this and that from various explorations

There were good minus tides in May and June, and I went out with some friends to take a look at the intertidal zone in two places that we’ve checked in previous years. We found lots of small white cucumbers, numerous green sea urchins, and theusual sea stars, but fewer of them—and only one baby king crab, no whelks, few hermit crabs or lined chitons, and so on. In general, the diversity and abundances of intertidal critters seemed low to all of us who had looked there in other years.

Strange things have been and are happening in the regional and local environment. Sometimes devastation of intertidal communities is widespread; for instance, in 2021, high temperatures wiped out invertebrate populations, exposed at low tide, for many miles of coast in southern B. C and northern Washington. But locals surely would have noticed if such a major event had occurred here (although a recent Pacific marine heat wave may have left residual effects in our area). 

Other effects are more localized. Outbreaks of the wasting disease have damaged sea star populations. Heavy rains can overwhelm the local wastewater treatment system, so that ‘dirty’ water enters the marine system. The past winter brought very cold temperatures, big storms, and the risk of wind-chill toexposed intertidal invertebrates. Massive winter snowfall followed by heavy rains and unusually warm temperatures in spring increased freshwater input to coastal waters, and the present summer brought extremely high air temperatures for days at a time. These kinds of extreme conditions probably affected many intertidal animals (and plants). Such effects would probably vary among local areas, depending on exposure to sun and wind and freshwater input, slope of the rocky beaches, among other factors. As a marine biologist commented: things seem to be somewhat out of balance and the consequences are likely to be patchily distributed.

One day in July, I went out (on another good minus tide) to one of the places we visited in May and June, not wanting to believe the impression of a depauperate fauna. I didn’t change my mind on that, but I had one piece of good luck: lying on the mud under a small, flat rock, I found a little fish that was obviously not the usual gunnel or prickleback. It was a graveldiver! It had a long, thin body with a slightly knobby head—looking (as some have said) like a tiny snake; its tan color was distinctive (although some individuals may be darker). I found a good match for this creature in Aaron Baldwin’s on-line field guide(Sea Life of Southeastern Alaska, co-authored by Paul Norwood).

Graveldiver. Photo by Aaron Baldwin

That was exciting! But it seems that very little is known about the biology of these little fish—I reckon that they are hard to study in detail. Some researchers suggest that they may burrow very deeply and carry on their reproductive activities deep in the sediments and gravels. They have tiny, sharp teeth and are presumably predators. 

Bits and pieces from other places: Out at Pt. Louisa, I saw a shrub that looked strangely lacy from a distance. Close up, I could see that it was an alder almost all of whose leaves were severely skeletonized. The agents of defoliation had been chewing all summer, and I found the culprits working away on the few remaining leaves that had green tissue between the veins. They were woolly alder sawflies, a European species that occurs in various parts of North America, including British Columbia and Alaska. Female sawflies lay their eggs near the midrib of the leaf. The larvae are reported to feed first on the upper surface of the leaf and later move to the under-surface. The last larval instar of this species is covered with a white, woolly secretion, giving it its name. They overwinter in cocoons in the soil, emerging as adults next spring.

Woolly alder sawfly larvae

In mid-July, as I walked along the Boy Scout camp trail, I spotted an extremely small shrew, sitting in the middle of the trail, having lunch. I stopped and watched; it calmly nibbled away for a few more seconds and then scooted off the trail. I presume this was a young individual of one of our relatively common species here, which weigh roughly five or six grams as adults; the one I watched was that big. There are, in Alaska, two shrew species that are extremely small: the pygmy shrew, at about three grams (slightly smaller than most of our rufous hummingbirds), and the Alaska tiny shrew, at approximately two grams. But they live Up North and are not recorded from Southeast. (For the record, shrews are too small to store enough fat to overwinter, and they stay active all winter long, looking for food, burrowing through the snows.)

