Archive for the ‘Cool Creatures’ Category

Underwater Diversity

April 21, 2014

It is amazing how many different ways organisms can survive in the ocean.  One of the most interesting is the many different strategies to try to get food from the water (filled with phytoplankton, zooplankton and detritus (particles of decaying algae and animal material)), from larger algae growing on the bottom, or from the organisms that consume these sources.

 

Kelp Rockfish

We see Kelp Rockfish associating with, surprise…kelp!  They eat different crustaceans on the kelp and even eat small year-old rockfish.

LingcodThis impressive Lingcod is a predator around the kelp forest, they eat invertebrates like squid and crustaceans and many different fishes.

Fish-Eating Anemone

This Fish-eating Anemone eats crustaceans and fishes.  It would not be pleasant to be captured by one of these and digested slowly!

Sunflower Star

This Sunflower Star is a surprisingly fast moving predator in the kelp forest.  They, like other seastars, extrude their stomach and digest their prey using acids, another not-so-fun way to be eaten.

Kelp Greenling

This beautiful Kelp Greenling male eats different invertebrates and even fishes when they become available.

Lined Chiton

This lined chiton moves along the bottom scraping the surface, getting foods like coralline algae, detritus (decaying algal and animal material), attached invertebrates, diatoms (algae), red algae, and green algae.

These species are just a preview of what we see each dive around the Monterey Bay area.  I am grateful people before us have studied these organisms so we are able to construct food webs to try to understand how all of this diversity we see interacts over time and space.

Clash of the Titans: Killer Whales vs. Blue Whale

March 10, 2014

By Marilyn Cruickshank

With a vast habitat like the ocean, unusual encounters might happen all the time, but our chances of observing them are pretty slim. Last week, the naturalists of Monterey Bay Whale Watch had such a chance, when they spotted a pod of killer whales harassing a juvenile blue whale.

Credit: Monterey Bay Whale Watch

While the interaction didn’t last long, it was clear that members of the pod were rushing the rolling rorqual (baleen whale), as it flung its fluke (tail) into the air. Killer whales, which are actually large dolphins, exhibit similar behavior when they hunt gray whale calves. According to Monterey Bay Whale Watch, such an encounter with a blue whale has never before been recorded in California.

Most of the attack occurred underwater, before the larger whale retreated. It surfaced a quarter of a mile, and then a half a mile away from the killer whale pod, apparently deciding that any food gotten in that area was not worth the hassle. Since even juvenile blue whales can be 50 feet long or more, it is unlikely the pod could have done it serious damage or gotten any nutritional benefit. However, blood was spotted on its fluke, which shows that the interaction was not playful.

BLUE WHALE: TAIL THROWS, after encounter with killer whales! You can see a that the right tip of the right fluke is missing. Photo: Daniel Bianchetta.

BLUE WHALE: TAIL THROWS, after encounter with orcas! You can see a little blood flying off of the right tip of the right fluke; this fluke tip is missing. Photo: Daniel Bianchetta.

While we can only speculate about the reasons for bothering the blue whale, one such might be to practice hunting maneuvers specific to that pod, or to teach younger pod members the ropes. More such encounters would have to be observed before any scientific conclusions could be drawn, but even one helps us learn a little bit more about these amazing creatures.

When we see killer whales doing such things, it’s tempting to think of them as bullies, since they seem to gain no nutritional benefits. However, it is important to remember that such activities help to strengthen social ties within the pod, and that killer whales are wild animals that can’t just go to Safeway if they don’t find food that day. The killer whales are simply doing what they do best- working together to hone their skills as predators in a harsh ocean environment. Even still, it’s good to know that the blue whale got away with little harm, ready to eat tons of krill another day.

If you want to see these and other marine mammal and birds in their natural habitat, you can go to Monterey Bay Whale Watch for more information.

All photos were from Daniel Bianchetta from the Monterey Bay Whale Watch.

Journey to the Center of the Slough

February 14, 2014

by Catarina Pien, PSRC Lab

If you’ve ever visited our lab, you’ve seen the beautiful waters surrounding us, often bobbing with a variety of marine mammals. The main body of water that surrounds Moss Landing Marine Laboratories is Elkhorn Slough, which is an estuarine embayment that drains into the Monterey Bay.

