Point Lobos

Last month on a Saturday following a business trip to Monterey, California, our host took us on a walk at Point Lobos State Reserve, some 550 acres of shoreline and over 5 square miles of submerged reserved lands at the northernmost reach of “el pais grande del sur” (much better known nowadays as Big Sur):

View Larger Map

And it’s probably, at least to my mind, the most beautiful place on the planet, as you can see from the aforelinked photos. This cellphone snapshot of mine uglies it up somewhat, but, well, you get the idea:

We went to the southernmost portion of the reserve and hiked a gentle cliffside trail overlooking some extremely rugged, but incredibly beautiful, terrain. (We could have chosen from several more challenging hikes, but we didn’t want anyone to get tired or hungry or lost or cold or…)

Our first stop was at Hidden Beach, which is entirely made of wave-rounded pebbles. Small bits of marine plants show up in the wrack; here are a few I thought were worthy of note, even if I can’t provide more than a rudimentary id on them:

The next stop on the itinerary was the sand beach at China Cove, a popular sunning spot for tourists and locals alike. But if you visit during April or May, as we did, you might find that there’s no room on the beach for you! Because that’s when the local harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) population takes over, using the beautiful protected cove as a hauling-out beach and nursery:

The staircase is cordoned off during this delicate time, so we enjoyed the scene from the cliffs overlooking the cove. We saw pups frolicking in the water and sunning on the beach, trying to get their lazier (smarter?) parents to pay attention to them and come on and swim! Harbor seal pups require only a few weeks of maternal care before they are on their own in the cold, rich waters of Monterey Bay and environs.

From there, our group split up; some of us went on the Bird Island clifftop trail to get views of the water and beaches, while others went on to the wide sands of Gibson Beach. Both parties thought they got the better deal…

Big Sur is one of a few places in the world where relatively high mountains meet the ocean abruptly. The geology of the area must be fascinating to those who understand more of it than I do. I’ve just read the chapter on geology in the Natural History of Big Sur, but without a better background in the subject I’d only lead you astray if I were to do anything more than show you a picture of this conglomerate rock:

I conjecture that this is part of the Carmelo formation, based on this helpful description from the map/brochure:

Two contrasting rock types dominate the Reserve. The Santa Lucia granite, igneous rock that solidified underground about 80 million years ago, makes up the craggy landscape of much of the north shore, while the terrain of Sea Lion Point, the south shore, and Whalers and Moss Coves are comprised of the Carmelo Formation, a sedimentary rock at least 55 million years old. This more easily eroded conglomerate is recognized by its bumpy collection of water-rounded rocks deposited by ancient avalanches that occurred in an underwater canyon.

[For more on the millions of years of uplift that brought underwater canyons to the clifftops, see my comments on last year’s visit to Montana de Oro State Park in San Luis Obispo county.]

Over countless years the Pacific has carved out many small islands in the Big Sur. They begin as natural bridges, like this one that connects China Cove, where the harbor seals were hauled out with their pups, to Gibson Beach and Bird Island:

For comparison purposes, here’s a natural bridge forming in the Anastasia Formation on Florida’s East Coast. As you can see, it’s on a much smaller scale:

Presumably Bird Island was connected to the mainland at some point by a similar bridge that has since crumbled into the ocean below, victim of the combination of brittle granite and relentless saltwater intrusion and pounding surf. With the isolation from the mainland comes a separation from terrestrial predators, making this and other islands in the area into perfect rookeries for seabirds. If you come at the right time of year (I didn’t), you can find hundreds of Brandt’s cormorants nesting on the large flat island.

As at Montana de Oro State Park, Point Lobos has plenty of wavecut inlets to explore when the tide is right:

I look forward to the day when I can arrange an extended trip to this area, complete with real photo gear and a picnic lunch!

Florida’s marine terraces

In an article last year about Montana de Oro state park in California, I discussed how the land there includes a series of uplifted marine terraces. Those terraces are formed by a combination of geologic uplift at periodic intervals and the eroding action of the shoreline.

Well, here in Florida we’re pretty conversant with the eroding action of the shoreline. But for most of the east coast, at least, the forces of erosion and deposition are pretty much balanced. What the waves take away in the winter, they deposit in the summer, or vice versa. And in parts of the coast where the underlying limestone is exposed, you can actually observe the process of lithification taking place at the same time as you see wave action eroding the rocks!

A terrific example of this state of affairs can be found at Blowing Rocks Preserve, in Jupiter, Florida. It’s very exciting to see the waves crashing into the rocks, scouring them and undercutting the Anastasia limestone terrace (of Pleistocene origin); it’s easy to tell why this is called a high-energy coastline:

Wavesplosion at Blowing Rocks Preserve, Jupiter, Florida

Wave action undercutting terrace at Blowing Rocks Preserve, Jupiter Island, Florida.

The beach here is really something, with waves crashing into the limestone down below, while up above, the overwash creates tidepools where the sun and the salt water combine to cement the calcium carbonate shells of the marine mollusks into the cementitious rock known as coquina. The process can create some incredible combinations of erosion and formation at the same time, like this mini-arch in a tidepool on top of the limestone terrace:

Miniature arch forming/eroding at Blowing Rocks Preserve, Jupiter, Florida

Or this coquina “crater”; hard to tell whether it looks more like a volcanic or an impact crater on the moon, or perhaps the top of a fossilized sponge:

Coquina laminate formation at Blowing Rocks Preserve in Jupiter

The Anastasia formation, though, isn’t one of Florida’s recognized marine terraces; I’m not clear on why. Apparently, it’s just a limestone formation because it’s not exposed at the surface for its entire length? (See this article on raised beaches in Wikipedia, which equates the terms raised beach and marine terrace.)