In Haines, there is time between ferry arrival and departure (after the loop up to Skagway and back) to take the convenient Haines Shuttle out to the Battery Point trailhead for a short walk; walking on conifer needles instead of roots and rocks was a treat. Baneberries were ripe; the common color is bright red, but there were two plants with white berries, an uncommonmutant form. Partway along that trail is Kelgaya Point, a lovely, rocky headland with a variety of micro habitats for plants. In late July, numerous small iris plants showed no evidence of having flowered, with one lone exception. A ground-covering mat of crowberry, which we more usually see at mid-elevations, had apparently produced no fruit at all. The flower show was provided by spectacular stands of yellow paintbrush and blue harebells.


Low tide explorations

a plethora of crabs, siphoning sponges, and other intertidal delights

June brought some good low tides, lower than minus four feet, so out we went to look at the rocky intertidal zone. This is always a little voyage of discovery, seeing some old ‘friends’ and finding some new ones. But I sure wish that some nice intertidal biologist would come with us, to answer our many questions!

We went out on two consecutive days, to two different sites. These two places differed greatly in the composition of the invertebrate community. For instance, at one site, the false white sea cucumber was overwhelmingly abundant, but at the other site, it was very rare…although the big orange sea cucumber was common there. The little black ‘tar-spot’ cucumbers were extremely plentiful at the first site, but they were not common at the second one. Crabs were hard to find at the first site but common, and of several different species, at the other. Such differences might be due, in part, to the difference in the amount of exposed bedrock habitat vs cobbles, but a real intertidal biologist could probably suggest some other possible explanations for the differences.

I picked up a big whelk shell and had a brief look at a bright red hermit crab rapidly retreating into the top of the shell’s spiral. This Pacific red hermit had found a shell so big that it could disappear entirely from view. Nice for protection, but the shell was so big compared to the crab that there was no way the crab could move its big house from one place to another.

Carefully turning over rocks, we often exposed small fish called pricklebacks. People erroneously or confusedly call them all sorts of names: blennies, eels, snakes, worms, wigglers, flippers, and whatnot. Pricklebacks, and the much less common crescent gunnels, can survive a low tide in damp, protected spots (such as under rocks, where ravens and gulls can’t grab them), because they can breathe through their skin.

Among the several kinds of crab were some brown ones totally covered with short bristles (helmet crabs, I think). We picked up one, only to find that it was an empty shell—the crab was gone. The shell was undamaged, but it was easy to lift open the back of the shell and view the interior. This crab had molted its old shell (along with the barnacles clinging to the legs), pulled its legs and eye and other parts free, and backed out. Now it had to produce a new hard shell, which must take some time, leaving the soft-bodied crab very vulnerable to predators. And the cost of making a new hard shell must be considerable. But a critter with a hard external skeleton can only grow by shedding the old one and making a new one.

Perched among the stubby fronds of an alga were several hairy snails—not very big, with very bristly shells. Something new for us! The usual kind of hairy snail appears to have a short life. After a larval stage, a young snail is male for the first year of its adult life. In its second year, it becomes female (while retaining the penis, just behind one eye), mates with a young male, lays eggs, and dies. An interesting way to go about things—I have to wonder what factors favored the evolution of this life history.

At one site, we found several crumb-of-bread sponges, yellowish in color, encrusting the rock. They break apart easily, hence their common name. I’ve read that a good diagnostic feature is their odor, said to smell like exploded gunpowder. Sponges are multicellular animals that have a very long fossil record, back to the earliest evolution of animals. They feed by pumping in water through small pores and passing water currents though the body, filtering out microorganisms. Several volcano-like structures are scattered over the body of this sponge; water currents and undigested food exit the sponge via these openings. The body is laced with glassy spicules made of silica but, nevertheless, it is eaten by various molluscs and other things. It simply can spread over the rock, but it can also reproduce sexually. However, unlike most sponges, this one has separate sexes.

Under a few flat rocks, there were several small, grub-like animals with no visible appendages that we’d not seen before. With long-distance help from an expert, these were identified as sandpeanuts, a kind of polychaete worm. It usually lives in the sediment below the mid-tide level and feeds on small bits of debris caught by its little tentacles. Without a hand-lens, we could not see the numerous tiny bumps and hairs that are distributed all over the body, nor did we discern the many ill-defined body segments. The feeding apparatus and gills at the front end can be retracted, so they are not visible when the animal is exposed by a low tide. No wonder we had a hard time figuring out what it might be!

