Saturday, December 11, 2010

Our little Octopus!

Two months ago, I had an inquiry from a local university student about coldwater Atlantic octopus. This young woman is working on a PhD at the University of Maine and she was wondering if Gulf of Maine - Biological Supply, could help her source some live Octopus specimens. At the time I told her that in my 10 years of operation I had only been able to acquire 2 or 3 octopi. Therefore I was not overly optimistic about our ability to find these neat little mollusc specimens, but that we would give it a try.

The next day, I started to put the word out to my network of local divers and fishermen. Like me they mostly commented that they hadn't seen any octopus in a long time, but they would keep an eye out. In our bays, local fishermen dredge and dive the sea floor for sea scallops and sea urchins. By doing so they dislodge and scrape up a variety of species. It is in their interest to keep an eye out for the critters that put $$$ in their pockets - seafood. I, on the other hand on the lookout for ALL SPECIES. It is thrilling to witness the sheer variety of species that come up in each of the 'haulbacks' of their heavy steel bottom dredges. An interested collector like Tidepool Tim can find dozens of sea squirts, sponges, stars, sea cukes, lampshells, barnacles, crabs, seaweeds, fish, clams, and a million other species mixed in. Its like going to Toys-R.....Specimens-R-Us!!!

So the big news was this - I got a call and a fisherman came by with a beautiful little octopus! It was no bigger than the palm of my hand and its mantle the size of an egg. Fully live and squirming - I got to hold it in my hand beforeI transferred it to our tank. The fisherman got paid and we got our octopus - awesome!


Now this was a thrilling experience for me as I gently handled the little creature. I could feel the 8 arms touching my hands and those little suction cups pulling against my skin. The mantle of the octopus was pulsing and it's siphons opening and closing. I was a bit freaked out to hold it for long as I wondered if it could harm me. According to what I have read - all octopi are venomous! Very few are toxic to humans, but I did not want to take any chances. An octopus does not have any skeleton, but it does have a pretty serious 'beak' structure just like a squid. I did not want this little guy to be taking an interest in my palm flesh - and so plop! I got her right into our coldwater tank.


Once back in saltwater it was easy to see what a strong swimmer an octopus is. With pulses of her mantle and the directioning of her siphon this octopus could cook right along through the water! She pulsed perhaps 5 times across 6' of tank in seconds. Then opening her tentacles like a flower she plopped down on a scallop shell to rest. In seconds she curled up her tentacles like a birds nest and proceeded to blend into the surroundings. It was then that I really got a close up view of her skin and eyes. What a beauty she was - it appeared that she had blue mascara or eyeliner on. A blue eyed octopus ?


It turns out that her eyes were not blue it is just her eyelids - if that is what those structures called....? She did settle into our tank quite nicely and hung out for a few days before heading off to UMaine for her graduate work. I was able to feed her some bits of clam and snails, though I never actually saw her eating them. In the morning the food tidbits were cleaned up and so I assume she had eaten them.

So this was a first for old Tidepool Tim; and though I have never found an octopus in a Maine Tidepool - I suppose it is likely that they could be found there. Octopi are adept at camoflauge and masters of finding small crevasses for hiding places. Not only can they change the color of their skin pores to match the surroundings, their gelatinous bone free body allows them to stretch and squeeze themselves into the tiniest of spaces. Watching the ocean floor from these hide-outs allows them to avoid predators like a big Cod or Wolffish. Peeking out of their lair does allow them to see their prey species and quickly jet out to scarf up a passing crab, shrimp, or sandworm - yum!

Supplying Octopi is new for Gulf of Maine, Inc. This may not be a common occurrence, but we will do our best to support marine education, aquariums, and research. Our friend who is studying these little octopi at UMaine may someday be a famous "OCTOPOLOGIST" - who knows? For now we are thrilled to learn more about anothe coldwater marine species and to work with our local fishermen!


Friday, December 3, 2010

Early Morning Slipper Shell Tide Walk

Last month my son and I caught a great tide and were up before the sun to head out along the beaches in search of some periwinkle snails. He and his siblings had been making a good bit of money all summer picking snails for the local buyers. These are commonly known as 'Escargot' but locally known as 'rinkles'. Noone eats them here - they are trucked south to Boston and Providence to customers there. Call them what you want - our kids were making $10 - $30 for an hour or two of work picking snails at low tide on the beach in front of our house. Great work for them; they have to be up early, traipse across the mud, and bend their backs carrying the heavy pails of snails back to our yard. A great life lesson.

Back to our snail walk... it was a rather cold morning with a Northwest breeze blowing, but it did warm up quickly as the sun broke the horizon. The sun made for a great picture as it crested our local Osprey nest.

We quickly realized that another harvester had cleaned up all the snails along this particular beach - probably the day before. What we did not realize was that there would be such a great supply of Common Slipper Shells!