Beautiful Elkhorn Slough, photo by Jennifer Chiu

Beautiful Elkhorn Slough, photo by Jennifer Chiu

Elkhorn Slough has evolved greatly in the past few centuries. Since the dredging of Moss Landing Harbor in 1946, the slough has become directly connected and thus heavily influenced by the Monterey Bay. This connection has led the slough to change from a freshwater-influenced estuary to a predominantly saltwater-influenced and erosional body of water. A great deal of research has been done to study how these changes have influenced habitat structure and biological communities in the slough.

My own thesis research will focus on Elkhorn Slough, and how various oceanographic variables have changed and are influencing elasmobranch (shark and ray) populations in the slough. I am hoping that the class will be beneficial in showing me how to measure chemical variables, and analyze values in terms of how they influence biological communities.

Map of Elkhorn Slough, from Google Earth

Map of Elkhorn Slough, from Google Earth

Last week, our chemical oceanography class was split into five groups and deployed to various water bodies around our school to take some measurements and water samples. It had just rained earlier that week, so we were hoping there would be some visible differences in salinity and nutrient content in the regions we were sampling. Although the main channel of Elkhorn Slough is heavily influenced by the Monterey Bay, and thus oceanographically similar to the ocean, the upper reaches of the slough are often less saline (depending on the season), and more influenced by precipitation. One group went offshore to Monterey Bay, two groups went into Elkhorn Slough, one drove around to Salinas River, Carneros Creek, and other connected sloughs, and my group sampled in Moss Landing Harbor.

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We took one of our school’s whalers on a beautiful sunny morning, excited (though some of our facial expressions may not be representative) and ready to sample.

Our team!

We motored slowly through the harbor, observing sea lions sunning themselves, and being observed by harbor seals and a portly sea otter.

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Sea lions sunning themselves

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Curious harbor seals

Large male otter

Large male otter

Once at a station, we used the CTD (Conductivity Temperature Depth) to measure salinity, temperature, and pH at eight stations within our region.

CTD measures salinity, temperature, pH among other oceanographic variables

CTD measures salinity, temperature, pH among other oceanographic variables

We also recorded GPS coordinates, and collected water samples with a syringe, and filtered them into a bottle to bring back to the lab.

Marisa is inserting CTD to measure salinity, temperature, pH

Marisa is inserting CTD to measure salinity, pH and temperature

Emily recording CTD measurements

Emily recording CTD measurements

Marisa filtering seawater

Marisa filtering seawater 

Many of the changes to Elkhorn Slough have been anthropogenic, including the construction of levees, dikes, tide gates, salt ponds, and railroads. Some of these were constructed early on for agriculture and ranching, whereas others have been created to remedy erosional problems we have created.  These barriers have altered tidal flow within Elkhorn Slough, and created distinct oceanographic areas. In order to determine differences between these areas, some stations required us to leave the boat to sample adjacent areas that were separated by a barrier.

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Evan braving the train tracks, photo by Jennifer Chiu

We passed by the lab, hoped we wouldn’t embarrass ourselves in front of the whole lab, and successfully finished our collections near the tide gate leading to the Old Salinas River.

MLML!

MLML!

Combined with the rest of the teams, we now have oceanographic measurements and water samples all around Elkhorn Slough and the surrounding bodies of water. Over the course of the semester, we will learn how to measure phosphate, nitrite/ nitrate, oxygen, silicate, and alkalinity of the water samples. The measurements will tell us something about how how the stations differ from each other, how Elkhorn Slough is partitioned, and the outside influences to each station.

As marine scientists, many of us spend a substantial chunk of time in the field. While field work can be frustrating and tiring, on a beautiful day like this, encountering a multitude of wildlife and puttering slowly through the beautiful waters, it is easy to remember why we went into the field of marine science.

The Great Risso Haul Out!