I came upon a charming scene—a father with two small children (and a friendly dog) had found a small rock crab. The father carefully picked it up, showing the kids how to avoid the big pincers at the front end. After they all looked at the crab, it was gently placed back where they found it, and it wedged itself tightly between two rocks. What a good example of how to teach exploring kids.

Tidepooling in May

treasures of the seasonal low tide

Mid-May brought some fairly low tides during the daylight hours, so naturally I had to go prowling in the intertidal zone to see what I could see. I like to go with a companion, because the extra eyes greatly help the search. We found lots of things, as expected, but here are a few highlights.

–A gumboot chiton, about five inches long. I seldom see this species, which is often heavily harvested by humans. It’s an unusual chiton in that its dorsal surface is completely covered by the granular mantle, so none of the eight plates or shells is visible. An herbivore, it eats mostly red algae. It’s the largest chiton in the world, sometimes over a foot long, although in our area half that size is more usual. Beginning its life as a larva, after just a few days it settles on a rock and begins to look like a chiton. It can live for forty years or so, growing a few millimeters a year.

–Clinging to the underside of a rock, we found (I think) two long-armed brittlestars (called serpent stars in one field guide). These are said to be quite uncommon around here. The arms are very long relative to the size of the disc or body; they break easily but regenerate. This species eats detritus and can burrow into sediments.

Long-armed brittlestar. Photo by Kerry Howard

–The small sea cucumber known here as the white cucumber is actually the so-called false white cucumber, to distinguish it from the ‘true’ white sea cucumber of the outer coast. This species is extremely numerous in some places, so finding it was no surprise. But it was an occasion for remembering something weird about these critters. Many sea cucumbers breathe by taking in water through the anus into respiratory trees comprised of narrow tubules. Some cucumbers can eviscerate themselves if they are molested, spewing out both the gut and the respiratory trees through the anus, and regenerating them later. We found ejected guts of several false white cucumbers. The thought of regenerating body parts is exciting (and not very common in the animal kingdom); sea stars can regenerate their broken arms, and we often see evidence of this, but regenerating internal organs??!! How long does it take to re-grow these parts and what do the animals do before the missing pieces are replaced? We also found two giant black cucumbers, which were apparently near the upper limit of their tidal range.

–Cucumber suckers are tiny snails, just a few millimeters long, that feed on sea cucumbers. Strangely, they do not have the rasping, file-like radula by which many snails scrape their living. Instead, the somehow stick to a host cucumber, penetrate the skin, and suck its body juices. Although that’s how they feed, and there were many potential hosts close by, I found a cluster of this species just perched under a rock.

–We love to find baby king crabs tucked under the edge of a rock or a sea star but this time we found only three of them. Starting life as larvae in the plankton, they transform into little crabs and move to the intertidal zone. They molt their exoskeleton as they grow and move to deeper waters, eventually maturing at age five or six years.

–Hermit crabs may be everyone’s favorite intertidal beasties, and there are several kinds here. We found a few very tiny hermits wedged nicely into really small periwinkle shells—the ‘big’ claws of these individuals were less than two millimeters long. A small hermit was startled when we picked up a three-inch whelk shell, and it scuttled directly up into the top spirals of that shell and out of sight—clearly, this shell was not to be carried about on the crab’s abdomen! One old, barnacle-covered whelk shell housed a beautifully colorful widehand hermit, whose extra-wide big claw can close the ‘door’ when the hermit retreats into its protective shell.

–Some small rock crabs were inconspicuous in the sediments under loose rocks. I pried one out of its niche, to look more closely. It protested vigorously, nipping me several times—which I ignored. But then it got serious and its pincers opened up the end of my finger, staining red the rocks at my feet. That worked—it was soon back among the cobbles where it belonged.

There were other enjoyable observations, too: a gorgeous, six-inch crescent gunnel, crows harvesting and toting food to their nests, a flotilla of bright harlequin ducks, a whale blowing in the channel. A partially visible sparrow in the bushes above the beach sang an unfamiliar song repeatedly, making it hard to identify, but then it sang the normal song of a song sparrow. Was it just practicing, or do such song variants have another purpose?


an invertebrate extravaganza (with some vertebrates too)

When the tide goes out, it’s time for a natural history treasure hunt. This year, both May and June brought really low tides (more than minus-four feet) at more or less reasonable hours of the day. Of course, we had to go looking for weird and wonderful creatures that might be visible. We went to two likely spots, one in May and the other in June. At one of them, we were supervised closely by a pair of watchful black oystercatchers.