Basically, marine terraces form through a combination of sea- and land-level changes with the action of erosion or deposition. Marine erosion creates features like wave-cut benches, sea cliffs, and rocky headlands, all of which are on display at Montana de Oro; not so much here in South Florida.

According to Anderson et al. (1999), marine terraces form when:

  • Sea-cliff retreat driven by wave erosion creates a wave cut platform.
  • The platform is abandoned when sea level drops leaving behind marine sediments covering a planar bedrock surface.
  • If tectonic uplifts rates are large enough, the old wave-cut platform has been lifted out of the surf zone by the next sea level highstand and the terrace is then preserved in the landscape.
  • Thus, a flight of marine terraces records the history of tectonic uplift and sea level fluctuation

Whatever the geologic explanation, exploring the beach is fun, and you can do it close to home, too. Further south in Palm Beach County, in my own town of Boca Raton, in fact, we can see a little bit of the formation at South Beach Park.

And, if you’re curious, Florida’s defined marine terraces, from Randazzo & Jones, are:

  • Silver Bluff (1—3 m elevation)
  • Pamlico (2.5—7.6 m)
  • Talbot (7.6—12.8 m)
  • Penholoway (12.8—21.3 m)
  • Wicomico (21.3—30.4 m)
  • Sunderland/Okeefenokee (30.4—51.8 m)
  • Coharie (51.3—65.5 m)
  • Hazlehurst (65.5—97.5 m)

One of these days, I might even be able to take some field trips to see them! But first, I need to digest the article by Alt and Brooks linked to above; it seems to explain some of the problems of interpreting marine terraces.

Elkhorn Slough

Ever since I first saw it back in 1988, I’ve been captivated by the rugged beauty of the California coastline from the Monterey Bay south into the Big Sur area. Over the past couple of years I’ve been able to make periodic trips to the area; a day here, a weekend there, squeezed in around business. My wife’s family lived in Pacific Grove for years, and I suppose I’ve developed a vicarious sense of home there. Certainly the scenery there corresponds to some sort of ideal in me; I can’t help but feel at home there, even when I’m just passing through on my infrequent business trips to the area.

Last month, for a couple of brief hours, I was finally able to accomplish a goal of mine: visiting the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (and vicinity). This is a 2500-acre area (the reserve itself is 1400 acres) of marsh and tidal flats along the shores of, according to the brochure, “one of the few relatively undisturbed coastal wetlands remaining in California”:

Over 400 species of invertebrates, 80 species of fish, and 200 species of birds have been identified in Elkhorn Slough.

View Larger Map

While at the headquarters area, with its extensive network of hiking trails, I saw the great horned owls nesting in the barn owl box on the site. Below is a picture of the barn:

It was right after leaving the barn area that I chanced across one of the rare moments of naturalist living: a mammal sighting! A bobcat happened to be crossing the trail while I was walking along it, and we looked at each other for a moment, too brief, naturally, for me to snap a photo, before the cat strolled into the head-high (to me) foliage at the trailside. I find it ironic that in all the years I’ve tried to see the bobcats at my local haunts, I’ve had extremely limited success, and on my only visit to this place, I got the best sighting I’ve ever had. Even the naturalists at the park said that they’d not seen them much.

Other sightings of note, of subjects that are a bit more photo-obliging, also occurred: here’s some pickleweed (Salicornia virginica) in Kirby Park, one of the areas of the slough:

As you can see from the map, there’s lots of mudflat for the pickleweed to do its thing:

View Larger Map

One of the interesting things about pickleweed is that its color depends on how much salt it’s taken up, and if you’re not using your cellphone camera as the result of a foolish attempt to pack lightly, you can take some interesting photos of this process at work. If, on the other hand, you’re a dang fool, all you get are blurry snapshots like the one above.

Later in the weekend, at Point Lobos, even using my cellphone, I got this great (well, usable) shot of my nemesis plant, Toxicodendron diversilobum:

I’m still using calamine lotion for the bout of itching I picked up from its eastern cousin, T. radicans, on Easter Sunday, over a month ago. Leaves of three, leave ’em be!
Here’s a small gallery of the least dreadful cellphone pix from the slough:

Next up: Point Lobos, one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
And note to self: whenever you go to California, bring a real camera!

Marine invertebrates, part two

Jellyfish and hydrozoans are only one type of animal that gets washed up on the beach during our easterlies. During our explorations last weekend Marcella ran across a colony of goose barnacles that had washed up as well:

They’re attached to an orange substrate that reminds me of a sponge, but I know next to nothing about poriferans, so I can’t get much further with that (I had thought it was an agglomeration of red sponge, Haliclona rubens, but the color is wrong and they’re usually more fingerlike than clumpy).

But there are other, more readily identifiable organisms attached to them: Goose barnacles (Lepas anserifera). These are harmless animals that resemble mollusks (the shells sure look a bivalve shell, don’t they?), but that are in fact arthropods: sessile crustaceans, to be somewhat precise. You can see their jointed legs (arthro-pod) poking out of their shells; they use them to gather food from the water:

Sorry for the blurriness of the pix; I have to remember to bring a real camera on these excursions. The cellphone camera just doesn’t cut it, although it does allow for pix where I would have had no pix at all were it not for it, so… “It’s a poor workman who complains of his tools.” Grumble gripe mumble mumble.

