Monthly Archives: October 2010

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Thingy Thursday: Genesis and the Lancet

Inspired by “Amusing Monday” on Christopher Dunagan’s Watching Our Water Ways blog, I’m officially launching “Thingy Thursday”!

Once in a while, folks send pictures or questions about aquatic life to me or to groups I’m affiliated with. Some are relatively straightforward. Some seem alien. Others confound the experts.

I’ll start with those that have come across my desk and add a few mysteries I’ve personally encountered. I really hope, readers will start sending questions and images (jaws@uw.edu) to help Thingy Thursday grow from a tiny larva to a full blown sea monster! … A bit overblown there,… but if you do happen to find a sea monster, please grab your camera.


Longnose lancetfish (Alepisaurus ferox). Photo by: Kim Esterberg

One of my favorites washed up on Bainbridge Island’s shoreline in October 2008. The pictures wound up on my desk, so I forwarded it to folks in the know. Several identified it as the longnose or long snouted lancetfish (Alepisaurus ferox). This is more of a reminder than an original story since it was blogged about at the time: Watching Our Water Ways: Another Strange Creature shows up in Puget Sound. Still I’ll add a couple extra elements.

What you can’t see in these pictures are the huge fangs (a pair on top and 2 pairs on the bottom) and the large, sail-like fin this deep sea predator sports. (Click here for good pictures of those features from a specimen in California).


Longnose lancetfish closeup of head. Photo by: Kim Esterberg

The musculature of these fish is described as “watery”, suggesting they ambush prey instead of actively chasing it down. They’re known to eat fish (including their own species), squid, crustaceans, and salps (free-floating sea squirts, highly evolved invertebrates). I wonder what the watery muscles mean for the fight they put up at the end of a fishing line? Very few people would know.

Another specimen washed up on Vancouver Island in April 2008. The article reported three other beached lancetfish sightings in the Northwest that month, as well as a barracuda and six-gill shark on Vancouver Island. The Bainbridge fish was found 3 months later.

More on lancet fish at… Wikipedia and FishBase

The oceans are full of amazing creatures, and once in a while they appear on that thin boundary between our world and theirs – the beach. I’ll offer up beach walk to the first person to find a giant or humbolt squid on a Salish Sea beach, and either send pictures or pull out the beak for me. You’re more likely to find them on the outer coast, but strange things show up in our inland waters from time to time.

Feel free to send along anything exciting or unusual. Here’s to life’s mysteries! JEff

Jeff Adams is a Washington Sea Grant Marine Water Quality Specialist, affiliated with the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, and based in Bremerton. You can follow his Sea-life blog, email to jaws@uw.edu or call at 360-337-4619.

Knot your average flight

You’ve probably seen different shorebirds flit short distances here and there on the beach, walk the mudflat probing unceasingly or do their funny little dance up and down the beach just at the wave’s edge. There are a lot of different species, most relatively small and most not overly flamboyant.

Now imagine a flock of shorebirds taking off from southern Brazil for a seemingly non-stop, 6-day flight to their first layover in North Carolina. That’s about a 5000 mile trip – an average of 35 miles per hour, for 144 hours. Red knots (Calidris canutus rufapictures) do this year in and year out, many flying a distance farther than the Earth to the Moon during their lifetime.

If we were to take a trip to southern Brazil, it would probably be an 8 or 10 hour flight. We would have been fed two meals and had a several drinks. We’d still be tired and a little cranky, but thrilled to hear the pilot put down the landing gear. A red knot would probably have knotted muscles or a knot in its stomach, but would surely share the thrill of the landing…

Maybe knot a thrill, but that moment of seeing the coast emerge from the Atlantic blue means likely survival. These birds weigh less than 1/2 pound when well fed. They arrive at their eastern US feeding grounds sometimes less than half that weight! Their little bird brain and emaciated body must be dreaming of horseshoe crab eggs. The forage for which their flight is perfectly timed. Red knots typically forage on shellfish spat, but the high energy horseshoe crab eggs allow them to really pack the ounces back on before heading to their arctic breeding grounds.

