in those ecosystems, whose trophic position has been usurped by humans.   These pteropods have aragonitic shells, and as the oceans acidify they will be amongst the first to be affected by this interesting tiny experiment in the alteration of the ocean’s physical parameters.  “Affected” … A nice polite word for “Exterminated” by both human action (the addition of massive amounts of excessive carbon dioxide to the atmosphere) and inaction (no attempt to slow down those additions).

The sheer and utter stupidity of the human species, both individually and collectively is truly mind-boggling.  Here we are, well on our way into the sixth major mass extinction event in the Earth’s existence, and politicians play games of posturing over public images and the majority of the public wastes its time paying attention to the foibles of ephemeral pseudo-entertainer or some ridiculous sporting event.  I guess over the symbolic grave of humanity, our epitaph should be, “Considering their potential and abilities, they had their priorities straight.”

Until later,