WordCraft.NatureFocus

Scrippsia bell jelly

Scrippsia by CMaParsonsJelly blobs on the beach are a travesty,
like this one I found recently among wave-tossed seagrasses on Del Monte Beach. Lifeless on the sand, such jellies are void of their pulsating grace, intricate structures and delicate colors. Yet I always watch for them. For a beachwalker, they’re a window into what’s beyond the waves. This new jelly species (for me) is Scrippsia pacifica, or the
giant bell jelly.

The jelly’s bell can grow to 4 inches (10 cm) long, about the size of this one. The purplish-red dots you see are ocelli (simple eyes!). Missing were the bell’s frilly lips and its more than 200 trailing tentacles. Not too much is known about this secretive species. Their tentacles carry nematocysts (stinging cells) and it’s an active predator, but I couldn’t find much detail on how it feeds. Related species (Polyorchis spp.) swim toward the surface and then sink, collecting plankton as they drop. They may also rest on or near the bottom and collect tiny animals with the stinging tentacles. The life cycle is also a mystery. Scrippsia is known from only the medusa (bell) life phase and not its polyp or larval stages (there’s a research project).

This jelly’s lovely scientific name was provided in 1909 by Harry Beal Torrey (1873 – 1970). He was a zoologist and a medical doctor working for a while at the Marine Biological Association of San Diego. During his long life, he published quite extensively on Coelenterata, the animal group at the time that included comb jellies along with true jellies and their relatives (these days that group is two phyla: Ctenophora and Cnidaria). He spent much of his later career in Berkeley and Oakland working in public health, even spending time as the director of Children’s Hospital of East Bay (he had a diverse career).

My picture certainly doesn’t do this giant bell jelly justice. For a full-figure shot and to learn more, visit The JelliesZone, or follow one drifting through a kelp forest off San Diego in this short YouTube video. And, next time you find a jelly blob on the beach, look to the water and think about the real life of the amazing creature at your feet and how little we know about so many.

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Sources
Calder, D.R. (2013). Harry Beal Torrey (1873–1970) of California, USA, and his research on hydroids and other coelenterates. Zootaxa 3599: 549-563. 
Wrobel, D. & Mills, C. (1998). Pacific Coast Pelagic Invertebrates: A guide to the common gelatinous animals. Monterey, CA: Sea Challengers and Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Sea lions stranded

Stranded sea lion by CMaParsonsA lone sea lion on a busy Monterey Bay beach is in serious, and potentially dangerous, trouble. It’s also a sad sight. When they’re sick, malnourished or injured, sea lions will haul out onto land to rest, recouperate or die. When one chooses a beach traversed by humans and dogs on a sunny Saturday, it’s seriously sick and faces overheating in the sun and the danger of human harassment. Unaware people can be in danger, too. (Last summer I had to stop a young boy from reaching out to touch the nose of a beached sea lion while his parents were watching!) If it can, a sea lion will bite. It’s a nasty wound for people or pets.

If you encounter a sea lion stranded on the beach, as I did this morning, please do not get close, keep dogs away and do not touch or try to assist the animal (a well-meaning but misguided person had piled kelp on this young sea lion to shade or cool it). Call for help!

Along the Northern and Central California coast we’re fortunate to have The Marine Mammal Center, which rescues and rehabilitates stranded marine mammals. They also will, if absolutely necessary, humanely euthanize. The website lists tips for what to do when you find a stranded animal. When you call — available 24/7 — they’ll ask for details about the animal, its condition and location.

From Mendocino thru San Mateo counties, call (415) 289-SEAL (7325).

In Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, call (831) 633-6298.

In San Luis Obispo County, call (805) 771-6298.

Stranded sea lion2 by CMaParsonsWait until rescuers arrive, if possible. This make take a while. The Marine Mammal Center is staffed mostly by volunteers, the need is never-ending and resources are always limited. You can also help by donating to this great group even if you don’t find a stranded animal on the beach.

A final note: It’s harbor seal pupping season around the bay. If you find a harbor seal pup on the beach (they’re shaped like fat sausages and have no external ear flaps like the one you see on this sea lion), leave the pup alone. Its mother is probably close by. If you’re unsure, your first action is to call The Marine Mammal Center.

Other Monterey Bay rescue centers
For sea otters, contact the Monterey Bay Aquarium at (831) 648-4800.
For birds and other wildlife emergencies, contact the SPCA for Monterey County at (831) 264-5427 during business hours and (831) 646-5534 after hours, or Native Animal Rescue of Santa Cruz at (831) 462-0726.

 

Elephant seal portraits 2: Females and pups

ElephantSealF1 by CMaParsonsWinter brings elephant seals to the California coast — massive bellicose males and weary pregnant-plump females that deliver baggy newborns. Their annual ritual along remote beaches and among sand dunes starting in December includes battling, birthing, mating and, by April, molting.