Not sure why a bird would subject itself to such a tortuous migration (maybe it brags to the other subspecies of red knot who opt for slightly shorter distances). Still, it is a great example of how critical certain marine shoreline habitats can be and how complex the relationship can be between multiple species, habitat, water quality, environmental conditions and global human communities.

The population of the birds that travel to Argentina dropped by more than half between the mid-1980’s and early 2000’s. International efforts are underway to conserve these travelers and this remarkable life history that connects people from the entire Western hemisphere.

The subspecies Calidris canutus roselaari migrates down the West coast from the Alaska’s north coast. Apparently they aren’t many of them, but you might have a chance of seeing them on the outer coast in the spring.

I’ve included a few links below if you’re interested in more info… Here’s to a lifestyle that does knot require me to lose and gain 100 pounds every year! JEff

Red Knot – The Birds of North America Online
US Fish and Wildlife Service – Red Knot factsheet (pdf)
Red Knot – An Imperiled Migratory Shorebird in New Jersey (amazing before/after photos of weight gain in Delaware Bay)
Shorebird Researchers Document Red Knot’s Record-breaking Flight

Jeff Adams is a Washington Sea Grant Marine Water Quality Specialist, affiliated with the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, and based in Bremerton. You can follow his Sea-life blog, email to jaws@uw.edu or call at 360-337-4619.

Smack!

Squid at the surface of Bremerton Marina. Photo: Jeff Adams

The Port Orchard to Bremerton foot ferry is a great way to avoid driving or biking around Sinclair Inlet when you just want to get to downtown Bremerton from south Kitsap. As a bonus, you get a few moments on each side for sea creature viewing. You’re almost guaranteed to see plumose anemones, giant pink stars, mussels and barnacles on pilings and floating structures. You’re likely to see a kelp crab and a seaweed or two.

On one occasion, I thought I was watching a sick/disoriented smelt or herring in its death throws. That turned out to be a half truth. It was actually a squid working on a recent catch. It’s unusual to see them at the surface in the daylight.

To ring in October, I peered over the ferry pier on the Bremerton side to see my first big marine jelly smack! As I watched, the flood tide propelled hundreds of moon jellies over, under and around the man-made structures of the Bremerton ferry docks and marina.

Kris Brander saw this fabulous smack of moon jellies (Aurelia aurita) boatside at the Brownsville marina on August 11, 2010. Photo by: Kris Bradner

The animals are beautiful. They are nearly clear except for the four leaf clover shaped reproductive organs at their center. The characteristic jellyfish pulse is also gracefully mesmerizing.

An observant and curious boater took a great picture of a dense smack of moon jellies at the Brownsville marina on August 11th of this year. The image worked its way around UW Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences department, and received several responses. One referred to the recent (July, 2010) conference… Third International Jellyfish Blooms Symposium.

Our region’s own Jenny Purcell of Western Washington University organized the first session listed on the conference page and provided a session summary that really hits on the complexities of jelly blooms.

Globally, blooms impact economies and the environments that support them. Lots of factors can go into creating blooms, including climate change, altered salinity and excess nutrients/food. Murkier water and low oxygen can also favor jellies over their fish competitors. Even manmade structures in the water can create extra habitat for to support the jellyfish life cycle. Fishing can also remove some of their predators and competitors.

The life cycle of a jelly is a strange (though not uncommon) combination of sexual and asexual reproduction and of planktonic (floating in the water) and benthic (attached to a surface in the water) forms. The jellies we see floating around are the adult male or female medusa. The boys put their sperm into the water (like many marine critters). The girls use the sperm to fertilize eggs that they brood until the larvae are released into the water. The larvae soon find a shaded place (that’s why man-made structures come in handy) to settle and grow into a polyp – like a tiny anemone. That polyp divides into a budding colony and each bud breaks off to grow into a new medusa. You might check out the Jelly Zone for more about jellies.