Here are a few of our ‘treasures’. All of them were viewed in place and sometimes photographed, or they were carefully replaced where they were found.

Numerous tiny sculpins scuttled for cover as soon as their pools were disturbed or even at the approach of the terrestrial monsters that cast long shadows. Hiding under small boulders were cockscomb pricklebacks, crescent gunnels, and a pale, thin fish called a gravel-diver. These little fishes are sometimes called eels, which they are not, or blennies, although they are not even very closely related to true blennies. They are reported to eat a variety of small invertebrates.

Sunflower sea stars, with their soft surfaces and multiple arms, were plentiful at one site; they came in all sizes from about four inches to perhaps twenty inches in diameter. They usually feed by swallowing their prey whole, and they eat almost anything, including sea urchins, clams, snails, other sea stars, and mussels. The common five-armed sea stars displayed an astounding array of colors: gray, olive, bright and dull orange, brilliant purple, turquoise, and tan. There were lots of little ones of this species, about half an inch across, and these didn’t seem to show such a wide variety of color. These sea stars can use their tube feet to pry molluscs open or lift them off the rocks. They typically feed by everting part of the stomach over the prey and digesting it in place. Despite their very crunchy nature, they are preyed upon by large gulls, big sunflower sea stars, and large crabs. A special treat was finding a few brittle stars, mottled in maroon and green. They are detritus feeders, preyed upon by some fishes and diving ducks.

There were at least five kinds of sea cucumbers, a big purple one, medium orange ones, small white ones, smaller translucent ones, and thousands of the very small black ‘tar spot’ cucumbers. Sea cucumbers typically breathe through their hind ends—pulling sea water through the anus into a set of branched respiratory tubules connected to the hind gut. They feed on organic detritus mopped up from the substrate or captured in the water column. I presume there is a mechanism for keeping digestive products out of the respiratory system! Their predators include several kinds of sea stars, some fishes, and sea otters.

Worms came in several guises. My favorite, one I’d never seen before, was an intertidal gillworm, buried in mud under a rock: bright red, with feeding tentacles at the front end and many thin filaments along the side that serve as gills for breathing. Of course, there also were other polychaete (meaning ‘many-bristled’) worms of several types, with their numerous body extensions containing various kinds of stiff bristles that may help in locomotion, and the extensions also assist in respiration. Many polychaetes feed by extending a tubular, muscular proboscis, usually armed with teeth, to grab their invertebrate prey. Polychaetes are the favored prey of ribbon worms, which can change their shape from elongate, skinny ribbons to stubby slug-like forms. Ribbon worms subdue their prey by stabbing with a sharp stylet and injecting a neurotoxin, then pulling it in to digest.

The common ‘black katy’ chitons came in all sizes, and so did the more colorful lined chiton. We found one hairy chiton, with its frill of ‘hairs’ all around the edge. Chitons are basically grazers, eating algae and little invertebrates that are stuck to the rocks (baby barnacles, sponges, and so on). Chitons are prey of sea urchins, some sea stars, black oystercatchers, harlequin ducks, and river otters, among others. I once found a pile of plates from a chiton on top of one of the mountain ridges, perhaps indicating that a raven had pilfered one from another predator.

Lined chiton. Photo by Pam Bergeson

There were hermit crabs of all sizes, hundreds of urchins, the usual big green and red anemones, and the smaller green burrowing anemones that somehow squeezed themselves into impossibly small crevices. Small periwinkle snails abounded in some places; they are grazers. And there were a few larger, carnivorous snails known as whelks, which can drill into other shelled creatures and slurp out the innards. Just imagine being a blue mussel and feeling that big snail rasping through your shell! Ah, but sometimes even those sedentary mussels can fight back, by ensnaring the attacking whelk in byssal threads, which are usually used to attach mussels to the rocks but can be diverted to repel invaders.

