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Critter of the Month Archives - 2010

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December 2010

photo© 2010 Janna Nichols

Bay Pipefish
Syngnathus leptorhynchus
Pipefish Family

Other Common Names: Slender-nosed Pipefish
Description: The Bay pipefish is a long and thin, pale green to dark green or brown fish. They have bony rings rather than scales. They are related to the sea horse and look like a sea horse that has been straightened out. Bay pipefish have a tube-like snout with their very small mouth at the end. They lack pelvic fins and their pectoral and dorsal fins are very small. Their caudal or tail fin is small and fan like. The females grow larger than the males. Females have an anal fin whereas males do not. Males however have a abdominal brood pouch where they brood the young.
Range: Bay pipefish can be found from Prince William Sound, Alaska down the Pacific coast to Baja California (northern Mexico). Bay pipefish are the only species of pipefish found north of California.
Size: Bay pipefish can reach a maximum of approximately 13 inches long, however 4 - 7 inches is more typical.
Hangouts/Habitat: Bay pipefish like to hang out in eelgrass or algae beds in shallow warmer water. They are slow swimmers and rely upon camouflage. They will hang parallel to eelgrass leaves.
Depth: Bay pipefish are typically found in the low intertidal zone, though they can be found to 50 feet.
Likes to munch on: Bay pipefish eat tiny crustaceans by sucking them into their small mouth from some distance away rather than biting.
ID Clues: Bay pipefish are a rarer find, and within Oregon, Washington or British Columbia are the only pipefish that you will find. As you travel south to California, bay pipefish can be confused with barred pipefish (Syngnathus auliscus). However the barred pipefish has a shorter snout, and only 14-16 body rings whereas the bay pipefish has 17-20 body rings (take a good close up to count those rings)
Other Facts: The males bear live young that are up to 3/4 inch long. The female transfers the fertilized eggs to the male's brood pouch. Male pipefish carry up to 900 developing young for several weeks.

- Contributed by Claude Nichols, REEF PNW AAT, level 5

November 2010

photo© 2010 Nick Brown

Northern Abalone
Haliotis kamtschatkana
Mollusca Phylum

Other Common Names: Pinto Abalone, Kamchatka abalone, Alaska abalone
Description: The Northern abalone sports a relatively thin elongated oval shell that varies in color from a mottled reddish brown to green. There are usually between 3 to 6 open holes on one side of the shell that permits water flow over the gills and enables waste products to be extruded. The interior of the shell is a pearly iridescent white. Abalones are often hidden in a shroud of various encrusting algae and other marine life making it more difficult for the fastidious REEF surveyor to spot.
Range: Northern abalone can be found from Sitka Alaska down the Pacific coast to Baja California (northern Mexico).
Size: Northern abalone can reach a maximum of approximately 7 inches (18cm) across.
Hangouts/Habitat: Northern abalone usually prefer firm rocky substrate with moderate water exchange. They can usually be found near kelp hiding under cracks or crevasses. Juvenile abalone have even been found hiding under the spiny protection of sea urchins.
Depth: Historically the northern abalone has been found in the low intertidal zone, though currently they are usually only found below 10ft down to approximately 116ft.
Likes to munch on: The northern abalone dines on an assortment of red and brown macro-algae.
ID Clues: If you're diving within Washington or British Columbia and you're lucky enough to find an abalone, most likely it will be a northern abalone. If you're diving farther south you might stumble upon red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) territory. Northern and red abalone can be differentiated by observing the color of their epipodial tentacles (the tiny tentacles that are protruding from the open holes in its shell). The red abalone has black tentacles while the northern abalone has greenish brown tentacles. The red abalone has a smooth shell margin while the northern abalone has a scalloped and rough margin. Another abalone presumably native to the northwest though rare is the flat abalone (Haliotis walallensis). The flat abalone has yellowish to green epipodial tentacles and relatively smooth shell margin.
Other Facts: Though historically common in our region northern abalone populations have been diminished greatly. So much so that they are currently listed as threatened by the Canadian Federal Government and a Species of Concern by the US Federal Government. Abalone are broadcast spawners that must be in relative close proximity to each other to successfully reproduce. Because of their current small population size, largely due to previous commercial and recreational harvest along with illegal poaching, they are unable to reproduce effectively and therefore their population size continues to decrease. Hopefully current efforts to increase population sizes are successful which includes releasing hatchery reared abalone into northwest waters.