December 24, 2013

On Sunday 22nd of December, I had the opportunity to participate with the Marine Mammal Center and help move a Risso dolphin (Grampus griseus ) carcass at Breakwater Cove. Risso dolphins are distinguished by their bulbous head and white body which are heavily scarred from teeth raking between dolphins, as well as markings from their prey such as squid. They are a common species of dolphin found here in Monterey.

Close up of the Risso dolphin carcass.


This particular individual was found washed up near Monterey and took more than 12 people to move this animal onshore away from the waves. We had to set tarps to make it easier to move it. Risso dolphins weigh around 600 to 1,000 pounds and can reach a length of around 13 feet, making them one of the larger dolphins.

Measuring the Risso. Multiple scarring is common in this species

However, the area where we planned to move the dolphin was too steep and we lacked the manpower or the equipment to move the animal smoothly to the truck. So while we waited in the warm sunny weather on what to do next, we tethered the dolphin with rope to prevent the waves from dragging the dolphin back to sea.

The brave volunteers from the Marine Mammal Center, holding down the ropes.

So after waiting for an hour, we decided to have the harbor master tow the dolphin back into the water and transport to place to pick the dolphin up with a forklift. Took us two tries to push the dolphin back into the water. The first attempt the rope broke from the stress. Also timing of the waves were not in our favor most of the time, so we have to wait till the perfect wave came to push the carcass back into the water. Overall, I had fun! Never thought I would be able to see a Risso up close and personal! Necropsy will be conducted soon, so hopefully we’ll figure out what was the cause of death.

Happy Halloween!

October 31, 2013

By Melissa Nehmens

This time of year offers the chance to provide a romanticized explanation of autumn on the central coast. I could explain how here at Moss Landing the weather is turning colder, the leaves are changing color, and the storm clouds bring a scented promise of the rains to come.  However, we have more important things to discuss: Halloween!

This past weekend was Moss Landing Marine Labs’ annual Halloween Party. Everyone came in costumes and as part of the tradition, each lab or group brought their pumpkin to be judged by the student body in the pumpkin carving contest. Though officially there was only one winner, I think everyone did a great job. What do you think?

assorted pumpkins

Front Desk, Biological Oceanography lab, Shop, and PSRC pumpkins

scuba pumpkin

Scuba Pumpkin

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Diving the MLML Seawater Intakes

October 25, 2013

By Diane Wyse, Physical Oceanography Lab

Earlier this week I volunteered to dive on the MLML seawater intakes, located about 200 m due west of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and 17 m below the surface.  The intakes supply seawater to multiple sites around Moss Landing, including the aquarium room at MLML, the Test Tank at MBARI, and the live tanks at Phil’s Fish Market.

Location of the intake pipes offshore.  Image: MLML/Google Earth (2013)

Location of the intake pipes offshore. Image: MLML/Google Earth (2013)

The purpose of the dive was to attach a surface float to a subsurface float located at a depth of about 15 feet.  A secondary objective was to visually inspect the intakes, which can be viewed in the video below.

The view from approximately above the intakes. Photo: Diane Wyse (2013)

The view of Moss Landing from approximately above the intakes. Photo: Diane Wyse (2013)

So how do you find an intake system 50 ft below the water?

To execute the operation, Assistant Dive Safety Officer Scott Gabara and I took a whaler from the MLML Small Boats with the assistance of boat driver Catherine Drake.  We used the best GPS coordinates previously called upon to locate the intakes, then threw a spotter surface float attached to a line and weight that unraveled to the seafloor.  We followed that line to the bottom and practiced our circle search skills until we found the first of the two intakes.  While anchoring the search line I saw a pipefish, a couple flatfish, and not much else.  During our descent and ascent we spotted half a dozen sea nettles, but on the sandy bottom it appeared pretty desolate.  The intakes, on the other hand, provide a hard substrate for sessile invertebrates and their predators to form a lively little oasis in the sand.  The first thing you notice when you come upon the intakes are the large white Metridium anemones.  If you take a closer look at the video, around 15 seconds in, you can spot a little octopus scurrying for cover.  After inspecting the first intake we moved to the second, that’s right, completely submerged by sand, with the line extending up to the subsurface float.  Though the video is short you can see some of the organisms residing on the line include seastars, Metridium, caprellids or “skeleton shrimp”, and my favorite marine invertebrate: nudibranchs.  Hermissenda (opalescent) nudibranchs, to be exact.  I wish I had a chance to take still photos while I was out there, but we had a job to do.  We successfully tied the surface float to the line and removed old line, thus making it much easier for future divers to study sediment movement and perform maintenance on the intake pipes.

