Thursday, December 29, 2011


One night late in December, a small group of us decided to check out Puget Sound at Seahurst during a minus 1.5 foot low tide. At extreme low tides, you can find all sorts of marine invertebrates close up and personal. Unfortunately, low tides occur at night during the winter, so you have to go out with a strong flashlight and, most of the time, bundled up in parka and rain gear to have this experience. We were lucky: moderate temperature, no wind, no rain at 10 pm. The water was calm and clear as a windowpane, and the exposed beach was covered with critters.

It takes a while to get the hang of it. You have to distinguish stationary animals, many of them sessile filter-feeders, from multi-hued rocks and gravel and sand. Many of them are exposed by the receding tide, while others shelter in crevices, among algal fronds, or under rocks. On this visit, we looked mostly on the surface, as there were very few rocks of the right size to turn. But by doing this, you can find many more critters, including several species of fishes. But always replace the rocks carefully!

Mollusks of numerous kinds, including limpets, lined chitons (Tonicella lineata) and rock oysters (Pododesmus cepio), were scattered over the large boulders that were exposed by the low tide. There were scattered plumose anemones (Metridium senile) hanging down obscenely from rocks and Christmas anemones (Urticina crassicornis) looking like prettily patterned blobs. We found one attached to a movable rock, so we took it out in a foot of water to let it expand. We came back to it 10 minutes later, and it was nicely expanded for photos.

As we were photographing it, a kelp crab (Pugettia producta) approached from stage right. It came up to the anemone and started feeling in its tentacles. We wondered if it might be snipping them off to eat, but we couldn't be sure. More likely it was feeling for organic matter left among the tentacles, perhaps part of the anemone's last meal. Several times after inserting a cheliped among the tentacles, it brought it back to its mouth. After a short while of doing this, it started running one of its longer legs through the tentacles, almost in a grooming manner. Perhaps the leg was able to detect food particles?

Presumably the thick chitin of the crab's legs protected it from the anemone's stinging cnidocytes, and a coating of anemone mucus might have conferred additional protection.

As we were watching this, a red rock crab (Cancer productus) approached the kelp crab, and it scuttled away about a meter and sat among the eelgrass. The second crab didn't interact with the anemone but then found a dead Dungeness crab (Cancer magister), perhaps to check it out as dinner, but our lights may have scared it away. We had earlier found a pair of Dungeness crabs mating in an eelgrass bed.

Sea stars were the most conspicuous megafauna appearing in our lights, including sunflower stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides), many of them young, and ochre sea stars (Pisaster ochraceus), with fewer mottled sea stars (Evasterias troschelii). We turned one Pycnopodia over that had a hump in the middle and found what I thought was a fish skull clutched in its hot little tube feet. We grabbed the skull and started pulling on it and out from what must be an amazingly large stomach came a spotted ratfish (Hydrolagus colliei) carcass, largely digested!

On a previous occasion at the same site, we had found a Pycnopodia that had ingested a whole rat. We assumed the rat had been dead in the water rather than that the starfish had gone on walkabout up in the rocks. This huge sea star really seems at the top of the intertidal Puget Sound food chain!

Dennis Paulson


ZuriJohnson said...

These are beautiful and vibrant animals, good job finding them! I have always been curious what biological purpose being really colorful serves sea animals, especially those who live near the depths of the ocean where it is pitch black. Thanks for taking pictures of these animals!

Aleksei Molodtcov said...

Some corals can
do eat jellyfish

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