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Critter of the Month Archives - 2003

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December 2003

photo by Janna Nichols

Slender Crab
(aka Slender Legs Crab and Graceful Crab)
Cancer gracilis
Member of the Arthropod Phylum

Beware: Often confused with dungeness crab!
Small cancer crab, with purple legs and white margin on carapace.
Tan to brown to purplish carapace, with purple legs and white margin on carapace.
Range: Alaska to Mexico
Size: Up to 4.5" across the carapace. Relatively small in size compared to much larger dungeness crabs.
Sand or mud bottoms, subtidal to 470 feet.
Behavior: Fairly shy and will scuttle off when approached.
ID Clues:
Carapace has 10 teeth and widest point on carapace is at the 9th tooth - ie: there is one not very prominent tooth behind the widest point on the carapace. 9th tooth does not stick out quite as much as does the 10th tooth on a dungeness crab.

  • Purple legs
  • White margin on carapace
  • Claws with white tips
  • Claws lack serration on upper margin

- Contributed by Wes, with photo by Janna

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November 2003

Photo by Claude Nichols

Copper Rockfish
Sebastes caurinus
Member of the Scorpionfish Family

Description: Medium sized rockfish found all over Puget Sound
White to beige background, with dark or copper colored blotches. Very prominent thick white lateral line that starts halfway back and extends to tail. Fins lightish. Underbelly is light. Usually has yellow 'eye makeup' extending from eyes. Many times lips are yellow too.
Range: BC to California
Size: Usually 10-16" but can be as large as 22"
Found usually in rocky habitats or around artificial reefs.
Behavior: Many times solitary, or in small groups. Once we saw jillions of them schooling in midwater in Hood Canal! Amazing sight!
ID Clues:
Think of the prominent lateral line as 'copper pipe'. (thanks to Brian McGuire of Yakima for that one!)

- Contributed by Janna

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October 2003

photo by Janna Nichols

Lacy Bryozoan
Phidolorpora labiata
Member of the Bryozoa Phylum

Description: As Wes always says, "Once seen, never forgotten". This colony of critters is fairly small, and very hard, yet lacy in appearance. Reminds me of those lace petticoats on porcelain figurines.
Tannish pinks to oranges and whites
Range: Gulf of Alaska to Peru. Haven't seen any in Puget Sound yet, but have seen them in the San Juans and up into Canada. Also out by Neah Bay.
Size: Clusters up to about 2 1/2" high, to 8" in diameter.
Found on rocky habitats. Common on vertical walls.
ID Clues:
Is it stiff? Hard to the touch? Delicate? Lacy? Then you've got one!

- Contributed by Janna

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September 2003

photo by Janna Nichols

Rock Sole
Pleuronectes bilineatus
Member of the Right Eye Flounder Family

Description: One of the larger and most common flatfish you'll see in Puget Sound, this guy is a master of disguise. Loves to perch up on the sand on his fins. If you're sneaky, he'll let you get a very close look before swimming away.
Browns, grays and blacks (often with white to cream spots)
Range: Alaska to Southern California. Very common around Puget Sound.
Size: To 24 inches long
Found on both sandy, silty bottoms as well as on rock sometimes.
ID Clues:
Right Eyed fish. Lateral line arches around pectoral fin. Tail fin is rounded or in the shape of a broad V. Mouth is small, but with FAT lips! Scales are very visible and rough looking, because each one is edged in black.

- Contributed by Janna

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August 2003

photo by Janna Nichols

Orange Sea Cucumber
Cucumeria miniata
Member of Echinoderm Phylum

Description: 10 tentacles with branches, attached to body with 5 rows of tube feet down its length
Orange to brownish
Range: Aleutian Islands to Southern California. Pretty common around Puget Sound.
Size: To 8 inches long
Body hides in between rocks and usually all you see are the tentacles sticking out, often looking like some sort of plant. Sometimes you can see their whole body though. (which is cool!)
Other Stuff to Note:
Stop and watch the Orange Sea Cucumber on your next dive. You can see it feeding itself by sticking one of its 10 tentacles in its mouth, licking off its fingers, pulling it out, then putting in another of its tentacles. Some divers mistake this for a Basket Star - don't fall into that trap!

- Contributed by Janna

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July 2003

photo by Janna Nichols

Blackeye Goby
Coryphopterus nicholsi
Member of Goby family

Key ID Features:2 separate dorsal fins (you can go between the dorsal fins on a goby). Large scales form visible pattern on sides. Thick black edge on fore dorsal fin. Very low fleshy crest runs along top of head from behind the eyes to the foredorsal fin.
Color: Variable from a solid light beige or tan to a light backgound with dark brown or black mottling and blotches. Eye color ranges from light brown to black. During mating, pelvic and anal fins become very dark, almost black. May have a white or blue margin on tail
Range: Northern BC to central Baja
Size: Up to 6 inches long
Habitat: Sandy habitat near rock or other hard structure. Often hide in holes, crevices and other protected places. Found at all divable depths.
Behavior: Remain still and allow close observation if approached carefully. Dart into hiding places when frightened. During mating season, do a dance with head up and tail down to better display their mating colors.

Beware of Similar Species: Bay Goby (small scales not readily visible, no crest) and Northern Ronquil (single continuous dorsal fin)

- Contributed by Wes

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June 2003

photo by Janna Nichols

California Sea Cucumber
Parastichopus californicus
Member of Echinoderm phylum

Range: Gulf of Alaska to Baja California
Size: To 20" long
Habitat: Lives in variety of habitats; isn't too picky!
Color: Brownish-red, sometimes white
Description: Thornlike projections (which are really soft!) on top and sides, tube-feet underneath. Extends white or pink feeding tentacles to mop up detritus on ocean floor. Does NOT LIKE Sunflower Stars and will writhe to get away.

