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Critter of the Month Archives - 2004

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December 2004

Photo © 2004 Janna Nichols - Lopez Island

Orange Social Ascidians
Metandrocarpa taylori and Metandrocarpa dura
Member of the Urochordate Phylum

REEF monitors two species under the name of orange
social ascidians - M. taylori and M. dura

Description: These colonial tunicates are found in contiguous groups or colonies ranging in size up to 12 inches in diameter. The tiny individuals in a group of M. dura are always connected by a thin tunic or sheet of tissue. M. dura individuals will be tightly packed together. M. taylori individuals may be less densely packed and may or may not be connected by a tunic.

As with all tunicates, each orange social ascidian has two siphons. Water is drawn in through one of the siphons, passed through the digestive system where any edible plankton are consumed, and then expelled, along with any wastes, through the other siphon. The siphons will appears as pairs of holes in the colonial mass (esp. for M. dura) and often the pairs of holes will appear in patterns.

Some sponges may look like a colony of orange social ascidians. The holes in sponges do not occur in pairs or in patterns.

Bright red or orange.
Range: British Columbia to southern California.
Size: Individuals grow to about ¼ in. tall and ¼ in diameter.
Habitat: Rock faces and other hard substrates in current areas.
Depth: Intertidal to about 66 ft.
Behavior: Found in current areas because the critter is a plankton feeder. Starts out life as a free swimming larvae with a notocord (precursor to a backbone). As they mature they find a hard place to settle on, attach themselves firmly to their new home, loose the notocord and live a happy sedentary life. The colony is formed by asexual reproduction or budding.
Where to find them: They are very tiny and the critters are easy to overlook. Keep an eye out for bright red or orange patches on rocks and explore these patches more closely to see if you have found one of these tunicates.

- Writeup contributed by Wes Nicholson

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November 2004

Photo © 2004 Janna Nichols - Keystone Jetty

Scalyhead Sculpin
Artedius harringtoni
Member of the Sculpin Family

Description: Tapered body, often with cirri above eyes. Lips can look pretty fat too.
Excellent camouflager! Blends in very well, using brownish to reddish splotches and markings.
Range: Abundant Alaska to Washington
Size: to 4", but usually around 2"-3"
Habitat: Loves rocky reefs, dock pilings or any artificial reef.
Depth: 0 - 70 feet
Behavior: Holds still, until you get near, then darts around. Often you can find them by waving a hand near the face of the rock, then look for movement.
ID Clues: Orange gills! This is the most abundant sculpin in our waters. Sometimes the cirri over the eyes are really huge!
And check out the eyes. They have three distinct lines that run through them.

- Writeup and photos contributed by Janna Nichols

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October 2004

Photo © 2003 Janna Nichols

Yellow Margin Dorid
Cadlina luteomarginata
Member of the Mollusc Phylum

Description: Flat body with a small, rounded tuft of gills at the back of the body. The gills are made up of six branchial plumes.

White body has a yellow margin and many low tubercles tipped with yellow
Range: West coast of North America from Alaska to Mexico
Size: to 2"
Habitat: From sand to rocks.
Depth: intertidal to 45 m deep
Behavior: This critter feeds on sponges with it’s “radula” a rasp like appendage
ID Clues: There are other similar looking Dorids. Be sure to look for the yellow margin around the base of its body.

- Writeup contributed by Mark Dixon

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September 2004

Photo © 2003 Janna Nichols

Roughback Sculpin
Chitonotus pugetensis
Member of the Sculpin Family

Description: Medium sized sculpin found all over Puget Sound.
Color: Shades of gray to greenish gray body with darker saddle markings. Can change color to blend into background. Breeding males have red to orange, lavender or white patch above eyes.
Range: Northern British Columbia to Southern California.
Size: 4" to 7" with a maximum size of 9".
Habitat: Sandy, silty, muddy bottoms often below 25’.
Depth: 0' to 450'.
Behavior: Holds still using camouflage to blend in. Will bolt if approached too closely. Often in open at night.
ID Clues: First dorsal fin is very long. Rough scales on back. V shaped division between third and fourth spine of foredorsal. A notch between spiny foredorsal and soft dorsal.

- Writeup contributed by Claude Nichols

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August 2004

Photo © 2003 Janna Nichols

Fringed Tube Worm
Dodecaceria fewkesi
Member of the Annelida Phylum

Description:The fringed tube worm is one of the polychaetes of the subclass Sedentaria which means the body is fixed in a tube with the head visible, modified as a plume. This worm has a short limey tube from clusters over 3'(1 m) across. It has 11 pairs of dark filaments from the head end.
Range: British Columbia to southern California
Color: Dark brown or green to black body
Size: Small. 1 5/8"(4 cm) long, 1/8"(3mm) wide
ID Tips: Tubes are often covered over by encrusting coralline algae. Other Dodecaceria species burrow into dead shells.
Habitat: In rocky, current-swept areas, intertidal to 65'(20m).