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Tidepooling Take Two

October 17, 2013

Wyse_headshotBy Diane WysePhysical Oceanography Lab

Earlier this week, three graduate student volunteers and I ventured to Bay View Academy in Monterey to talk with the fourth grade class about trophic levels and intertidal zonation.  I had the unique opportunity to lead the trip again this year, you can learn about the first iteration of this trip in one of my very first posts for the Drop-In.

Sara Worden, Heather Kramp, Dorota Szuta, and Diane Wyse lead a classroom safety briefing and intertidal lesson. Photo: Erika McPhee-Shaw (2013)

Sara Worden, Heather Kramp, Dorota Szuta, and Diane Wyse lead a classroom safety briefing and intertidal lesson. Photo: Erika McPhee-Shaw (2013)

I volunteered for the trip again this year because it is the sort of educational outreach experience that to me really embodies the spirit of MLML; sharing resources and experiences from multiple labs and teaching in our beautiful marine backyard.  The student volunteers represented the Physical Oceanography Lab, the Phycology Lab (Sara Worden), the Benthic Ecology Lab (Dorota Szuta), and the Ichthyology Lab (Heather Kramp). Another reason I volunteered again? Try passing up an opportunity to geek out science on one of the prettiest beaches in the world.  Yeah, it’s tough to do.

Benthic Ecology Lab student Dorota Szuta teaches a group of fourth grade girls about intertidal invertebrates. Photo: Diane Wyse (2013)

Benthic Ecology Lab student Dorota Szuta teaches a group of fourth grade girls about intertidal invertebrates. Photo: Diane Wyse (2013)

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99 bottles of fish on the wall? Try 200,000!

September 29, 2013
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Pacific Shark Research Center graduate student Catarina Pien and researcher Dave Ebert observe some of the unique sharks from the CAS collection.

By Kristin Walovich

Fellow grad student Catarina Pien and I were lucky enough to visit to the California Academy of Science in San Francisco to check out their extensive museum collection, home to nearly 1.2 million specimens!   We were on a mission to observe a variety of sharks, rays and chimaeras and to bring back specimens on loan from the South African Museum. We were greeted on a foggy San Francisco Friday by Dave Catania, the senior collections manager for the Department of Ichthyology.

The California Academy of Science (CAS) Department of Ichthyology houses one of the largest and most important research collections of fish in the world. There are nearly 200,000 jars of preserved fish in the collection, representing nearly 11,000 different species. That is more than a third of fish known to science!

By looking up the unique identification number assigned by CAS,  our guide Dave was able to bring us a whole cart of jars filled with old and unique animals. Catarina is working on a project to describe the sharks and rays from Oman, a country to the south east of Saudi Arabia. She photographed several specimens, including this Gulper Shark, to compare to other specimens from the region.

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This species of Gulper Shark (Centrophorus granulosus sp.) is found worldwide, living at depths of over 3,000 feet.

Just like a library, scientists can check out specimens from the museum like a book on loan. I was lucky enough to do just that with a new species of chimaera from the South African Museum.  Chimaeras, or ghost sharks, are deep water fish with a skeleton made of cartilage, making them close relatives of sharks and rays.

When a new species is discovered a single animal is chosen, called the holotype, to represent the entire species. From this one animal I will record dozens of body measurements, take photographs and make observations in order to identify this chimaera to other scientists.  After the specimen is described it will be added to a museum collection like the one at CAS for other scientists to observe in the future, a process called accession.