More info:

- Contributed by Nick Brown, REEF PNW AAT, level 5

October 2010

photo© 2010 Georgia Arrow

Spotted Ratfish
Hydrolagus colliei
Shortnose Chimaera family

Other Names: Rabbitfish, Spookfish, Goatfish, Water Hare
Description: Grey or brown with numerous white spots and silver underside. Large bulky snout, small mouth with forward-directed teeth, long tapering tail. Commonly have iridescent tints of blue, green or gold. Unscaled smooth skin. Fins grey and somewhat transparent. Males have club-like appendage between eyes and claspers by ventral fins.
Color: Shades of brown or grey with pale underbelly. Grey, see-through fins.
Range: Common northern California to British Columbia: occasional north to southeastern Alaska and south to southern California. Isolated population in the Gulf of California.
Size: 8-28", maximum 39"
Hangouts/Habitat: Inhabit sandy and muddy bottoms, and occasionally near rocky reefs.
Depth: 0-3,000 feet. Most commonly found in shallow waters, between 15-65 feet in northern part of range, and deeper to the south.
Behavior: Wary; generally move away from divers. Slow non-threatening approach sometimes allows a close view. Seem to be less shy at night although it probably is more that they are attracted to, blinded by, and disoriented by divers' lights and scurry about unpredictably. Be careful to avoid foredorsal spine which is mildly toxic and can inflict a nasty, painful wound even through 5mm gloves.
Biggest Enemy: Humans. Often ends up as bycatch particulary from deep dragging trawlers and deep setting longliners.
ID Clues: Nothing else looks like it. It gracefully "flies" along propelled by bird-like sweeps of its pectoral fins. Huge glassy eye which can look blue or green and which reflects a dive light in a long shaft of light.
Other Cool Facts: Cartilaginous fish, closely related to sharks and rays.

- Contributed by Georgia Arrow, REEF PNW AAT, level 5

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September 2010

photo© 2010 Rhoda Green

Kelp Perch
Brachyistius frenatus
Surfperch Family

Other Names: Kelp sea-perch, Kelp surfperch, brown perch, or brown sea perch, to make a name out of the to translate its scientific name, into a name my guess would sound like a snaffled short sailed perch.
Description: from head to tail: kind of a short snout, with an indented, concave, forehead, nape dipping up to a hump on the back sporting a "short sail" dorsal fin, which curves quickly down to the base of the tail. Also belly area drops lower creating a short stocky body. The tail is forked tail
Color: brown, copper, orange
Range: a subtropical fish in the Northeast Pacific - Baja to Alaska.
Size: This little fishy, as an adult is usually less than the size of my hand. The length is about double the height and has next to no width.
Hangouts/Habitat: inshore, jetties, kelp beds, pilings, rocky reefs, Being a pelagic fish it is found in the water column usually around kelp, especially giant kelp canopy and red seaweeds for camouflage and foraging.
Depth: above 100 ft.~
Behavior: These fish seem to have an agenda that doesn't involve any time to be curious or galk at humans. It has a twitchy, jerky movement, giving it its snaffled appearance. Can be found solo or with others and may aggregate.
Biggest Enemy: Sarda chiliensis, mackerel, tuna, bonita
ID Clues: lateral line curved following the arch of the dorsal. Scales above the lateral line more distinct. A few arbitrary white blotches along midsection. Front dorsal fin never completely up, thus short sailed.
Other Cool Facts: a planktivore, it eats parasites and crustations thus a cleaner fish enjoying a parasite meal of a fish instead of being their food. Viviparous, spawning fall- early winter. Not to be confused with kelp fish or perching kelp.

- Contributed by Rhoda Green, REEF PNW AAT, level 5

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August 2010

photo© 2010 Todd Cliff

Pink Hydrocoral
Stylaster verrilli
Cnidarian Phylum

Other Names: Pink Branching Hydrocoral
Description: Pink Hydrocoral is an upright branching colony.
Color: Orange to pink
Range: Alaska to Oregon
Size: Colonies up to 3 inches high and carpeted up to 4" wide or more.
Hangouts/Habitat: High current swept areas on rocks.
Depth: Shallow subtidal to over 30 feet in depth.
ID Clues: Pink Hydrocoral is easy to identify from its pink coloration and antler like branches.
Other Cool Facts: Hydrocorals are formed by a calcareous skeleton and should not be confused with true corals. It takes 20 or more years for a colony to grow to heights of 30 cm.

