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Critter of the Month Archives - 2006

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December 2006

photo© 2006 Janna Nichols

Sunflower Star
Pycnopodia helianthoide
Echinoderm Phylum

Description: Soft flexible body with many surface spines.
Color: Varies from purple to red, pink, brown, yellow, white, and orange.
Range: Alaska to southern California
Habitat: On rocks, sand, and mud bottoms.
Depth found: down to 1450 feet
Behavior: It uses its over 10,000 tube feet to travel at lightening speeds of up to 300 feet per hour! They can most often be seen munching on mussels and sea urchins, but are fierce predators of many other invertebrates including California sea cucumbers, abalone, scallops, the Giant Nudibranch and other dead animals such as crabs or fish. Their main predators are other starfish, particularly Solaster sun stars.

ID Clues : The sunflower star is the largest starfish and has more legs than any other northern pacific starfish. It is similar to the striped sunstar, but grows to be larger and has no heavily defined stripes.
Other cool facts: They can live up to eight years, and though they start out with only five, these giants can grow up to 24 arms by the time that they die.

- contributed by Sarah Hillebrand, REEF Level 2

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November 2006

photo© 2006 Janna Nichols

Vermilion Rockfish
Sebastes miniatus
Scorpionfish Family

Other common names: red snapper, red rock cod
Description: Free swimming fish with body appearance similar to other rockfish. Spiny dorsal fins with a large mouth and jaw. Shades orange or reddish brown to brilliant red. May appear splotched or spotted with black or white markings.
Color: The color is bright red on the body and fins; many with black and gray mottling on back and sides. On fish shorter than 12 inches, the mottling is much more apparent and the fins are often edged with black.
Range Found: Baja California, to Vancouver Island, Canada
Habitat: Rocky bottoms or reefs. Adults are usually below 70’ where young may be shallower. May gather in small schools near bottom.
Depth found: usually 100 to 500 feet but as great as 900 feet
Behavior: appear unafraid of divers and will usually allow non-threatening approach.

ID Clues : Vermilion have a thin pale stripe that runs along the lateral line from midbody to tale. They also have a band that runs between the eye and pectoral fin with a narrow band below. Look for dark edging to their fins.

Vermilion rockfish appear to mature and spawn for the first time when they are 3 or 4 years old. The principal reproductive period lasts from December through March. As with all other rockfish they give birth to living young. The free swimming young feed primarily upon shrimp-like organisms, while the larger, bottom-living adults feed almost exclusively upon fishes, squid and octopus. Predators are other kinds of rockfish.

- contributed by Sarah Hillebrand, REEF Level 2

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September/October 2006

photo© 2006 Janna Nichols

Plumose Anemone
Metridium farcimen
(recently renamed from Metridium giganteum)
Cnidaria phylum

Other common names: Metridium anemone
Description: This is not your typical anemone! With a long, smooth white stalk, and hundreds of feather like tentacles, most divers can readily identify this critter. In fact, the REEF data base shows that it is the most common invertebrate sighted in our state. But it is the most common creatures that are often overlooked. For instance, did you know that we have 2 species of Metridium in our waters - the giganteum, and the senile (count them as the same species for REEF surveys). The senile can be distinguished from its cousin because it has fewer tentacles, and is much smaller, only growing to a height of 4 inches, while the giganteum, the worlds tallest anemone, grows up to 3 feet.
Color: Most commonly white, but also variations of cream and orange.
Range Found: Both Metridium species are found in temperate waters all around the world.
Diet: The Plumose Anemone is a filter feeder and dines on plankton including the larvae of other invertebrates.
Habitat: Any habitat where it can cling to substrate.
Depth found: From the intertidal zone to much deeper than divers could ever venture!
Behavior: They might look like inanimate objects, but these critters can actually move as shown by time lapse movies - when stimulated by the scent of food, they can really get going (Rickets 1939). When disturbed they can send out long "catch tentacles" to sting intruders that might encroach upon their territory.

- contributed by Mischi Carter

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August 2006

photo© 2006 Janna Nichols

Grunt Sculpin
Rhamphocottus richardsoni
Grunt Sculpin Family

Alternate names: Richardson's Sculpin, Gruntfish, Pigfish, Northern Sea Horse
Description: Unique, short, stocky curled body. Large, bulbous head with tapered, pig-like snout. Mottled and streaked in shades of cream to orange-brown to dark brown. Pectoral fin rays without connecting membrane.
Color: Cream to orange background, darker markings. Orange and yellow on fins.
Range: Occasional Alaska to Puget Sound, Washington; rare south to southern California. Also Japan.
Size: 2-3 inches. Maximum 3 ½ inches
Habitat: Inhabit rocky bottoms and areas of sand mixed with rubble. Often take shelter in empty shell casings, especially in Giant Barnacles. Prefer water temperature in the low fifties or colder so very comfortable in Puget Sound.
Depth: 0-540 feet
Behavior: "Hop" about the bottom on their extra large pectoral fin rays. Appear unafraid; continue normal activities, scuttling away to shelter only if molested. When removed from water (Don't do this!!!) they often make grunting sounds.
ID Clues:
Bright orange bar on base of tail. Very small mouth for a Sculpin.

- contributed by Georgia Arrow

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March- July 2006

photo© 2006 Mark Dixon

Giant Nudibranch
Dendronotus iris - Mollusc Phylum

Description: Can be VERY big! Long branches on back with 4 pair in the front.
Color: Can be white, grey, orange, purplish and red. Varies.
Range: Alaska to Baja California.
Size: Up to 10 inches (25 cm).
Habitat: Sand and soft bottom form intertidal to 650 ft. (200m)
Depth: from intertidal to 650 ft. (200m)
Behavior: Easy to approach. Not easily disturbed for photos.
ID Clues:
The 4 pairs of front branches are easily identified. Look for a white edging along the bottom foot. Critters eat tube dwelling anemone tentacles, so look for the Giant Nudibranch whenever you see Tube Dwelling Anemones.

- contributed by Mark Dixon

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January/February 2006

Photo© 2005 Georgia Arrow

Pacific Spiny Lumpsucker
Eumicrotremus orbis
Snailfish-Cyclopteridae Family

Description: Cute! Globular head and body. Cone-shaped lumps cover the head and body. Wide range of colors including shades of brown to green, red, purple, and orange, often with yellow or orange highlights. The pectoral fins form a wide suction cup that covers the entire breast.
Color: They take on the color of their habitat. Green, dark reds and browns.
Range: Common to uncommon northern Washington to Aleutian Islands, Alaska. Also found in Siberia, Russia.
Size: Very small (the one pictured here was about the size of a quarter). Length to 5 inches (13 cm).
Habitat: Live in a wide range of habitats, including eelgrass beds to rocky areas with kelp; also in shallow bays around docks. Attaches to solid objects with their suction cup. In the Puget Sound area, they are often found attached to the brown kelp.
Depth: Intertidal to 60 ft.
Behavior: Slow, inefficient swimmers. Remain still, apparently relying on camouflage. Move only when disturbed.
ID Clues:
It has a squarish foredorsal fin which is widely separated from the second dorsal fin.

- Writeup contributed by Georgia Arrow

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