We see a few individuals in Monterey Bay (Hopkins Marine Station Beach and recently Del Monte Beach), but don’t have a large colony. The closest is at Año Nuevo State Park about 60 miles (97 km) north of Monterey. For many people, viewing elephant seals while they’re visiting is a winter tradition. It’s quite a sight and these portraits of females and pups are from my January trip to Año Nuevo.

ElephantSealF2 by CMaParsonsThe females usually arrive at the rookery later than the males, often after or while bulls are establishing beachheads. In the colony, females aren’t as showy as the males (sorry gals), but they’re more numerous and noticeably full-figured. An adult female grows to about 10 feet (3.1 m) on average and may weigh nearly 2,000 pounds (900 kg). They need to be that big because they won’t eat anything while on the beach. Early arrivers try to pick a spot near the alpha male, close to his inner circle. This offers some protection from harassment by other males and battles at the edge of the colony.

ElephantSealM&P1 by CMaParsonsWithin days of arrival a pregnant female gives birth to a small, dark pup (newborns appear to be wearing suits three sizes too large). The pup quickly fills out by nursing on mom’s rich milk and within weeks fattens from a weight of about 75 pounds (34 kg) to nearly 300 pounds (136 kg).

ElephantSealF6 by CMaParsonsFemales don’t fight as violently as the males, but they do quarrel. The colony is crowded and large adults can easily crush a pup. Females battle for prime real estate in the harem and to maintain space between their young ones and other adults.

While a pup is growing, its mother may mate several times (those interactions are another story). Then, at about 4 weeks, she abandons her rotund “weaner” (if all went well) and returns to the sea. The pup remains for a while until it molts and learns to swim.

ElephantSealF3 by CMaParsonsNote: For more about the colony, visit my portraits of males or consult the references below. 

There’s a considerable amount of scientific research being conducted on elephant seals (in these photos you’ll see numbers on some animals and electronic devices epoxied to the fur, which fall off during the annual molt). ElephantSealM&P2 by CMaParsons

Scientists have learned that the seals’ open-ocean lives are amazing. They travel throughout most of the northeast Pacific Ocean in search of fishes and squid and the current diving record is 5,788 feet (1754 m) — more than a mile. Elephant seals are definitely not the slugs they appear to be on the beach.

 The northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) was thought to be extinct in the late 1880s, hunted for the oil rendered from their copious blubber. ElephantSealF4 by CMaParsonsThe thousands that we see today were spawned by a small colony on Guadalupe Island off Baja Mexico in the early 1900s. The current population from Mexico to Alaska is estimated to be about 175,000 individuals (although no one is really sure). That number may look good, but the population is vulnerable. Because they are all descendants of a few, their genetic variability is low, which makes the species less adaptable and more vulnerable to disease or environmental changes.

ElephantSealGroup by CMaParsonsIf you want to see for yourself, here’s a starter list of California spots (from south to north) where you can view elephant seals while they’re ashore. It’s notable that most sites are state or federal parks and protected areas, which we need to continue to support.

Channel Islands National Park & Marine Sanctuary
Piedras Blancas rookery and Friends of the Elephant Seal
Año Nuevo State Park
Farallon Islands (a National Marine Sanctuary and National Wildlife Refuge)
Point Reyes National Seashore

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Sources & Resources
Adams, C. & Adams, P. (1999). Elephant Seals (rev ed.). San Luis Obispo, CA: Central Coast Press.
Animal Diversity Web (ADW): Mirounga angustirostris – northern elephant seal
NOAA SIMoN (Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network) Special Status Species: Northern elephant seal

Elephant seal portraits 1: Males

ElephantSealM1 by CMaParsonsWinter brings elephant seals to the California coast — massive bellicose males and weary pregnant-plump females that deliver baggy newborns. Their annual ritual along remote beaches and among sand dunes starting in December includes battling, birthing, mating and, by April, molting.

We see a few individuals in Monterey Bay (Hopkins Marine Station Beach and recently Del Monte Beach), but don’t have a large colony. The closest is at Año Nuevo State Park about 60 miles (97 km) north of Monterey. For many people, viewing elephant seals while they’re visiting is a winter tradition. It’s quite a sight and these portraits of males are from my January trip to Año Nuevo.

ElephantSealM5 by CMaParsonsMales in the colony are the most spectacular and diverse (sorry gals). Their noses, in particular, indicate their development from age 2 to 8 as they grow into the pendulous, inflatable proboscis that’s characteristic of a mature male. (They also make for great portraits.) A fully formed proboscis may overhang the mouth by 8 inches (20 cm) and helps a male intimidate other males (along with his size, posturing and Harley-Davidson motor sounds).

ElephantSealM3 by CMaParsonsAn adult male can grow to 13 feet (4 m) and weigh more than 5,000 pounds (2300 kg) — he’s a huge animal. While at the rookery, a dominant or alpha bull sleeps, defends his harem from other males and mates with the females that have settled near him. Beta bulls cruise the edges of harems for opportunities to mate with females before being run off by the dominant male.