Lepas, according to Langstroth and Langstroth (why do the best beach and ocean guides seem to be written by husband and wife teams?), are pelagic species. They settle “on floating objects such as logs, bottles, ships, and…fishing floats” and go about making a living with their feathery thoracic legs, which “rhythmically gather in suspended food particles and may enhance respiration by creating water currents around the body. Lepas feeds on midsized planktonic organisms; in the laboratory it will even take animals larger than itself.”

When we flipped the whole assembly over, we noticed that there was a worm of some sort as well. It looks like a polychaete worm, but with over 9000 species worldwide, and only a few photos in any of my guides, I can’t even begin to think what it might be…

So there you have it: one animal of three identified for you. Just goes to show how much there is to know out there…

Marine invertebrates, part one

Springtime in south Florida generally means onshore breezes around the clock on the Atlantic coast. These steady breezes tend to push ashore large numbers of Physalia physalis, known as the Portuguese man o’ war, as was the case last weekend at Red Reef Park in Boca Raton:

According to my Witherington guide (Florida’s Living Beaches), April and May are the peak months for both size and abundance of these washed-up siphonophores. Even though it’s not a true jellyfish, the fact that both this animal and the true jellyfish can deliver a painful sting makes the distinction irrelevant in most people’s minds. After all, it’s easier to call something that looks like a jellyfish, floats like a jellyfish, and stings “like a jellyfish,” well, a jellyfish! The fact that it doesn’t really look like a jellyfish if you look closely enough doesn’t really matter to most people; the fact that it floats on top of the water with an inflated gas bag, instead of swimming or floating freely in the water column like a jellyfish doesn’t really matter to most people; the fact that its sting is many times more venomous than that of most jellies doesn’t really matter to most people, either.

The sting alone is enough to discourage most people from looking at it closely enough to notice the other differences between it and the true jellyfish. In fact, the sting is what gives the entire phylum, Cnidaria, which includes such diverse animals as corals, anemones, true jellyfish, and hydrozoans, its name. It derives from the Greek knidē, nettle.

The phylum consists of radially symmetric animals that possess specialized stinging cells called nematocysts:

If collar cells and spicules are defining characteristics of the Phylum Porifera, then nematocysts define cnidarians. These tiny organelles, [like] . . . cocked guns, are both highly efficient devices for capturing prey and extremely effective deterrents to predators. Each contains a coiled, tubular thread, which may bear barbs and which is often poisoned. A nematocyst discharges when a prey species or predator comes into contact with it, driving its threads with barb and poison into the flesh of the victim by means of a rapid increase in hydrostatic pressure. Hundreds or thousands of nematocysts may line the tentacles or surface of the cnidarian. They are capable even of penetrating human skin, sometimes producing a painful wound or in extreme cases, death. (From ADW entry)

So if the sting defines the entire phylum, it’s not too surprising that few people bother to make the distinction between the true jellyfish and the distantly related siphonophores.

Take a look at the pictures below and see if you can tell which one is a “true” jelly:

Did you get it right? All three are coelenterates (another word for cnidarians), but only the last is a “true” jelly, one of the moon jellies seen in a hasty snapshot from a pelagic birding trip I took in California last fall. Note how the jellyfish swims under the surface of the water, instead of floating on top, pushed by wind and wave action. Harder to tell at a glance, but true as well, is the fact that this is a unitary animal, rather than a colonial “superorganism.”

The first two, the Portuguese man o’ war and the By-the-wind sailor are colonial hydrozoans, “individual” animals composed of several different types of unisexual or asexual polyps and free-swimming sexual medusae. Both of them come in left- and right-sided versions as well. That is, the sail-like structure at the top of the pneumatophore (the gas bag) is angled either to the left or to the right. Thus, a left-sided and a right-sided animal would travel at right angles to each other if pushed by the same breeze. (This means that most mass strandings involve only one or the other body plan; it would be hard for a group of opposite-sided animals to stay together.)

Velella velella, the By-the-wind sailor, is placed by some in the order Athecata, which means “without a theca” (a theca is an enveloping sheath or case, from the Greek thēkē, case). Because athecata is not a monophyletic order, it will most likely change as more becomes known about these organisms. Other taxonomists place V. velella in the now-obsolete order Chondrophora (Greek chondros, grain or cartilage), or the current family (a higher taxonomic unit) Porpitidae. Below is a picture of a by-the-wind sailor that’s been washed up long enough to have lost its blue coloration:

Physalia physalis, the Portuguese man o’ war, is in the order Siphonophora, although it is by no means representative of that order. As far as I know, Physalia is the only genus in the order that floats on the surface of the water, rather than in the water column. There are some amazing creatures in this order that have only recently become better known to science. I can’t do much better than to quote to the aforelinked Casey Dunn:

Siphonophores challenge us to think about what we mean when we call something an individual, a concept that we usually think of as being quite straightforward. Is a single zooid or an entire colony the siphonophore “individual”? The answer is that you have to specify what features you are interested in before you can expect a meaningful answer. Do you mean ecologically? The entire colony functions as a single organism whether it is predator or prey. So the colony is an ecological individual. The same can be said for behavior. How about evolutionarily? There are two different components to this question. If we ask how evolution acts on siphonophores now, they are individuals. All the parts of the colony are genetically identical and the colony lives or dies as a whole (except for the eudoxids described later). So siphonophores are evolutionary individuals with respect to how natural selection shapes them today. The other way to look at evolutionary individuals is by descent. We can do this by taking a look at two animals and asking which structures descend from the same feature of a common ancestor. Just as this leads us to recognize that bat wings are modified arms, it shows that siphonophore zooids are polyps and medusae, structures that can be free living animals in other species. So this argument leads to the conclusion that the zooids of siphonophores are individuals. This is not contradictory to our previous conclusions, we are just looking at a different feature of individuality.