- Contributed by Todd Cliff, REEF PNW AAT, level 5

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July 2010

photo© 2010 Janna Nichols

Great Sculpin
Myoxocephalus polacanthocephalus
Sculpin Family

Description: This large mouth sculpin has a long snout and a head that tapers down to its pectoral fin. It has four dark bars running downward along with a long smooth spine extending from its upper check along with variable patches and saddles.
Color: Primarily olive to gray in color, occasionally displays blotches of white to earth tones allowing it to blend into its environment.
Range: Bering Sea to Puget Sound and also to northern Japan.
Size: The Great Sculpin is as its name suggests is one of the largest sculpins encountered in the Pacific Northwest. The length of it reaches up to a maximum of 30 inches long, but typically runs between 14 to 20 inches.
Hangouts/Habitat: Sandy, silty and muddy bottoms of bays, wharves, pilings and jetties.
Depth: It is found in the intertidal zone to 800 feet.
Behavior: Hangs out on the bottom lying motionless looking for smaller fish to prey on. It ambushes it prey in this way when a meal is within its reach.
ID Clues: Identifying the Great Sculpin many times is confused with the similar looking Buffalo Sculpin. The more colorful Buffalo Sculpin has a rounder, bulbous head and is shorter in length.
Other Cool Facts: The Great Sculpin make "great" photo subjects, since they never seem to move unless provoked.

- Contributed by Todd Cliff, REEF PNW AAT, level 5

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June 2010

photo© 2010 Janna Nichols

Eccentric Sand Dollar
Dendraster excentricus

Echinodermata Phylum

Other names: Pacific sand dollar, west coast sand dollar, sea cookie
Description: Sand dollars are essentially flat sea urchins with extremely short spines. The outer "shell", called a test, is fairly circular in outline and has a five-petal flower pattern which is most obvious when the animal is dead and bleached. The pattern is formed from a series of pores from which tube feet extend in the living animal.
Color: Usually a very dark blackish purple; sometimes gray or dark brown.
Range: Found from Juneau, Alaska to northern Baja California, Mexico.
Size: Diameter to about 4 inches (100 mm).
Habitat: As the common name suggests, they live in sandy areas, usually in large aggregations. They are found both in exposed areas on the outer coast and in the fully protected, calm waters of southern Puget Sound.
Depth: Found from the mid-intertidal to nearly 300 ft (90 m).
Biggest enemy: Sand dollars are unpalatable to most predators. The ratio of edible tissue to skeleton is very low, and once the test is breached there are internal partitions that make it difficult to reach much tissue without a lot of additional effort. The giant pink star preys on them and sand dollars will quickly bury themselves when they smell this star.
Sunflower stars also eat them, graceful Cancer crabs often damage the edges of tests, and sea gulls will sometimes peck through the top of the test. California sheephead and starry flounder are known to feed on them, and there are some areas where they comprise a large part of the diet of wolf eels.
I.D. clues: This is the only sand dollar known to occur from northern British Columbia through central California. It can be distinguished from other species at either end of its range by the five-petal flower pattern on the test, which is off-center and asymmetrical instead of in the middle.
Cool facts: Dendraster is a filter feeder, standing on edge in the sand and capturing small organisms and particles of detritus from the water.
Larval sand dollars settle within adult beds for protection, and baby sand dollars selectively swallow heavier sand grains, probably to serve as a 'weight belt' to help them maintain position (divers - don't try this).

The density of adult beds can be astounding- over 500 per square yard- and there is a bed off Long Beach on the Washington coast that is over 20 miles long.