Whelks to Whales by Rick Harbo

- Writeup contributed by Georgia Arrow

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July 2004

Photo © 2003 Janna Nichols

Pacific Sandlance
Ammodytes hexapterus
Member of the Sandlance Family

Description: Pacific Sand Lances are a slender bodied, silvery fish that form large schools. Sand Lances also have the unusual ability to bury themselves in the substrate, hence the name "Sand Lance".

Range: They are found in the coastal areas of the North Pacific and elsewhere.

Size: Large specimens reach 8 inches in length in local waters, but 4 to 6 inches is a more common size.

The Sand Lance, along with Herring and Smelt, are known as forage fish. Forage fish are an important food source for larger fish, seabirds and seals. Because they depend on the near shore area for spawning habitat they are vulnerable to adverse environmental impacts.

All the forage fish have long slender bodies, are shiny, and swim in schools so they are difficult to tell apart. Sand lances are the slenderest; they also have a long dorsal fin, extending most of the length of the body, and the lower jaw extends forward of the upper. These characteristics are difficult to see in situ without getting real close.

ID Tips: When a school of silvery fish is seen look for the slender body and an eel like swimming motion. The swimming motion is easier to see from above or below. Note that Pacific Herring and Pacific Sand Lance are often found together in the same school. These fish are more commonly observed in the spring and early summer.

Behavior: While feeding the fish move independently and the school has a milling, shimmering appearance. When the school reacts to external stimuli they move together with amazing precision. A school may part suddenly, reacting to the presence of salmon or seabirds hunting for a meal. Forage fish react to the noise of bubbles, a diver approaching may stimulate a similar response.

Habitat: During a survey dive look up occasionally to spot forage fish that may be swimming above.

Pacific Sand Lance is not one of the species listed on the REEF scanform. It has to be written in separately in the "unlisted fish species" section on the last page. It will be useful to have more data on the distribution and abundance of this fish.

1.) Pacific Fishes of Canada, J. L. Hart, Fisheries Research Board of Canada Bulletin 180, 1973, pg. 361
2.) Coastal Fishes of the Pacific Northwest, A. Lamb and P. Edgell, 1986, pg.30

- Writeup contributed by Kirby Johnson

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June 2004

Photo © 2004 Janna Nichols

Leafy Hornmouth
Ceratostoma foliatum
Member of the Mollusc Phylum

Description: This snail has a unique shape with three frills running the length of the shell and a large "tooth" projecting from the aperture end of the shell. The frills are spaced approximately equally around the shell, with a frill located on each side of the aperture and on the top of the back of the shell. There are prominent ribs running between the frills. Even though they seem very showy, the coloring and shape provides good camouflage.

Color: Varies from gray to beige to yellow to brown.

Range: California to Alaska.

Size: Grows to about 3.5 inches in length.

Habitat: Rocky beaches, rock walls and other hard bottoms.

Depth: Intertidal to about 200 ft.

Behavior: This critter is an aggressive predator that feeds on large barnacles, bivalves and other snails. It feeds by using its radula to drill holes in the shells of it's prey and extract the meat. These snails often cluster together during the breeding season in late February and March.

Sea floor myth?: The frills help leafy hornmouths land right side up if dislodged from a rock or wall and thus protect their softer underside.

- Writeup contributed by Wes Nicholson

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May 2004
May? There is no May! Oops!

April 2004

Photo by Mark Dixon

Oregon Triton
Fusitron oregonensis
Member of the Mollusc Phylum

Description:This mollusk is the largest of the intertidal snails living on the west coast. Its appearance is a rough conical shape with 6 whorls and thick protruding hairs giving its common name “hairy oregon triton”.

Color: Lighter body with darker brown hairs that encircle the shell.

Range: Their range is California to Alaska.

Size: Size is up to about 5 inches in length.

Habitat: Habitat can be anywhere between rocks to sand.

Depth: Intertidal to about 600 ft.

Behavior: This critter is an aggressive predator that feeds on tunicates, chitons, urchins and others. It feeds by drilling holes in the shells of it’s prey with it’s “radula”, a rasp like appendage that secretes stuff to immobilize and begin digestion. Yummy eh?

It takes two Tritons to mate and the female lays eggs in a spiral pattern. Young are hatched in a larval form.