In the case of the man o’war, each colony consists of four distinct polyps, each of which has a special function:

  1. pneumatophore (float)
  2. dactylozooids (tentacles for defense and prey capture)
  3. gastrozooids (feeding)
  4. gonozooids (reproduction)

Without all four types, this colonial “superorganism” (with apologies to Wilson and Hölldobbler) would not function. Below is a picture of several men o’ war that wound up dying in the same bed of sargassum:

Whether you consider each colony as an individual or a plurality, there are at least three of them in that photo.

The by-the-wind sailor is also a colonial animal, rather than a single individual like the jellyfish, but its composition is slightly less famous than its larger cousin, and I’m nearing 2000 words, which makes this blog posting Too Long Already.

I’m belaboring the distinction between these hydrozoans and the other coelenterates because it’s not just an abstraction. It’s grounded in real, physical differences between the two groups. If we limit ourselves to a simple experience (ouch! they both sting! they must both be jellyfish!), or a cursory glance (they all look like gelatinous blobs) we run the risk of building our mental worlds on false grounds. These animals (don’t) swim like jellyfish, (don’t) look like jellyfish, and (do) sting like jellyfish; they are really not jellyfish at all.

Perhaps this tendency to give cnidarians short shrift stems from our landlocked perspective, colored by our evolutionary past. Our distant ancestors left the oceans a long time ago, but even before that, at least as far back as we can reliably speculate, they were unitary beings arranged on a bilaterally symmetric body plan that centered around a spinal column, or notochord (that longitudinal flexible rod of cells that forms the supporting axis of our body). However, only a very few of the organisms on this planet have one. Possessing a backbone is such a distinguishing characteristic that this one character defines the phylum Chordata within the animal kingdom.

But there are many, many other phyla within the kingdom Animalia: “the” inverterbrates, as we call them, as if the fact that they don’t have a backbone somehow is sufficient to characterize them in binary opposition to our own group, the vertebrates. Remember, though, the absence of a character is not a defining characteristic of any taxon, so to lump all animals without a backbone into one category defies logic. (Think: “Man is the animal without wings.”) However, since we are the ones defining the taxa, and we have backbones, it’s hard not to put “like-us” into one category, and “not-like-us” into another. Doing so, though, creates a hugely disproportionate grouping because, depending on your favorite taxonomy, invertebrates comprise anywhere from 13 of 14 (Wikianswers), up to 36 of 37 (Margulis & Chapman) of the phyla in the kingdom Animalia. (And if you’re a phylogenist or cladist, you don’t even bother with these considerations, you just add grouping after grouping. This one from the Tree of Life web project seems pretty accurate.)

And all of these phyla are arranged along a stunning variety of alternate body plans. The cnidarians, or coelenterates, are one of those phyla that tax our interpretive powers to the utmost. For years we didn’t even know the body plan of many of them because their bodies are so fragile they exploded in our nets, or even just at the approach of the lights of a submersible! Our perspective as terrestrial animals that only occasionally venture into nearshore marine environments has really slowed our understanding of this group of animals, except for those few that are hardy enough to exist at or near the surface.

Someday, after I get an underwater camera rig, I might delve more deeply into those other colonial cnidarians, the corals, with their symbiotic relationships with algae called zooxanthellae. But sea level rise and rising ocean temperatures might drive these fragile ecosystems to extinction before I can get around to buying a waterproof digicam and time to learn how to dive. So for now, I’ll concentrate on those organisms that I can find in the tidal wrack after a strong easterly blow like we’ve had for the past week or so. More on what I found later…


Dunn, C. “Siphonophores” (On-line), Siphonores. Accessed April 12, 2010 at http://siphonophores.org/SiphOrganization.php

Hammond, G. 2009. “Hydrozoa” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 12, 2010 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Hydrozoa.html.

Myers, P. 2001. “Cnidaria” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 12, 2010 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Cnidaria.html.

Tree of Life Web Project. 2002. Animals. Metazoa. Version 01 January 2002 (temporary). Accessed April 13, 2010 at http://tolweb.org/Animals/2374/2002.01.01 in The Tree of Life Web Project, http://tolweb.org/

Witherington, B. and Witherington D. 2007. Florida’s Living Beaches: A Guide for the Curious Beachcomber. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press.

Parallel worlds

There aren’t very strong geologic, climatologic, zoologic or botanic parallels between my two “home” states of Florida and California. True, both states have endemic scrub-jay populations (the Santa Cruz island scrub-jay and the Florida scrub-jay), and many of the plants and animals of Florida’s “ancient islands” (scrub habitat) have western affinities, but beyond that, there’s not a whole lot linking the two places.

