Surf, bird food, PSP

Toxins along a stirred-up shore

Surf’s up! In early January, high winds stirred the waters of Juneau, making boating an unpleasant if not downright dangerous proposition. The waves pounded the coastlines, roiling the waters next to the shores. Even moderate wave action at the shoreline is sometimes a good thing for hungry birds—the turbulence seems to wash out small invertebrates into open water where ducks can gobble them up, one little item at a time ( It also may loosen cobbles and gravels, making hidden invertebrates accessible to gulls and shorebirds that pick and probe ( Splashes and wetting might encourage upper intertidal mussels relax their tightly closed valves a bit, making it easier for oystercatchers to insert their long, thin bill and extract the soft parts. We see the birds doing these things, but I don’t know that anyone has actually measured the effects of wave action on the inverts…Maybe the birds know more than we do.

Black oystercatcher eating blue mussels. Photo by Bob Armstrong

The oystercatcher feeding on open mussels in the video was filmed in Tee Harbor in spring of 2019, at a time when the level of PSP in the mussels was already high and getting higher. Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning is caused by neurotoxins produced by microscopic algae that feeding molluscs filter from the sea water; certain algal species are especially known for their neurotoxins. The term is earned for the unpleasant and sometimes devastating effects on humans that ingest clams and mussels containing the toxins (and other animals that ate such molluscs). Also, I’ve read that heavy surf can break up the bodies of small planktonic and shoreline organisms, allowing the wind to carry body fragments and neurotoxins as aerosols. By impeding the transmission of nerve impulses, these toxins affect respiration, muscle contraction, and other essential functions. Micro-algae also produce other toxins, which affect digestive systems, memory, and other aspects of consumers.

What about non-human consumers, including the molluscs themselves? Some molluscs just stop feeding when exposed to toxic algae; others are sensitive to the toxins and suffer some negative physiological effects. But some develop resistance to the toxic effects when they are repeatedly exposed to the toxinsand accumulate them in their bodies, in some cases retaining the toxins for many months, passing them on to other consumers. When crabs eat molluscs, they can build up toxins in parts of their bodies too. So sea otters, which eat both molluscs and crabs, may suffer some of the negative consequences; but they can learn to reject prey with high levels of the toxins. Predatory snails (whelks) that feed on mussels and clams ingest the toxins too. And when small fishes (anchovies, sand lance, young salmonids, etc.) and crustaceans feed on the toxic algae in the plankton, and then become prey to other predators, the toxins can pass up the food chain, becoming more concentrated at each step. All around the world, massive die-offs of marine fish (e.g., sardines), mammals (e.g., whales, dolphins, sea lions, seals), and birds (e.g., cormorants, pelicans) have been attributed at least in part to PSP, wreaking havoc in marine communities. 

All those reactions and interactions begin with the neurotoxins in the algae. The toxins are produced all the time by the algae, but the reactions we notice happen more often when there are ‘blooms’ of algae; the blooms result from strong inputs of nutrients (such as nitrogen, iron, and phosphorous) stemming from spring run-off, outflow from melting glaciers, and drifting volcanic ash, which carry minerals dissolved and eroded from rocks and fields. Tides and ocean currents redistribute the nutrients along the coast. Those nutrients allow the algae to reproduce prodigiously, so they are then a super-abundant food source, readily available to consumers.

And that leaves the question of why the algae make those (and several other types of toxins) in the first place. How and why did all those varied compounds arise? So far, I have not found agood answer to that. However, I thought of three kinds of answers: 1) perhaps the compounds contribute to some essential metabolic process or they are produced just as a byproduct in the course of some metabolic, physiological processes that have some effect on growth or reproduction—the toxicity to other organisms is just incidental (from the point of view of the algae).In other words, their function is simply related to the internal workings of the algae. 2) The toxic compounds serve as a defense again would-be consumers, presumably small, planktonic critters (such as copepods) that would feel the direct effects of the toxins and be deterred from eating the algae. There is experimental evidence for this in some cases. In general, the advantage of deterrent or protective effects would be expected in the first level of consumers (the primary consumers); any indirect effects and consequences for secondary consumers higher in the food chain would probably be ‘collateral damage’–irrelevant to algal fitness and the evolution of the compounds. 3) Both #1 and #2 could happen. In other systems, researchers have found that something that arose for one function eventually evolved another function. Given the wide array of micro-algae involved and the variety of compounds that are toxic to many animals, it would not be surprising if all three kinds of answers turn out to be valid. Scientists have a big job ahead of them, to sort out all of this.

A hearty thanks to four fine folks at the NOAA lab who responded so promptly and helpfully to my queries.

Ralston Island

observations by amphibious naturalists

We left our camp on Lincoln Island in sunshine, with a following breeze. Arriving quickly at the wide beach on Ralston, we set out to explore the island. The trail marked on old topo maps proved hard to find, but a maze of deer trails made it easy to move around the forest. We wandered toward the north end of the island.

All along the way, I enjoyed the numerous flowering orchids. All had tiny, intricate flowers, rather than the showy ones that most folks notice. There were twayblades, named for the paired leaves on the stem. Darwin, long ago, figured out just how the little twayblade flowers contrive to be pollinated by visiting insects: when an insect touches a certain part of the flower, a sticky drop explodes outward, carrying pollen and sticking it to the insect, which carries it to another flower.

The most common orchid was one known as one-leaved malaxis or white adder’s tongue. A single leaf sits at the base of the flowering stem. There are no adders involved here except in somebody’s over-active imagination! We also noticed several rattlesnake plantains, which are not plantains at all. Nor do they have anything to do with rattlers, except that someone decided that the patterns on the leaves looked like snakeskin.

The most colorful ones were the pink coralroot orchids, which lack green pigment and so cannot synthesize their own carbohydrates. They are variously reported to be saprophytic (feeding on decaying organic material) or indirectly parasitic on other living plants by means of fungal connections. Ralston hosted some spectacular stands of this orchid.

As we strolled around, we saw no signs of red squirrels or porcupines, which presumably would have a hard time getting out there. Juvenile ravens were loudly making known their wants, as they tried to follow their harried parents through the trees. Songbirds still sang, even in late June; I heard song sparrow, hermit thrush, ruby-crowned kinglet; one hermit scolded us severely, using notes I’d not heard before, so we must have been too close to a nest or chick. A strange-looking woodpecker moved through the canopy; after checking the books, I guessed it was a hairy woodpecker—which are darker here on the coast than they are elsewhere.

The north end of the island was productive. There’s the densest, tallest stand of crabapples I’ve ever seen, and some of the gnarliest hemlocks. As we pushed through the brush toward a boulder shore, we stumbled into a small meadow, perched on a headland and sporting a surprising and lovely stand of wild iris. Out among the boulders we finally spotted some oystercatchers displaying to each other, apparently amicably. Later, we saw an oystercatcher vigorously and loudly chasing an eagle, which presumably had had designs on an oystercatcher chick.

Then it was time to head back to camp. Ah, but by now the tide had turned, not in our favor, and the headwind had risen noticeably. It seemed do-able, however, so off we went. Around the first point, things became more difficult: a stiffer breeze, a stronger tidal current, and there were also frequent, strong gusts of wind. We had to paddle hard and constantly, just to keep from going backward! In between those gusts, slow forward progress was possible, but it still took about four hours of nonstop hard paddling to get back to camp. Ooooofff!