ElephantSealM4 by CMaParsonsWhen a beachmaster feels challenged by an interloper, he’ll rear up, throw back his head and bellow his warning. If he can’t scare off the other male, they may engage in a spectacular duel of chest thumping, neck wrestling and biting with long canine teeth. (Younger males fight for position in the hierarchy as well.) ElephantSealsM7 by CMaParsons

A dominance battle might be bloody, but elephant seals are well-padded and injuries are usually minor. Most battles occur before or as females arrive to give birth. Winning males build and maintain harems and do most of the mating.

Note: For more about the colony, visit my portraits of females and pups or consult the references below. 

ElephantSealM2 by CMaParsonsThe northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) was thought to be extinct in the late 1880s, hunted for the oil rendered from their copious blubber. The thousands that we see today were spawned by a small colony on Guadalupe Island off Baja Mexico in the early 1900s.

ElephantSealM22 by CMaParsonsToday, the population from Mexico to Alaska is estimated to be about 175,000 individuals (although no one is really sure). That number may look good, but the population is vulnerable. Because they are all descendants of a few, their genetic variability is low, which makes the species less adaptable and more vulnerable to disease or environmental changes.

If you want to see for yourself, here’s a starter list of California spots (from south to north) where you can view elephant seals while they’re ashore. It’s notable that most sites are state or federal parks and protected areas, which we need to continue to support.ElephantSealGroup by CMaParsons

Channel Islands National Park & Marine Sanctuary
Piedras Blancas rookery and Friends of the Elephant Seal
Año Nuevo State Park
Farallon Islands (a National Marine Sanctuary and National Wildlife Refuge)
Point Reyes National Seashore

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Sources & Resources
Adams, C. & Adams, P. (1999). Elephant Seals (rev ed.). San Luis Obispo, CA: Central Coast Press.
Animal Diversity Web (ADW): Mirounga angustirostris – northern elephant seal
NOAA SIMoN (Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network) Special Status Species: Northern elephant seal

Salps on the sand

Salp3 by CMAParsonsHow do you explain a salp? Especially when you find one or more stranded on a sandy beach and don’t know what it is? To start with, a salp is a tunicate (I’m sure that doesn’t mean much to most). Let’s try this. It’s a gelatinous sea animal that looks like a tiny, water-filled, plastic bag. (It feels more like plastic than jelly.) Salp1 by CMAParsonsSalps are open water (pelagic) sea creatures that swim and feed at the same time — by contracting and pumping water through the body. As the water flows inside, the salp collects bits of living material, especially phytoplankton, for food. Salps can be singular, but also form long lovely chains, or colonies sometimes with many thousands of individuals (see chains in the MBARI photo or YouTube video). They’re most prominent in the waters around Antarctica, but are found in Monterey Bay, too. They’re lovely in the water, but I also found them attractive littering the sand. Salp4 by CMAParsonsOne of the most intriguing things about this simple-looking animal is its complex life cycle. The generations alternate from asexual single individuals producing clones to sexual colonies which include young females that age and grow into males. Offspring of the colony take up the single asexual life, hence closing the life-cycle loop. Salp2 by CMAParsons Even though salps appear jellylike, they’re not related to jellies (jellyfish) at all. This brings me back to the earlier reference to tunicates. During early larval development, salps and their tunicate relatives have a rodlike notochord, or very primitive backbone structure. (It’s not present in adulthood.) This structure also appears during the development of vertebrates (animals with backbones). That makes salps and other tunicates more closely related to you and me than to jellies. Salp5 by CMAParsonsWhen I first saw these on the beach, I didn’t know what they were. They didn’t look like their living selves. (My thanks to George Matsumoto of MBARI for identifying them, and any errors in this post are mine.) The photos of these inch-long (2.5 cm) individuals and small groups were taken during a warm Sunday morning walk along Del Monte Beach (Monterey) in December. The salps may have been dumped by a current as they fed near the surface nearshore or rolled ashore on a set of large swells. However they ended up on the beach, they offered me a glimpse of the open-water world beyond the waves.   Note: Salps are not dying in record numbers and littering the seafloor due to Fukushima radiation, as has been reported on the Internet. For more about the true story, see the MBARI article or Deep Sea News post.

Also check out this article with beautiful images and video of salps’ feeding in Oceanus Magazine: Salps Catch the Ocean’s Tiniest Organisms.

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Sources & Resources
Condon, R.H., Graham, W.M., Duarte, C.M. et al. (2012, Feb.). Questioning the rise of gelatinous zooplankton in the world’s oceans. BioScience(62) 2. [pdf link]
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) website.
Science Daily (2006, July 2): Jellyfish-like creatures may play major role in fate of carbon dioxide in the ocean.
The JelliesZone: Pelagic Tunicates