Oh, sure, there are some superficial parallels. I mean, when I was going to grad school at UCLA, I rode my bike through palm tree–lined streets, dodging expensive cars, with the sights and sounds of the ocean never too far away from consciousness. Here in south Florida, I ride my bike through, um, palm tree–lined streets, dodging expensive cars, and the sights and sounds of the ocean aren’t too far away. We moved away from California in part because the housing prices had become unaffordable. Now we’re in Florida where, it seems, housing prices had become unaffordable. In both places, it appears to have been a bubble.

Geographically they’re also superficially similar: Both are longer on the north–south axis than they are east–west. California covers close to 800 miles longitudinally and only around 250 in latitude, while Florida is around 450 miles N-S and surprisingly wide–360 miles from Pensacola to the Atlantic coast. Both of them also start out in the upper left and drift across the page to the lower right:

But Florida, surrounded by water on three sides, is only much more recently, and perhaps temporarily, emerged from the ocean. Only those ancient island systems like the Lake Wales ridge date back more than a few thousands of years. California, on the other hand, is millions of years dry.

The water offshore of the two states is remarkably different: the cold California Current keeps the Pacific waters quite chilly, even in summer; the warm Gulfstream, on the other hand, keeps our Florida waters comfortable, even in winter. And presumably, these differences account for a climatologic difference as well. As I’ve mentioned before, the clouds are different: in California, unless you’re in the middle of June gloom (which, as a recent study has indicated, may be fluctuating or even decreasing over time, causing potential problems for California’s signature redwood forests), the clouds are never that close to the ground.

But in Florida, it seems like they’re right smack overhead all the time:

Both states have some interesting herpetofauna. Below, a west coast treefrog, Pseudacris species, which by range I assume to be Sierran treefrog (P. sierra):

And here an east coast group of hylids, Hyla squirella (Squirrel treefrog):

And, since this is basically a backyard nature blog, here’s an introduced species, Osteopilus septentrionalis (Cuban treefrog), from my own (front) yard in Florida:

So, what does all this mean? Yes, two states on opposite sides of the country have clouds that may or may not be the same; flora and fauna that may or may not be the same; people and cities and coasts that may or may not be the same. One has a coldwater current close offshore; the other a warmwater one. So what?

Well, each state has a claim on my affections, and I’m going to make sure my family makes the most of each one:

Related Images:

Pro(toc)tista redux: the Phaeophyta

I’d already been planning a follow-up of my recent post on that oddball eukaryote kingdom, Pro(toc)tista, just to discuss a couple of phyla that interest me [the brown algae, which include kelp and seaweeds, and the Bacillariophyta, which include diatoms (if you were in and around swimming pools as much as I was when I was younger, you’d probably wondered what diatomaceous earth was made of)], but before I got very far on the draft, I actually received my second nonfamily nonfriend comment, this time from a student in Canada who goes by the name Psi wavefunction* and obviously knows a lot more about these little beasties (the link is to her introduction to protists on her blog) than I ever will.

In her comment on Tuesday’s post, she points out that most researchers do not recognize Margulis’s distinction between protists and protoctista; hence they prefer the simpler form, protist. That’s fine with me; easier to spell, and thus, for my purposes at least (I’m a naturalist interested in science, not a scientist interested in nature), better. And after all, Margulis’s explanation for preferring the harder word (aren’t there enough of those in this area already?) doesn’t really hold water. Why would it be hard to remember that protists can be multicellular, if you know what a protist is in the first place? Does adding a -toc- to the name make it more obvious that protists are small and protoctists can be large? I doubt it. Or is the priority of the word protist so important that anything multicellular (and hence “nonprotist”) would threaten the taxonomic integrity of the kingdom**? I doubt it.

So anyway, that’s why I put the toc in parens in the title of this post, and why I will drop it going forward, in favor of Protista/protists.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled investigations. While that recent post was about Protista in general (i.e., the “everything else” of the eukaryote world), today I’d like to look at a couple of different phyla: the multicellular, and hence potentially quite large, Phaeophyta (brown algae) and the quintessentially tiny Bacillariophyta (the diatoms). With apologies to Ms. Waveform ( ;^) ), I will still use M&C for my basic information, just because it’s on my desk and, as she herself recognizes, is “the only non-ancient comprehensive introduction/overview of protists.”***

In the five-kingdom taxonomic scheme that I follow, faute de mieux, Phaeophytes (also known as brown algae) are classified as protists. And they are the largest protists we know. Mactocystis pyrifera (the giant kelp you’d find in Monterey Bay), for example, can grow to be over 50 meters long (M&C give a more conservative length estimate for the phylum of 40 meters, but these people are really microbiologists at heart, so they probably prefer smaller numbers to larger ones as a matter of principle…). Other brown algae species are smaller, but still quite a bit larger than most other protista, which tend to be microsopic. Brown algae, though, along with their cousins red algae (Rhodophyta for M&C) and yellow-green algae (not recognized by M&C, as far as I can tell), are large enough that they’re easily noticed when you’re walking on the beach.

Since this blog is nominally about nature in south Florida, I’d love to get you some information on one of the many phaeophyte species to be found in Florida, but I don’t have much data on them yet. I mean, for the life of me I never thought I’d need to shell out the moola for Dawes’s Seaweeds of Florida. Shoulda trusted the Amazon recommendations, I guess! Oh, well. Until I get a research grant, I guess we’ll have to make do with a picture of this unidentified member of the genus Sargassum, found washed up on a genuine beach here in south Florida:

Sargassum, of course, is named after/gives its name to the Sargasso Sea, a giant region in the middle of the North Atlantic that isn’t really a separate sea (it’s all one ocean, after all), but instead, as Wikipedia puts it,

a region in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, surrounded byocean currents. It is bounded on the west by the Gulf Stream; on the north, by the North Atlantic Current; on the east, by the Canary Current; and on the south, by the North Atlantic Equatorial Current. This system of currents forms the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre.