A nice find was an alga that turned out, upon investigation, to be two algae. A dark, filamentous alga bore odd, warty, oval bubbles or sacs on its fronds. Those sacs didn’t belong to that alga; they were another alga altogether, one that lives epiphytically, attached to other kinds of algae. It is called ‘studded sea balloons.’ A new one for me!

A treasure hunt, indeed. I’m basically a terrestrial ecologist, so a visit to the intertidal zone is always both fun and educational.

Prowling the intertidal

variety and mystery in a challenging habitat

I find it great fun to go out on a minus tide and prowl along the exposed intertidal zone. It’s a bit like a treasure hunt—seeing how many different kinds of invertebrates and little fishes I can find. Being a terrestrial ecologist, I often can’t put specific names on what I see, but the variety of colors and body form is always intriguing.

Many of the critters like to hide under rocks, so I have to turn over those rocks—very carefully, so as not to crush the animals. When I’m done inspecting what’s been exposed, I try to put each rock back exactly as it was, again without crushing anybody, to preserve them and their hiding places. On a recent low tide, I was dismayed to see that other searchers had often not replaced the turned rocks, leaving the various animals exposed to hot sun and predators.

Seeing all those intertidal invertebrates made me think about the many ways they have for eating, many of which have no counterparts among the vertebrates. Most vertebrates have jaws, sometimes with teeth; only a few lack jaws altogether (lampreys and hagfish). It’s very different, among the invertebrates.

In the intertidal zone, stand in one spot and contemplate the several styles of feeding used by the array of invertebrates there. Sea cucumbers filter small particles from the water using tentacles; barnacles do so with their legs. Sea stars evert their stomachs, either wrapping a prey item or inserting the stomach into a clam shell to digest the meat. Crabs mince and nibble their prey to bits, using pairs of sharp mouthparts. Snails of many sorts rasp their food with a file-like structure: predatory snails rasp a hole in the shells of mussels or clams or other snails, shredding the meaty contents, while the herbivorous ones graze by scraping algae off rocks and seaweeds. Ribbon worms, pile worms, and iridescent worms have a bulbous proboscis that can be extruded; armed with sharp hooks or daggers, the proboscis clamps onto the prey and pulls it back into the mouth of the predator. Detritus feeders, such as lugworms, vacuum up soft junk from the substrate. And that’s just a sample.

We often find several kinds of sea cucumbers, sea stars, snails, chitons, anemones, and so on, each time we go cruising the low tide line. Occasionally, we find something unusual or uncommon, such as the nudibranch (a shell-less mollusc) that eats barnacles. Recently, we found numerous odd lozenges of a jelly-like substance strewn over the sands; each little oval was about an inch long and contained rows of tiny eggs or embryos.

This was a big mystery for us, so I sent a photograph to a friendly local expert on marine invertebrates, who said that these were the cocoons of the Pacific lugworm. Lugworms can live at quite high densities in the sediment, each one in a J-shaped burrow. They feed on detritus from the surface of the sediments; in the process, they take in a quantity of dirt as well, which is eliminated in long thin coils (which observers often see on the surface). We happened to be on the beach during the reproductive season, and females had produced these cocoons of babies, each one attached by a thin string to the mother’s burrow. According to research reports, males produce packets of sperm, which get washed over the surface of the sands to a female’s burrow, where the packets break open, releasing the sperm to fertilize the female’s eggs. The eggs are brooded in cocoons by the female either in her burrow or, in the present case, tethered to her burrow. When the young emerge from the cocoon, they are little wormlets that forage over the sediments near the surface.

I’m looking forward to our next ‘treasure hunt’!

Intertidal discoveries…

…include kleptoparisitism

On the next-to-the-lowest tide in late April, some friends and I explored the intertidal zone not far from town. We soon catalogued all the usual beasts, but several observations really caught my fancy.

Three tiny, bright red hermit crabs (very cute!) guarded their protective periwinkle shells with their big claws. We counted over seventy small king crabs, all less than an inch in carapace width. There were lots of five-armed sea stars, but one had only three arms and one had only two arms, with no signs of regeneration. So we wondered about the feeding success of these crippled stars, with so few arms for pulling open clams; how does their diet differ from that of intact stars, and how long does it take to get enough nutrition to regenerate those missing arms?