ImageProper identification and detailed observations are very important when describing a species. Take for example these two species of small catsharks from the Indo-Pacific Ocean. They are very similar in size, color and shape, but because they are available for scientists to look at, subtle differences start to emerge. Without detailed records and a holotype, identifying sharks (or any animal for that matter) can be difficult.

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With jars in hand and our camera memory cards full, we make our way back to Moss Landing Marine Labs for more photos, notes and measurements.

Invertebrate Spotlight: Larvaceans

May 8, 2013
Larvacean

Mucus house of a Larvacean

Invertebrate Spotlight: Larvaceans

By Michelle Marraffini

Invertebrate Zoology Lab

Today in the Marine Invertebrate Zoology we learned about one of the most interesting marine animals.  Larvaceans (Class Larvacean) are unique animals in the phylum Chordata along with their close relatives sea-squirts (Class Ascidiacea) and slightly more distant relatives humans (Subphylum Vertebrata).   These chordates retain their tadpool larva form and excrete a mucus house from specialized cells located on their head.  This house starts off as a small balloon like structure, the tadpole Larvacean whips its body to inflate the balloon with water, then when it is big enough the animal crawls inside, and whips its tail to continue to inflate the house.  Larvaceans will also eat with the help of their house which also contains screens set up to filter water, water is then further filtered by the animal so that it can eat bacteria sized particles.

A schematic of a larvacean in its house with the screens and showing water current flow. Photo Credit: Earthlife.net

They live in this house until the screens become clogged and then they swim out of it start to make a new one.  They discard their old house with sinks to the ocean floor as marine snow.  Marine snow is considered a big source of nutrients to the deep sea, to learn more about how larvaceans contribute to marine snow check out MBARI’s website.

http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations/02arctic/background/fauna/media/oik_lab.html

Larvacean photo, screens shown in red tint, white folds are more filtering tools, and the animal itself is in the center of it’s house. Photo Credit: Arctic Exploration 2002, Per Flood, NOAA/OER

‘Spot a Basking Shark’ Project. How can you help save this endangered shark?

April 9, 2013
Photo by Greg Skomal

You can help the PSRC collect information to save the Basking Shark! Photo by Greg Skomal

By Kristin Walovich, Pacific Shark Research Center

Contrary to Hollywood’s portrayal of gigantic man-eating sharks, the three largest species of shark spend their time peacefully roaming the ocean’s surface munching on the ocean’s smallest creatures.  Basking Sharks, the second largest species of shark, cruise the seas in search of plankton, filtering up to 2,000 tons of water across its gills per hour. Reaching lengths of thirty five feet, this shark exists worldwide, yet very little is known about how they live or where they go.

To discover more information about this vulnerable species, scientists from the Pacific Shark Research Center (PSRC) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have begun a new type of shark hunt. Unlike the crazed and frantic scenes from the JAWS movie, this shark hunt only requires a boat, camera and telephone! The Spot a Basking Shark Project enlists the help of local sea-farers to uncover the demographics and distribution of the California Basking Shark.

Once common along the California coast, these gentle giants are now a rare sight. In the past, these social creatures were seen in schools of hundreds or thousands; however since 1993 no more than three basking sharks have been spotted together. Fishing and eradication efforts by fishermen who believed them to be ‘man-eaters’ contributed heavily to their population decline. Despite the fishery closure in the late 1950s, Basking Shark numbers have remained low, mostly due to human impacts like vessel strikes, fisheries bycatch and illegal shark fining. Based on the decline of Basking Shark numbers and lack of species information, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed this species as endangered.

If you see a Basking Shark, the PSRC and NMFS want to know! These sharks can be identified by their large size, pointed snouts, and large gill slits that encircle the head. Basking sharks have dorsal fins up to three feet tall that are visible as they slowly swim along the surface with mouths wide open catching plankton.  If you see a Basking Shark, call or email the PSRC with your location, date and time of the sighting and any photos or videos. Your information helps the PSRC document and understand these majestic and peaceful creatures.

Visit the PSRC Website to report a sighting and to learn more about Basking Sharks!

Photo by Andrew Parsons

The basking shark can filter 2,000 gallons of water per hour while searching for plankton. Photo by Andrew Parsons


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