The sea was apparently named by Portuguese mariners for the large quantity of seaweed (sargaço) that is found there. Some of the most amazingly adapted fish can be found here; if Wikipedia had a decent photo, I’d show it to you, but since they don’t, check out the link above to the Florida Museum of Natural History. It’s way cool.

Only specialists (or those who have already bought their copies of Dawes!) distinguish among the various Sargassum species. Naturalists like me follow the Withertons’ field guide to Florida beaches (Florida’s Living Beaches), which shows you how to distinguish between pelagic sargassum species and those that have holdfasts (i.e., are sessile rather than planktonic); we leave the heavy lifting to those with a more serious interest in seaweed. One oddity about the Withertons’ book, though: they place Sargassum in the yellow-green algae (Xanthophyta), which don’t make it into M&C at all. I have to think that’s a mistake, since I don’t see seaweeds anywhere in those organisms. And in ITIS, all algae are still assigned to kingdom Plantae, so something’s rotten here, even though we’re not in Denmark…

Diatoms, apparently the sole members(?) of the phylum Baccillariophyta, unlike brown algae, are always microscopic, at least as individual organisms. There are between 10,000 and 100,000 extant species of these little guys, depending on which specialist you believe, scattered across some 250 genera, with another 70 genera from the fossil record.

But since this post is already growing unwieldy, we’ll have to save discussion of these little gems for another day. Maybe by then I’ll have figured out why, in their article on this phylum, they are introduced without apology by a sentence that nowhere contains the phylum name: “Beautiful aquatic protists—perhaps 10,000 living species—diatoms are single cells or form simple filaments or colonies.” They are absolutely beautiful, though, so in the meantime, take a look at the thumbnails in this Google image search.

* Psi’s (Ms. Wavefunction’s?) comments prompted me to reconsider my laziness in relying on a single source (Margulis and Chapman) for my knowledge of this gigantic world of tiny (and not-so-tiny) creatures. While I generally frown upon rants, particularly name-calling ones, I do appreciate people providing me with more perspective in the too-too-many areas in which my ignorance can manifest itself. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing…

** To refresh our memory of the most fundamental elements of taxonomy, let’s review the kingdoms again. In the 5-kingdom schema, it can be described with a pair of “x/not-x” distinctions: 1. There’s the prokaryote kingdom Bacteria, and then there’s everything else (the other 4 kingdoms, all eukaryotic). 2. Among the eukaryote kingdoms, there are the three well-defined ones (Animal, Plant, Fungus), and then there’s everything else (Protists). Pretty simple, no?

*** I will, however, be spending more time on the references she recommends (T. Cavalier-Smith, Predation and eukaryote cell origins: A coevolutionary perspective. Int J Biochem & Cell Bio, 41, 2, 307-322), so I can try to identify any pitfalls in the “origin stories” of my only major reference. To a naturalist, though, origin stories are much less important than field encounters, so I don’t feel too pressured to overcome my ignorance in the next five minutes…

Monterey Bay pelagic birding

I took a very brief business trip to California last week. Flew in late, had a late dinner at the best Chinese restaurant in the world (Golden Willow in Concord, if you’re curious). Met clients in the SF Bay area on Thursday morning, then drove down to Monterey for Friday morning meetings. The entire trip was very short; I had only 45 minutes at Moe’s, and barely enough time for dinner with Mom coming and going from SFO!

Despite feeling rushed throughout, and having a mild case of sinus congestion and cold symptoms, there was no way I would have cancelled this particular trip. Because for once, in all my long years of journeying from Florida to California on business, I was able to end up in Monterey on a weekend that Debi Shearwater was running an all-day pelagic bird trip. So despite the cold (my own cold, and the coldish weather–I am now a Floridian, at least as far as my heat-shedding capillary layer is concerned), I was one of the eager crowd milling around in the dark on Fisherman’s Wharf at 5 a.m. on a Saturday waiting to embark on a 12-hour tour (no wimpy Gilligan-style 3-hour cruises here!).

Here is the approximate location of our cruise, thanks to Google maps. Look at that topography; maps like this make me wish I’d gone into ocean sciences:

View Larger Map

As a result of the unique properties of the land/water interface here (underwater canyon, coldwater current, prevailing winds, etc.), pelagic birding in Monterey Bay is a Big Deal. People fly in from all over the country, and from elsewhere, for these trips; war stories fly thick and fierce in the cabin on the way out in the darkness. Tales from remote Alaskan islands like Attu, big years past and present (one lady told me about her big year starting out in the Everglades this year), reminiscences of pelagic trips of yore–all this and more can be overheard as the group attempts to ward off nervousness and anticipation, seasickness and excitement through conversation.

I have little to add to this banter, being a veteran of no trips to Alaska, no Big Years, and just barely (now, after this trip) 500 bird species seen worldwide. I am content to take what birds may come (really, what choice does one have?), and perhaps go a little out of my way for those that won’t come close by (10 business trips to India so far and I have yet to visit Bharatpur, although I have been to other bird refuges quite a bit less famous that happened to be on my business itinerary–Ranganathittu, near Mysore, and Sultanpur, in Haryana, along with “the” spot in Delhi, Anand Arya’s stomping grounds, the Okhla bird sanctuary on the banks of the Yamuna). I plan my travel, when possible, around the opportunity to see birds, but I have yet to travel outside Florida exclusively to see them.