Among all the small fishes that lurked under boulders were two large crescent gunnels, at least eight inches long. They were so dark that the crescent marks on the backs were hard to see; these individuals were reddish on the lower parts of head and body and were probably males. The heads of two flatfish lay on a low ledge. The bodies of both fish behind the gills had been gnawed off, leaving a ragged margin. Someone had feasted well—probably otters, which commonly eat these fishes tail-first, and crabs may also have picked off a few bits.

The biggest puzzle was a heap of fuzzy-looking snails piled up on a mound of mostly indistinguishable material. We had no idea what this was, so I asked an expert and did some reading. Here is what I learned: These snails are known as Hairysnails (currently classified as Trichotropis cancellata). The shell bristles with hairs, and experiments have shown that the hairs deter some, but not all, predators. This snail lives in the North Pacific, usually sub-tidally, so the very low tide on this day was fortuitous for us.

Photo by Kerry Howard

Hairy snails are sequential (protandrous) hermaphrodites: as they mature they are male first and then gradually turn into females as they grow. Bigger snails produce larger clutches of eggs, increasing their reproductive output, while size is less important to male reproductive success, so for this species it pays to start reproducing (as a male) when small and producing eggs, lots of them, when large. During the transition time, they can sometimes function as both sexes at the same time—researchers have seen pairs of snails in which both snails are being male and female simultaneously.

The feeding habits of Hairysnails are fascinating. They can feed on small organisms suspended in the water but, more interestingly, they are kleptoparasites—stealing food particles right out of the mouths of tube worms (they are rarely seen parasitizing other potential hosts). The tube worms feed by catching plankton on their waving tentacles and funneling the prey to their mouths, and the snails just cling to the side of the tube and reach out with an extended lower ‘lip’ to snap up incoming prey. The snails that we saw were all clinging to a conglomeration of tube worms, ready to snatch food particles when the tide came up again.

Worms thereby suffer a reduced growth rate, but the sneaky, thieving snails grow much better—up to eighteen time faster than when simply suspension feeding. Small, immature snails, including those that are only a millimeter in size, gain the most in growth from their kleptoparasitism, but larger ones are also able to reproduce better. In most places, there is only one kleptoparasitic snail on a given tube worm, but occasionally there are two or even three, potentially in competition for stolen prey.

Hairysnails mate and lay eggs in winter, and in that season the adults generally leave their hosts and occupy themselves with reproductive activities. Males come back to stealing from tube worms when they are done mating, but females tend their batches of eggs for a while, and thus return to their hosts later than the males do. Small snails, less than about five millimeters in size, do not leave their hosts seasonally, but continue to thieve and grow.

Kleptoparasitism, in reference to stealing food from another animal, is widespread in the animal kingdom. Birds are perhaps the best studied: frigatebirds, jaegers and skuas, and some terns are well-known for harassing other birds that have caught a fish, making the victim drop the fish for the pirate to grab. In Berners Bay, we watched young glaucous-winged gulls, acting like teen-age hoodlums, chase other gulls until the prey was dropped. We sometimes see eagles forcing another eagle or an osprey to drop its fish. Among insects, cuckoo-bees lay their eggs on the pollen balls made by queen bumblebees for their own larvae and thus are stealing food from the bumblebee larvae. Web-building spiders may lose their prey to other spiders or to flies. Hyenas sometimes harry lions at a kill until the lions depart, letting the hyenas take much of the lions’ prey; and sometimes lions steal from hyenas. Those are just a few examples, but researchers say that kleptoparasitism occurs in every major taxonomic group of animals. Humans are not exceptions!

Sometimes the concept of kleptoparasitism is broadened to include the stealing of any useful item from another animal. So male bowerbirds that swipe alluring objects from each other, in order to decorate their own bowers, are kleptoparasites. So, too, are penguins robbing each other of stones used in their nests or tree swallows forcing a chickadee to give up its nest for the swallows’ use. Again, humans are not exceptions!

Thanks to Dr. Aaron Baldwin, ADFG, for sharing some of his extensive knowledge of marine invertebrates and providing literature references.