Part of a smack of lion's mane jellies (Cyanea capillata - red means don't touch!). There were about 20 lion's manes on the beach at Friday Harbor on September 24th, 2010 with more washing in. Photo: Jeff Adams

But why is an aggregation of jellyfish called a “smack”. I don’t know, any ideas? Sarah Asper-Smith of Alaska found odd group names so intriguing that she illustrated an ABC book with unusual names for each letter called Smack of Jellyfish. It comes out in November. Good stuff.

With my wife and oldest son’s help, we came up with a few aggregation names we feel should catch on…

bull kelp bed –> a flogging
sand dollar bed –> a treasure
urchin bed –> a thorn
crab aggregation –> a drool
dogwinkle snail gathering –> a pound

Is anyone with me? Please comment with your own inspired new name for an aggregation of something. Have a jolly jelly day! JEff

Jeff Adams is a Washington Sea Grant Marine Water Quality Specialist, affiliated with the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, and based in Bremerton. You can follow his Sea-life blog, email to jaws@uw.edu or call at 360-337-4619.

Lethal libelulas


Adult darner dragonfly head on in flight. Photo by: Jeff Adams

I was enjoying a beverage and good conversation at a friend’s house last weekend when I couldn’t help but interrupt to marvel at a darner dragonfly’s aerobatics in the late afternoon sun. The dragonfly glowed as it flew this way and that, then instantly dropped a foot or two to pluck a tiny glowing speck from the air. Without missing a beat, the aerobat continue its remarkable hunt.

The time for dragonfly watching in 2010 is nearly over. The last dragonflies on the wing tend to peter out in October, but if you’ve got a break and a sunny day, your may still be rewarded on a field trip to your local pond or wetland.

I’ve no evidence for it, but I’d wager adult dragonflies take a back seat only to butterflies as North America’s most popular insects. Many bird watchers are now turning their binoculars toward these denizons of the sky with their pursuits fed by such books as… Dragonflies through BinocularsDragonflies of Washington, and our local dragonfly expert’s recent tome Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West. Those who really get into it can visit OdonataCentral to find checklists, maps and even report sightings.


An emerald dragonfly nymph opens it's formidable labium - in front of its head. Photo: Jeff Adams

Though not as strikingly colorful, or as likely to be encountered in daily human life, the aquatic dragonfly nymphs arguably exceed their adult forms in their predatory prowess and unique anatomy.

The predatory weapon of a dragonfly nymph, called a labium, brings to my mind the notorious extra terrestrials Alien and Predator. Probably not just by coincidence. As they create terrifying big screen OMD’s (organisms of mass destruction), cinematic monster makers regularly draw inspiration from small products of nature.


Spiketail dragonfly nymph showing toothed labium used for catching food. Photo: Jeff Adams

Anyway… once prey is within striking distance, this labium is propelled forward by hydrostatic pressure to either spear or grab and scoop prey. The labium then reels the prey in to the mandibles, where it is chomped and swallowed.

Perhaps more intriguing than frightening, is a dragonfly nymph’s butt. A nymph’s rectum actually has three jobs to do. First, as might be expected, it’s the end of the digestive tract and is where poop comes out. However, it also has gills and is water’s port of entry to a specialized respiratory chamber in its abdomen. Finally, the water it draws in to breathe can also be expelled with force as jet propulsion resulting in rapid movement through the water. Pooping, breathing, swimming – not bad for a single part of the anatomy, in an organisms that evolved to something near its modern form 250,000,000 years ago. Enjoy October! JEff

PS – Libelula is Spanish for dragonfly and is no doubt related to Libellula, the Latin genus name for the skimmers – some of our most striking dragonflies.

Jeff Adams is a Washington Sea Grant Marine Water Quality Specialist, affiliated with the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, and based in Bremerton. You can follow his Sea-life blog, email to jaws@uw.edu or call at 360-337-4619.