Archive for the ‘Cool Creatures’ Category

Seeking new species of Ghost Shark

February 3, 2016

White Sharks, Manta Rays and Tiger Sharks are easily identifiable to most, but there are more than 1,200 species of sharks, skates, rays and chimaeras, collectively called Chondrichthyans, known to science.

For my Master’s thesis I study a unique group of fish known as ghost sharks, chimaeras or ratfish. They are related to sharks and rays because of their cartilage skeleton, but look quite different. They have large pectoral fins, rabbit-like teeth and a long tapering body (check out an amazing video here). We know very little about these deep-sea creatures, in some cases something as simple as their name.


The Spotted Ratfish is a species of Ghost Shark found in California.

There are 49 species of Ghost Shark, however several additional species are known to exist, but have yet to be officially named. Under Dr. Dave Ebert, director of the Pacific Shark Research Center (PSRC), graduate students at MLML have named five new species of Ghost Shark since 2006. In fact the PSRC has described 25 new species of Chondrichthyans since its inception in efforts to help the ‘Lost Sharks’ of our oceans.  The most recent edition, the Ninja Lanternshark was officially published last month and received quite the media buzz!

DSC_6505Last year fellow graduate student Paul Clerkin and I traveled to South Africa to search for new Ghost Shark species. For more than 15 years local researchers speculated two new species existed in the region, but no one had taken the time to look for them. It may seem counterintuitive, but a museum is a great place to find unknown species. If researcher or fisherman encounters an unidentified chimaera, it’s often placed in the museum collection and forgotten.


The South African Museum houses hundreds upon thousands of fish in their collection.

We arrived at the South African Museum in Cape Town to gather morphometrics, a series of 96 measurements per animals that we use to describe and differentiate species. Together we measured 90 specimens for a total of nearly 9,000 unique measurements. Finding and measuring specimens isn’t as glorious as it sounds, the specimens are preserved in alcohol and stored in large tubs; one never knows what you might find. It’s a smelly job, but stay tuned over the next few months for several new species of Ghost Shark!

Tiny Giants

December 11, 2015

by Heather Fulton-Bennett, Phycology Lab By Heather Fulton-Bennett, Phycology Lab

The Monterey Bay Aquarium recently welcomed a new Giant Sea Bass (Stereolepis gigas) to their Kelp Gardens exhibit. Unlike its name, this new addition isn’t so giant – barely 4 inches long!

Juvenile Giant Sea Bass

Giant sea bass are found along the west coast from Humboldt Bay to Baja California, Mexico and can reach up to 8 feet long. While rarely seen in the Monterey Bay, they are recovering from overfishing and are being seen more in southern California. The aquarium also has a sub-adult in the Kelp Forest tank, and two adults in their Monterey Bay Habitat exhibit. You can see more of this little one here or head to the aquarium yourself!

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is free for residents of Monterey, Santa Cruz, and San Benito Counties through Dec. 13th, so go check out the new arrivals and old favorites!

Halloween’s Most Festive Ocean Creatures!

October 25, 2015



Vicky Vásquez is a graduate student with the Pacific Shark Research Center and serves as Deputy Director of the Ocean Research Foundation.



Just in time for All Hallow’s Eve here’s a line-up of the ocean’s most festive Halloween animals! Check them out in all their ghastly horror, they’ve been waiting all year to get some haunting attention.

Halloween Crab (Gecarinus quadratus)

This list certainly could not begin without the arthropod waiting all year for its time to Trick and Treat. The Trick? Halloween crabs are not as beachy as you might think. They spend most of their lives in mangroves and rainforests along the Pacific coast of Mexico down to Panama. Since they have a planktonic larval stage, they only head to the ocean to spawn. The Treat? Racoons love them! Halloween crabs are an important food source in areas where the range of these two animals overlap.

Species: Gecarcinus quadratus Common name: Halloween Crab. Photo by E. Mena

Species: Gecarcinus quadratus Common name: Halloween Crab. Photo by E. Mena


What’s inside a Mermaid Purse? (Part 1)

September 26, 2015

Have you ever come across a strange peculiar object that looks like a dried out husk along the beach? Believe it or not, they’re not driftwood or anything plant related, but are egg cases!

Egg cases of Common (Dipturus batis) off the shore of Scotland. Photo courtesy of


Happy World Oceans Day!

June 8, 2015

Happy World Oceans Day!

A lemon shark swims near the ARMS deployed in Tetiaroa, Society Islands, French Polynesia.

A lemon shark swims by the ARMS deployed in Tetiaroa, Society Islands, French Polynesia. Photo: Christopher Meyer, Smithsonian


Every June 8th, marine and citizen scientists around the globe spread the word about celebrating our oceans and taking action to protect the diversity of life within. We are celebrating World Oceans Day on the island of Tetiaroa in French Polynesia! (more…)

How well do you know your Batoids?

April 20, 2015

When people think of sharks, they think of the majestic White (Carcharodon carcharias), the sleek Blue (Prionace glauca), or the fast Shortfin mako (Isurus oxyrinchus).

White shark; photo credit: Raul Touzon

White shark; photo credit: Raul Touzon

Blue Shark

Shortfin mako


What is a Ray?

However, many people do not know that sharks have other relatives. Elasmobranchs refers to fishes that have a cartilaginous skeleton, no swim bladders, and have five to seven gill slits. We will be focusing on the batoids, aka ‘flatsharks’. People might be familiar with the word ‘ray’, but what defines a ray? A ray is a flattened shark, with the gill slits only visible on the ventral side. Currently, there are six orders of elasmobranchs taxanomists have defined as batoids. They include: Pristiformes (Sawfishes), Rhiniformes (Wedgefishes), Rhinobatiformes (Guitarfishes), Torpediniformes (Electric Rays), Myliobatiformes (Stingrays), and the Rajiformes (Skates).

Here are what some of these batoids look like:

Dwarf sawfish (Pristis clavata)

Black Spotted Torpedo Ray (Torpedo fuscomaculata)

Shovelnose guitarfish (Rhinobatos productus)

Bowmouth guitarfish (Rhina ancylostoma)

Smoothnose wedgefish (Rhynchobatus laevis)

As you can see even these flat sharks are variable in morphology! If you are interested in how these orders are related in-depth, please check out the Tree of Life! We will go through all these different orders at a later time, but let’s focus on two orders: Myliobatiformes (Stingrays), and the Rajiformes (Skates). People often confuse these two groups, since they have similar body plans, but let’s take a closer look at their differences.


Invertebrate Spotlight: Protulophila Hydroids

August 6, 2014

It was just announced a couple months ago that researchers in New Zealand found a specimen of the hydroid Protulophila that was previously believed to be extinct for 4 million years.  Before this discovery, these organisms had only been found in fossil records in the Middle East and Europe, some of which dated back 170 million years.

Awesome discovery, right? But to take a step back now, what exactly is a hydroid?


10 days at sea: Research Edition

June 11, 2014

Like the previous post mentioned, I went on a 10 day sea voyage with NOAA’s FRAMD (Fishery Resource Analysis and Monitoring Division) survey. This is annual survey that NOAA conducts during the summer to look at the fish community, by taking measurements of weights, lengths, sex of the fish, as well as selecting individuals to extract their otoliths. Otoliths are used to determine the age of bony fish. In many species rings are formed in the ear bones of the fishes. Biologists extract the ear bones from these fish and read them. There are three sets of ear bones, we use the largest set the sagittae. The information then will be used for fish stock assessments.


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.


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