- Contributed by Dr. Greg Jensen, REEF PNW AAT, level 5

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May 2010

photo© 2010 Janna Nichols

Starry Flounder
Platichthys stellatus
Right Eye Flounder Family

Other Names: Grindstone, Leatherjacket, California or Diamond Flounder
Description: One of the easier flatfish to identify, the Starry Flounder has a series of prominent dark bands on the dorsal, anal & tail fins. It has an oval shaped body and a slightly rounded tail.
Color: Shades of brown and gray. The bars are dark alternating with cream/yellow/orange.
Range: Southern CA to the Arctic coast. Also from the Bering straight to Southern Japan.
Size: Generally 1' - 2 1/2', max is 3 feet & 20 lbs
Hangouts/Habitat: Mud/silt/sand bottoms, often hangout near eelgrass beds.
Depth: 0 - 1,200' but they typically are found shallow in the 0 - 150' range.
Behavior: Tends to live on the bottom, often partially or completely covered with sand/silt/mud. Juveniles can be found in the intertidal zone.
ID Clues: The bars are the biggest clues, right vs. left sided is not necessarily a good clue. Also look for starry shaped rough plates on the eyed side of the fish.
Other Cool Facts: Even though this is in the "right eyed flounder" family, it isn't always "right eyed"! In the local area - on the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California - there is a 50 - 50 split of right/left eyed. In the area around Alaska, the split is 70/30 right to left..... in Japan, they are ALL left eyed! In other words, look at the other ID clues as right vs. left eyed can mislead you on this one.

- Contributed by Heidi Wilken, REEF PNW AAT, level 5

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April 2010

photo© 2010 Peter Mieras

Opalescent Nudibranch
Hermissenda crassicornis
Mollusca Phylum

Scientific name: Hermissenda crassicornis
Common name: Opalescent nudibranch
Other names: Horned Aeolid, Opalescent sea slug, opalescent aeolid, (thick or long) horned nudibranch, long horned hemissenda, hermissenda nudibranch.
Description: This nudibranch has usually bright cerata that have orange and white bands. In some variety the cerata are more dull brown with white tips or white stripes run up the cerata. In the middle of the dorsum (back) bright orange highlights occur and a blue line can be observed at the dorsal surface of the oral tentacles. A similar thin pale blue line can be seen around the base of the body.
Range: Sea of Japan, from Alaska down to Mexico
Size: mostly around 1-2"(25-50mm) but occasionally up to 3" (75mm)
Hangouts/Habitat: The opalescent nudibranch prefers rocky areas or hard substrate in general. Since it feeds on hydroids and other aeolids you can find this species in areas where hydroids are common.
Depth: intertidal to ± 110 feet (36 meters)
Behavior: Feeds on hydroids by grazing with its radulae ( a file like structure, that consists of many chitinous teeth). Usually fairly static but can move with surprising speed if need to.
Biggest Enemy: Sunflower starfish and other opalescent nudibranch
ID Clues: orange white banded cerata, typical pale blue colour on the top of the front tentacles
Other Cool Facts: Member of the suborder Aeolidina, named after the Greek god of the wind Aeolius. The cerata contain nematocysts ( stinging cells) collected from the hydroids and sea anemones they feed on. When they collect the immature stinging cells they pass them unharmed through their digestive system to the tips of their cerata. Here the stinging cells mature and are used for the defence of the nudibranch.
Opalescent nudibranchs are aggressive fighters. When two of them meet head-to-head, they're likely to get into a biting battle. If one meets the tail of another and gets the first bite, it usually wins the battle and eats the loser.

Because opalescent nudibranchs live less than one year, they have to grow and reproduce quickly-they can't lose time looking for a mate. A meeting between two or more can be a mutual mating session, since these creatures are hermaphroditic (they have both male and female sexual organs). Later, each lays an egg string in narrow coils that looks like tiny sausage links. They attach their eggs to eelgrass and algae.
Large fluctuations in the population due to the availability of their food source are observed. This particular species is a popular subject for underwater photographers and videographers.

More info at:

- Contributed by Peter Mieras, REEF PNW AAT, level 5

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March 2010

photo© 2010 Jeanne Luce

China Rockfish
Sebastes nebulosus
Scorpionfish Family

Other Names: Yellowstripe Rockfish, Yellowspotted Rockfish
Description/Color: Bluish black to black with yellow spots and blotches.
Range: Common southeast Alaska to California; occasional to rare northern and central California
Size: 8-14 in, max 17 in
Hangouts/Habitat: Rocky inshore areas along exposed coastlines. Lurk in caves and crevices.
Depth: 12-400 ft
Behavior: China Rockfish generally rest on bottom propped up by their fins. When away from hole, they swim near bottom. Solitary. Their territories are apparently small, with a study off Vancouver Island finding Chinas moving only within 10 m (33 ft). They feed on benthic organisms, including brittle stars, chitons, and crustaceans such as crabs and shrimp. Unafraid and curious; china rockfish often allow close view when approached with slow nonthreatening movements.
Biggest Enemy: Humans. This species of rockfish, like many others, has a declining wild population as they are highly esteemed as one of the tastiest rockfish. They have been popular for commercial fishing since the 19th century. During the 1930s, Chinas sold for twice as much as any other rockfish except the black-and-yellow rockfish, and for more than any other kind of finfish. They are today popular in Asia, often being sold alive.
ID Clues: Yellow speckles on head and body, yellow "swoosh" from foredorsal fin that curves to run length of lateral line to tail.
Other Cool Facts: The species epithet nebulosus is Latin for "clouded". Although Jordan and Evermann promoted the common name "yellowspotted rockfish", the "China" name has persisted, due to a perceived preference by persons of Chinese ancestry living in central California.

- Contributed by Jeanne Luce, REEF PNW AAT, level 5

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February 2010

photo© 2010 MaryJo Adams

Northern Feather Duster Worm
Eudistylia vancouveri
Annelida Phylum

Name: Northern feather duster worm
Other names: Plume worm, parchment tube worm
Description: Polychaete worms inhabiting leathery or parchment appearing tubes and extending to form plumes with feather duster appearance. This species often forms large aggregations but may also be found as solitary individuals.
Color: Plume has alternating bands of maroon and dark green
Range: Alaska to California
Size: Tubes reach a length of 24 inches and diameter of ½ inch. The plume is up to 2.4 inches in diameter.
Hangouts/Habitat: Found on floats, pilings, and rocky areas.
Depth: Intertidal to 100 feet
Behavior: Has light sensing structures and if a shadow falls across it, the plume will zip back into its tube in the blink of an eye.
ID clues: There are other similar appearing sabellid tubeworms with parchment like tubes and feathery plumes so look for tubes with a diameter slightly larger than that of a pencil and the maroon/dark green banding on the plumes.

- Contributed by Mary Jo Adams, REEF PNW AAT, level 5

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January 2010

Photo one:
photo© 2010 Janna Nichols

Photo two:
photo© 2010 Janna Nichols

Blue Rockfish for both
Sebastes mystinus and ??
Scorpionfish Family

Description: It's a two-for-one special this month! Scientists have become aware that there are TWO species of what has been commonly called the Blue Rockfish. They are in the process of describing and naming the two species now. REEF divers are needed to help determine the ranges/depths, etc. of these two species. For REEF surveys, we're calling the fish shown in Photo #1 a Blue Sided Rockfish, and Photo #2 depicts a Blue Blotched Rockfish.
More info:
Color: Both are bluish gray with forehead stripes
Range: Northern Baja to Southern Alaska. I have seen the Blue Blotched Rockfish when diving in Monterey, California, and the Blue Sided when diving in Washington and BC. Other divers have seen both occur in Oregon. Fishermen are finding both species in many areas.
Size: Up to 21" long. Usually up to 18".
Hangouts/Habitat: In Monterey, California area, I've seen schools of Blue Blotched Rockfish hanging out in the kelp in midwater. In Neah Bay and up into BC, I've seen Blue Sided Rockfish always intermixed in schools of Black Rockfish, hanging out in kelp forests or near kelpy areas.
Depth: I usually see both schooling in less than 40 feet of water, but can be found to depths to 300 feet.
Behavior: Both appear to be schooling fish and will allow a closer look if you watch your buoyancy and move slowly. Let them come to you by staying very still.
Growth: Grow to be about 40 years old. Males and females are sexually mature at about 10 years old (about 14" long at that age). Females are larger than males at any given age.
Comments: Blue Rockfish stay in one specific area their entire lives. They can be easily overfished by partyboats, private vessels and spearfishers.
I.D. Clues: Look for the stripes on the forehead on both species.

Blue Blotched:

  • Silvery blue base color
  • Blotchy patterns on side
  • Body shape more symmetrical and rounded

Blue Sided:

  • Gray-blue base color
  • More solid coloration of body
  • Lateral line more prominent
  • Body more elongated, flatter underside
  • Lower jaw juts out more

- Contributed by Janna Nichols, REEF PNW AAT, level 5

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