- Photos and text contributed by Mark Dixon

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March 2004

Photo by Claude Nichols

If you guessed Painted Greenling, you got it right!
Oxylebius pictus
Member of the Greenling Family

Description: Medium sized greenling found all over Puget Sound with pointed snout and 5 to 6 bars.
Color: Lighter body with reddish brown bars that encircle the fins and body the entire length of the fish. In the winter during the mating season, mature males turn darker, becoming nearly black with the bars harder to distinguish. The bars on the females during mating season become brownish.
Range: Alaska to Baja California
Size: 4" to 6" with a maximum size of 10".
Habitat: Shallow rocky areas and near artificial reefs. Often found perched on rocky areas and move from perch to perch.
Depth: 3' to 160'.
Behavior: Not too afraid of divers if approached cautiously.
ID Clues: 5 to 6 bars. Long pointed snout, with a small mouth. Two pair of cirri, one above each eye and the other pair located midway between the eyes and the dorsal fin.
Memory Aid: Think of the snout as the handle of a paint brush that you use to paint the bars on the fish.


Photo by Claude Nichols

Tiger Rockfish
Sebastes nigrocinctus
Member of the Scorpionfish Family

Compared to the Painted Greenling, the Tiger Rockfish is larger (8" to 20" with a maximum of 2'). Tigers are less common and found occasionally in British Columbia and Vancouver Island and not in the Puget Sound. They are solitary and shy, retreating into caves or crevices when approached. Tiger Rockfish have five bars with none on the caudal fin. The nose of a Tiger is not nearly as pointed as that of a Painted Greenling.

- Text and photos contributed by Claude Nichols

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February 2004

Photo by Janna Nichols

If you guessed Dungeness Crab, you got it right!
Cancer magister
Member of the Arthropod Phylum
(aka Pacific Edible Crab & Commercial Crab)

Description: Large, grey-brown crab with purple carapace widest at tenth and largest tooth. Females have a broad U-shaped abdomen while the males' abdomen is sharply V-shaped. (Good identification clues if harvesting.)
Color: Grey-brown with purple carapace. The claws are yellow with white tips and the underside is yellow.
Range: Pribilof Islands, Alaska to Santa Barbara, California.
Size: Large. Up to 10" (25cm) wide; females to 7" (18cm) wide.
Habitat: Sand-mud or eelgrass beds, intertidal to 750' (225m).
Behavior: Shy. Like most crabs (except the "warrior" Northern Kelp Crab) will scuttle off when approached.
ID Clues: Purple carapace widest at tenth and largest tooth. Serration on upper margin of claws.


Slender Crab
(aka Slender Legs Crab, Graceful Crab, Slender Cancer Crab)
Cancer gracilis
Phylum Arthropoda

Compared to the Dungeness, the Slender Legs Crab is a much smaller crab.
It also has a purplish carapace similar to the Dungeness but has purple legs and claws and a white margin on the carapace.

Relatively small in size compared to the much larger Dungeness crabs. The carapace is only to 4.5"(11cm). However, it is easy to confuse young Dungeness with Slender Legs if just going by size.

They have similar range, habitat and behavior.

ID Clues: Slender Legs carapace has 10 teeth and the widest point on carapace is at the 9th tooth. This 9th tooth does not stick out quite as much as does the 10th tooth on a Dungeness crab. Another clue is the difference in color of the legs and the white margin on the Slender Legs carapace. In addition, the serrated upper margin on the Dungeness is lacking on the Slender Legs

- Contributed by Georgia Arrow, photos by Janna Nichols

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January 2004

Photo by Claude Nichols

Ling Cod
Ophiodon elongatus
Member of the Greenling Family

Lingcod are the largest members of the greenling family (Hexagrammids). Females can reach 5 feet in length and weigh as much as 100 pounds. Males are smaller, around 3 feet long. Body is elongated, length being about 5 times the depth. The head is large and somewhat flattened. The mouth extends back past the eye and has large, sharp canine teeth. The dorsal fin has two joined segments and extends the length of the body. Scales are very small; the skin appears smooth. Color is variable with dark mottling on many shades of brown, gray, and even green.

Lingcod are found in the coastal waters of the north Pacific from California to Alaska. They are found at all depths from the shallows to hundreds feet.

Adult fish prefer rocky reef habitat. Artificial reef habitat is also used.

Behavior/Life History
Lingcod do not have a swim bladder. They are demersal; usually found resting on the bottom, often partially or completely hidden. Lingcod can sometimes be approached by watching the dorsal fin. A fish that is observed with the dorsal fin laid back is relaxed, an upright dorsal fin is a signal of wariness.

Lingcod are voracious predators; feeding on a wide variety of fishes, cephalopods, and crustaceans. They feed by lunging and grabbing their prey and holding it with their teeth until they can maneuver it to be swallowed, usually head first. It is not unusual to see a lingcod with a tail sticking out of it's mouth.

Female lingcod spawn in mid winter depositing a large white egg mass in a crevice. The male remains with the eggs, protecting them until they hatch.

Recognition Tips
Look for mottled markings, the long dorsal fins and a large mouth with big teeth. Smaller lingcod can be confused with other greenlings. Partially hidden Cabezon are sometimes mis-identified as lingcod.

- Contributed by Kirby Johnson

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