So as the boat cruises out to the Albacore grounds, wherever in Monterey bay those might be–we went south, I understand, because the day was so calm–I listen more than I talk, and I go over the basics of pelagic birds, trying to remember how to distinguish pink-footed from flesh-footed shearwater (easy, it turns out: despite the confusingly similar common names, the all dark underwing of the flesh-footed looks nothing like the salt-and-pepper underwing of the pink-footed). In fact, though, most of the shearwaters we encounter on this trip are Buller’s, with very clean white underwings; the rest are pink-footed, with much more dark intruding into the white areas. Late in the day we see the lone flesh-footed of the trip, almost entirely dark throughout, particularly in the fading light. Here, from top to bottom, are flesh-footed, pink-footed, and Buller’s shearwaters, as seen by my camera:

As we begin the cruise, though, I tick off other possibilities, too, wondering just how similar a light morph Northern Fulmar might be to Western Gull (not very, it turns out), or Black-footed Albatross to Short-tailed (never got the chance to find out, on this trip).

And I freeze. Despite having geared up with “windproof” and (in Florida, anyway) warm rain gear before I left, and having purchased at the last minute a “Hot Peppers” thermal undershirt to complement it, and wearing tights under my jeans, I was just plain cold for most of the day. Fatigued from the trip, yes, sick, yes, so slightly more susceptible to the chill, but I  really did think that I had prepared appropriately–that I had in fact “geared up.” And I was wrong. And this on a very mild day–no wind to speak of, except that generated by the boat, and almost no swell. No sun, either, which I hadn’t counted on; the lack of light made picture-taking with my little non-VR 70-300 telephoto zoom something of a challenge, I can tell you (oh, for some real glass, or at least a bit more light!).

While the main object of the trip was birds, perhaps the most exciting sight I encountered on the trip was on the way out, in the early gray light. I was one of the people situated almost perfectly to watch a Humpback Whale breach the ocean’s surface vertically, pirouette on its tail, and flop onto its back. It was quite a ways from the boat, and I hadn’t even gotten my camera out of the bag, so I was unable to snap any kind of shot at all, but so impressive an event was it that I’m sure I will carry the sight with me to the end of my days. Such enormous grace, combined with such enormous size! It’s no wonder people fought so hard to protect these charismatic animals once their plight came to public attention in the 1960s. Below is a photo from Wikipedia that gives some idea of what I saw, although I was much farther away from the show than this; everyone on board who saw it erupted into applause and oohs and aahs:

Humpback Whale leaping. Photo by Whit Welles, from Wikipedia.

Humpback Whale leaping. Photo by Whit Welles, from Wikipedia.

Many another marine mammal was seen on the trip as well: among the cetaceans, fin whales, Arnoux’ beaked whale, and some common dolphins. A few pinnipeds as well: Harbor seal, California sea lion, Northern fur seal, and of course the sea otter. A few snapshots below to give an idea of the diversity. In the photos, I can’t even ID the whales, though, so I’ve included a few shots of pinnipeds from other trips, just to round it out:

But, as I said, the main point of this trip was birds. Birds, birds, birds! A partial list of the birds seen from the boat, including all 22(!) lifers, appears below. And then is the gallery, such as it is. For better pictures, I recommend visiting Abe Borker’s website; he saw all the birds we had on the trip, and has some lovely shots of previous trips; I assume he’ll be posting shots from this trip sometime soon.*

Species seen:

Black-footed Albatross

Northern Fulmar
Pink-footed Shearwater
Flesh-footed Shearwater
Buller’s Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater
Black-vented Shearwater

Black Storm-Petrel
Ashy Storm-Petrel
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel

Brown Pelican

Brandt’s Cormorant

Red-necked Phalarope
Red Phalarope

South Polar Skua
Pomarine Jaeger
Parasitic Jaeger

Heermann’s Gull
California Gull
Western Gull
Sabine’s Gull

Elegant Tern
Arctic Tern
Common Tern

Common Murre
Xantus’s Murrelet
Cassin’s Auklet
Rhinoceros Auklet
Tufted Puffin

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler

Spotted Towhee

* Many another photographer was in the boat as well. They were all sporting long telephoto lenses and seemed to take great delight in showing me camera-back displays of lovely clear, sharp photos of all the birds I was only able to capture as fuzzy dark blobs. 400+ photos I took, and fewer than 30 are fit to appear in the gallery, and those only because I processed the bleep out of them. I’m starting to save my pennies… It’s a poor workman who complains of his tools, but I’m not a workman here. I’m an amateur, pursuing this out of nonpecuniary interest; I can’t “invest” in a good quality lens. I have to “indulge” in it, or forgo it.