Slipper Shells are actually a kind of snail related to whelk snails and periwinkles. They are Molluscs and are in the class Gastropoda. In some places they are called 'Boat Shells'. They get their name from their shells. If you find one of their shells in the beach it has the unmistakeable look of a slipper! They have a rosy color on the topside but underneath you will find a creamy white - mother of pearl type coating. They are kind of pretty!

Slipper shells are filter feeders so they are not cruising around on the rocks like Periwinkles or Limpets - they avoid all that competition. On this particular beach they are using the great supply of old sea scallop shells as a place to live, feed, and of course breed! Since they have such a strong 'foot' they can stay in one place attached to a rock or a scallop shell while taking advantage of the tidal currents and the food that is carried to them. To feed they simply relax their foot, open a gap between the substrate and their shell and let that food enriched water feed them to their hearts content!

The most interesting thing about these little invertebrates is that they can change their sex from male to female to male and so on. They have a great system going for making new slipper shells (babies). Unlike some Molluscs that just shed eggs and sperm into the sea water in the hopes that they will mix and form embryos, the slipper shells actually mate. To do this, they need to be in close proximity. They form a 'pig-pile' - it is great fun for them. The most we have seen in a pile is 6 shells! The largest slipper shell is at the bottom and the smallest at the top - kinda like a snowman. The bottom shell in the pile is the female. Males will attach to a female or to some other substrate such as a rock or old scallop shell. In this case, the male will turn into a female and then secrete a chemical into the water to attract a male! If the female at the bottom of a stack dies then each successive slipper shell in the stack must change sex from male to female and vice versa. What a life!

So my son did not make any money on this morning, but we did have a great father-son hike on the beach. We found some huge Northern Sea Stars (Starfish) - 16" across like this:

Much to our surprise, we also found a big gelatinous gob of squid eggs attached to a rock right at the tideline! Great find!

There were some live Sea Scallops on the beach here and there. They are fun as they clap their shells and spit water sometimes. Our local bay grows some beautiful sea scallops. This is due to the fact that we have such huge tidal currents and nutrient rich waters supporting lots of plankton (scallop food). Scallop fishing season is during the winter and spring. Local boats will land 120 lbs of scallop meats each day - this is about 3 - 5 gallon pails of meats - wow!

Humans always like to learn about how particular species relate to people. I am not quite sure how a slipper shell affect us. In some places oyster farms consider slipper shells pests. They attach to the shells of oysters and compete with them for food. I personally have never tried eating a slipper shell - but it does make sense that they would be pretty tasty. I do eat snails, clams, oysters, mussels, and scallops so why not slipper shells? Maybe next time I get some I will give them a try!

If you want to find slipper shells on a beach walk or in a tidepool here is my advice. It will be best to do your collecting during spring tides. A slipper shell is essentially a 'sub-tidal' organism and it does not really want to be left high and dry by the receding waters. Look for slipper shells on the sides of rocks - not the top. They tend to be on the bottom of shells. They like to keep a low profile - out of sight out of mind - perhaps to prevent getting eaten...? Not sure.

If you are looking for some slipper shell specimens - give us a call at Gulf of Maine, Inc., We will collect you some fresh, live slipper shells and ship them out to you immediately. We are happy to get you the lab, classroom, and project samples you need, when you need them. Our biological supply company works hand in hand with some of the largest college biology programs, aquariums, and research institutes in the country!

Thanks for reading! I have not blogged in a while. With 4 kids, farm, business, and family stuff it makes it hard. Look forward to hearing from you - Tidepool Tim

See you out on the beaches.....:)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The moon snails are living, feeding, and breeding like crazy here on the coast of Maine. I just was out doing some beach collecting today when I found this fist sized snail half buried in a sandy stretch of clam flats. Moon Snails are molluscs that are predatory as opposed to being filter feeders, grazers, or scavengers. Their scientific name is Lunatia heros. At this time of year you will find the snails and not too far away in the mud will often lie their large 'sand - collar' egg cases. Just this one beach today had in my estimation as least 3 of these egg cases per square meter of exposed beach! One day we decided to see how many sand collars we could find and very easily filled two 5 gallon pails of them in an hour.

It is easy to see what all these moon snails are feeding on. A quick look at the storm cast shells at the high tide mark will show that moon snails will eat any kind of shellfish that is available. Soft shell clams may be the one species that humans hate to see eaten by moon snails, but indeed there are other favored species as well. Other bivalves that get eaten are Blue Mussels
Periwinkle snails, Dog whelks, and even other moon snails. They are CANNIBALS - which means they eat each other too .Here are some snails I found eating other moon snails.

Apparently they follow each other down into the sandy mud and then sometimes cannot control themselves. The poor prey snail is left with the signature of the moon snail feast - a single circular hole in it's shell. The shell hole varies in size depending on the size of the moon snail that feasted there. Here are some moon snail feeding holes in blue mussels and periwinkles

To find moon snails at low tide you have to look for their 'push ups' - a small mound or burrow type mark in the beach sand or clam flat mud. Years ago I always thought that this was the sign of a raccoon feeding on the clam flats. One day I decided to take a dig down into one of these and low and behold - there was the slimy, juicy foot of a very large moon snail. Once disturbed they quickly retract into their shells and pull their operculum shut behind them. What happens on the flats is that as the tide is recedes, the moon snails eventually become stranded by the ebbing water. Once exposed, they could be preyed upon by seagulls or perhaps get too hot in the sun or dry out. At this point they use their muscular foot to dig into the sand. This leaves behind a lump in the sand or a bump in the mud. Follow the bumps or lumps and you will find moon snails - it is that easy.