- Contributed by Janna

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May 2003

photo by Janna Nichols

Whitespotted Greenling
Hexagrammus stelleri
Member of the Greenling family

Recognition: Many irregularly placed white spots on side, fins gray or tan - not yellow, 2 dark bands leading from the eye to the mouth and two irregular dark bands from the rear of the eye towards the pectoral fin. Active swimmers.
Range: Found from northern California to Alaska and the Bering Sea.
Size: Can grow up to 19 inches long
Habitat: Whitespotted greenlings tend to live in shallow sandy bottomed areas, often areas with eelgrass or other plants but they may be found in a variety of habitats and at all safe diving depths.
Description: Color is variable, light brown / gray / greenish background with darker mottling and small irregularly spaced white spots on body. One small cirri above each eye.
Similar appearing species: Female kelp greenlings.
Memory Clue: White spots means whitespotted.

- contributed by Wes

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April 2003

photo by Janna Nichols

Gumboot Chiton
Cryptochiton stelleri
Member of the Mollusc family

These guys are the largest chitons in the WORLD, and I've seen them at Edmonds UW Park, Titlow, Sunrise, San Juan Islands and north into Canada. Keep your eyes peeled! There are lots of other types of chitons commonly seen, but they are a lot smaller, and their 8 shell plates are exposed and not covered.

  • Also known as: Giant Pacific Chiton, Giant Red Chiton, Moccasin Chiton
  • Range: Alaska to Channel Islands
  • Size: Can grow up to 13 inches and more
  • Habitat: Usually rocky areas but have been spotted in sandy, silty areas too.
  • Description: Tan to reddish brown and leathery with little bumps. You can usually see 8 segments to its body.

And to answer an age-old question: How do you pronounce CHITON anyway? It's KITE-un :)

- contributed by Janna

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March 2003

photo by Janna Nichols

Quillback Rockfish! (Sebastes maliger)
Members of the Scorpionfish Family

Range: These guys are very common in Puget Sound and can be found all the way down in California up north to Alaska.
Size: Can grow up to 24 inches
Habitat: Usually rocky areas
Description: Dark brown to black. Often mottled with yellow areas. Back half of fish is dark. Lateral line is not real obvious. Quills on dorsal are more separate and are white. Seems to often have yellow lips. Found alone (they don't like school much!) :)
Memory Clue: Think of dipping the quills (like an old-fashioned quill pen) into the black ink of the back half of the body.

- contributed by Janna

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February 2003

photo by Janna Nichols

Shiny Orange Sea Squirt (Cnemidocarpa finmarkiensis)
Phylum Urochordata - The Tunicates

Also Known As: shiny red tunicate, red sea squirt, solitary tunicate, broad-base sea squirt, broad base tunicate

ID Tips:
· Generally bright red to bright orange in color
· Siphon openings are square or somewhat cross shaped
· Siphons are approximately equal in size
· Smooth, opaque surface
· Solitary - not attached to other individuals

Size: up to 2" in diameter and 3" tall

Range: Alaska to southern California

Depth: Intertidal to 165' +

Habitat: On rocks or other hard substrates such as concrete

Natural History: Adults are generally sessile - permanently attached to the substrate
These creatures are filter feeders and usually live in areas with currents to deliver plankton
Eaten by a number of invertebrates including the painted sea star as well as by a number of fishes
Circumpolar in distribution

References: Gotshall 1994, Harbo 1999, Sept 1999

(ID tips and description by Wes Nicholson. Thanks Wes!!)

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January 2003

photo by Janna Nichols

English Sole - Pleuronectes vetula - member of the Right Eyed Flounder Family

Here are a few hints to help you identify the English sole - Pleuronectes vetulus. The English sole is common within its normal habitats throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Also known as: lemon sole, California sole, pointed nose sole, common sole

ID Tips:

  • Right Eyed. (Determine this as the first step in identifying any flatfish - but beware some species may be either right eyed or left eyed). To determine right or left eyedness find the ventral fins, which are located on the bottom side of the fish.
  • Head is small, slender, and pointed
  • Tail is nearly square, with small point in center
  • Top eye protrudes over the side of fish when viewed from above
  • Top eye is set further back than lower eye (further towards the tail)
  • High ridge between eyes
  • Lateral line is nearly straight, with only slight hump over pectoral fin -a long secondary lateral line branch leads back to dorsal fin
  • Mouth is small - upper jaw (maxillary) only extends back to the front edge (anterior) of the lower eye
  • Body is relatively slender

Variable, generally shades of brown, with some mottles and splotching. Sometimes distinct rectangular brown blotches. May have a series of white spots along top and bottom side of body - similar to those found on some rock sole.

Generally found on soft bottoms of sand, silt or mud. Found at all depths.

Tend to lay flat on the bottom, often partially or completely covered with sand or mud.

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- ID tips and description by Wes Nicholson. Thanks Wes!!

December 2002

photo by Janna Nichols

Crescent Gunnel - Pholis laeta - member of the Gunnel Family

This critter fits in perfectly with a December theme since it comes in red and green colors (as well as shades of brown)! As you can see it's found on both sandy and rocky bottoms. It has distinctive markings on its back and a bar running down from its eye. They can be up to 10" long and found at any depth within recreational limits.

- contributed by Janna

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