More books

Berkeley’s best book store, Moe’s, is probably the best book store in the world. I’ve been to many a book store, in London, Los Angeles, Edinburgh, Chicago, Paris, Boston,  New Delhi, Portland, and New York, and I still think Moe’s is the best. The Strand in Manhattan may be bigger, and Powell’s, in Portland and environs may have more branches and a better web presence, but I always seem to come back more heavily laden from Berkeley than I do from anywhere else in the world. From this latest haul (trip report still to come):

  • Seabirds of the World: The Complete Reference, by Jim Enticott (Stackpole, 1997). Not as much detail as either of Harrison’s books on seabirds, or as good reading as Rich Stallcup’s Ocean Birds of the Nearshore Pacific, but an interesting large-format book.
  • Sealife: A Complete Guide to the Marine Environment, by Geoffrey Waller, Marc Dando, and Michael Burchett (Smithsonian, 1996).
  • Biophilia, by E.O. Wilson (Harvard UP, 1986).
  • Sirius: Brightest Diamond in the Night Sky, by Jay Holberg (Springer, 2007).
  • The Book of the Moon, by Rick Stroud (Walker, 2009). An ambitious book by an amateur, it compiles an amazing amount of source material into one volume, and it’s pitched at a good level: not too technical for laymen, and not (too) insulting to informed amateurs. One giant hole in the bibliography though: no notice taken of Charles Wood’s Modern Moon, by far the best introduction to the moon for amateur astronomers.
  • Deep-Sky Companions: The Messier Objects, by Stephen James O’Meara. (Reprinted with corrections, Cambridge UP, 2000).
  • Life in the Undergrowth, by David Attenborough. (BBC Books, 2005).
  • The hardcover boxed set of Lord of the Rings released in 2002 in conjunction with Peter Jackson’s film of the trilogy. I finally gave up trying to find the 1988 edition at a reasonable price, and when Moe’s had it for $50, I was sold. (Of course, it turns out all I had to do was check Amazon; they had the set I was looking for $40. But then I wouldn’t be supporting independent local booksellers, now, would I?)

Who knows when I’ll get a chance to read through this haul, but at least I have some good long reads to look forward to!

Fish oil

First, thanks to all of you on Facebook for wishing me a happy birthday; I did indeed enjoy a wonderful day. Seeing all your good wishes brought a smile to my face; I understand that’s somewhat out of character for the traditional man turning 40. So be it. I’m smiling, so thanks, y’all! Now, yesterday’s post was about WD40, which is NOT made of fish oil. So today’s post needs to be about, well, fish oil.

What is it good for? Everyone knows, nowadays, that fish oil is high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which apparently we need in order to be healthy. (Can you imagine what life would be like if we had only lean acids in our bodies? We’d probably all die of scurvy, or something.) These fatty acids bioaccumulate* in the fish (they don’t produce the acids themselves), which makes oil derived from fish high in the substances, and, it has been argued, has led to overfishing. (Industries such as commercial fishing, whose existence depends on denying this possibility, naturally tend to disagree. And some of their arguments are quite reasonable. But I’d hate to rely on the fox’s assessment of the health of the henhouse population…)

In addition to the fatty acids found in fish oil, the substance itself used to be used as a digestive aid, a medicinal tonic, and many other things. In addition to all these properties, it turns out that fish oil–in this case, a cupful of unrefined cod liver oil ($100+/gallon back in 1990)–is absolutely what you need to attract a large gathering of pelagic birds. Here’s how Rich Stallcup describes it in his incredibly useful book, Ocean Birds of the Nearshore Pacific (Point Reyes Bird Observatory, 1990):

On 27 August 1983, Terry Wahl, Bill Tweit, and I were 40 miles west of Westport, Washington, with a boatload of birders. The trip was going great, the water was glassy, and there were lots of birds. Four working shrimp trawlers were accompanied by over 5,000 shearwaters of five species, and we had seen Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels and several alcids on the way out. It was still quite early in the day, and Terry said, “Shall we go out to albatross habitat?” Sure! So we left this area of teeming activity, put the bow on the compass’s big green W, and powered west. Birdlife promptly declined, and there was only the odd Sooty Shearwater to be seen. When we got to about 50 miles, there wasn’t even that. I did a 360-degree scan. Nothing. Nothing but water, and Bill and Terry said, “This is the spot. Stop the engines.” Passengers were glancing at each other in wonder as gloppy, smelly, clear liquid bloop-blooped from plastic bottles, clinging to itself in patches, floating on the surface of the sea. I scanned. Nothing. Then, at a great distance, a wheeling albatross! Within ten minutes there were 61 Black-footed Albatrosses sitting near the boat, a Long-tailed Jaeger circled near by, and two Tufted Puffins came roaring in like spiraling, black footballs and splashed to stops. Sabine’s Gulls and storm-petrels appeared from nowhere. Everyone was impressed.

Of course, as Stallcup writes, it doesn’t always work this way, but when it does, I can just imagine the excitement that must come over the boat. And, in a few days, I hope to be able to see it, or something like it, with my own eyes, when I take my first pelagic trip.

When I get back, I’m going to try to drum up some interest in our local Florida birding group to motor out to the Gulf Stream some day to see what’s what. I just recently got some leads on local captains who might not mind a charter without the pressure of finding fish…

* Now, don’t get all excited just because I used the word bioaccumulation. The word may have come to prominence because it’s how environmental toxins like DDT move up the food chain, but the word, and the process itself, is fine, even necessary. We rely on bioaccumulation constantly. Can you imagine trying to go out and capture or manufacture each and every essential protein or nutrient in the food chain independently? Much better to rely on bioaccumulation in the food web, from primary producers (autotrophs like algae and phytoplankton) on up, to aggregate all of these packets, which we then just appropriate through the magic of killing and eating those animals in which the required substances bioaccumulate. Bioaccumulation, at its simplest, is just digestion.

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