Moon snails make good aquarium specimens. They do feed on an occasional mollusc, but they are also very beautiful to watch as they glide along on their exposed mantle and foot. We keep many moon snails in our tanks for just this purpose.

If you are looking for moon snails - call us at Gulf of Maine Inc. Our biological supply business is happy to get you some live or preserved study specimens!

Monday, April 12, 2010

It was a beautiful April weekend in Eastern Maine. My kids and I spent time sowbugging. Sow bugs are quite common around homes and gardens, but most people do not know that they scavenge the upper intertidal as well. We find them under loose rocks - and I am sure that they are feeding on the decaying seaweed there. Sowbugging is a fun activity - my kids help. What kid doesn't like turning over stones to find critters? We were able to find thousands in a just a couple of hours. Here is what a upper intertidal beach borne sow bug looks like:
We did decide by direct observation that there were different species or colorations mixed in with our collection. We observed light gray, dark gray, spotted, and even a burnt orange color on some. Large flat rocks in grassy areas just below the high water mark seemed to have the most sowbugs. Other places that had many were flat piece of bark, boards, and shards of driftwood. Sometimes they were crawling in the depression under the substrate but at times they would be attached like little cows milling around the underside of the rock or board. This we preferred as they could easily be scraped into our buckets.
Initially, we had some troubles finding a good beach location with lots of sowbugs. The first beach we headed to had way too much stormcast rockweed (Ascophyllum). There was literally a 1000' windrow of rockweed that had come ashore 2 weeks earlier on the full moon tide. This had been cooking (composting) in the April sun and though the top was crispy black just beneath the surface was a black goo of decaying organic matter with lots of white worms and maggots wriggling around inside. It blanketed the rocks and wood along the shore and made it impossible to find ANY life underneath it. On this particular beach it was much like a blanket of death. Though the seaweed itself was alive, and it supported living things, when it landed on the beach, it killed everything in its path. Curious... We finally sampled a few other similar places and decided to go to a leeward shore (out of the wind cast seaweed). This sheltered cove proved to be just proper habitat for man and sowbug alike.

Besides sowbugs, we of course uncovered many other beachside invertebrates. Springtails filled the rotting rockweed piles - pinging into and out of our buckets as they were scooped up with our quarry. We also found centipedes, millipedes, wolf spiders, worms, and night crawlers to name a few. In one cove there were some fire ants, and I managed to get one up under my sleeve. It was not until 1/2 hour later did I feel the pain of three separate bites. Ouch! Besides the specimens found, we had fun clambering along the rocks in the upper intertidal as it is a great place for finding other treasures such as rubber clammers gloves, beer bottles, old line, lobster crates, etc. We have yet to find a pirate treasure, but as far as my little son is concerned it is only a matter of time!

Sowbugs and pillbugs are a very popular animal to use in terrariums in school classes. At Gulf of Maine, we do our best to supply whatever specimens our customers are seeking. Though we are known very much for our marine life - we have expanded our collecting to offer species from the woods, fields, streams, wetland, lakes, and forest. Live earthworms, crayfish, various insects, lichens/mosses, and are all available. Please contact us if you need specimens for your classes or labs.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Summer's over

September has begun! Where did the summer go? I was on the beach this morning watching a large flock of sandpipers feeding at the tideline. There must have been perhaps 200 birds there. Not sure what species, but I think at least Piping Plovers. Seeing those birds feeding like crazy in preparation for their migration to South America really made it obvious - summer is over now.

This morning I kind of overslept and missed the low tide. I had come down to collect some Porphra - which is a very thin papery type seaweed like Sea Lettuce. This type of seaweed seems to have several forms - maybe subspecies. Some grows at the mid-tide line and is attached to small rocks in a sandy/ gravelly area. Another type is found only in areas of high current, this one is much darker and tougher and is towards the low tidal part of the beach. I did have to wade out to collect a few samples for a customer - so I considered myself lucky that didn't miss the 'boat' altogether. Had hoped to pick a few kelp plants as well but as you know you have to be at the low tide to find any of those.....

A few days ago the remnants of a hurricane driven storm came through our county with lots of rain and wind. When I reached the beach this morning it was not surprising to see a large beach-side windrow of 'storm-cast' rockweed stretching along the cobbly shore. It was a mixture of Fucus or bladder wrack and another type, Ascophyllum or Knotted Wrack. It was interesting to dissect out the windrow a bit and see just how Mother Nature had delivered this resource to its beachside location as well as what was found living inside. Initially I suspected that the winds must have torn the plants from their holdfasts (structure that attaches them to the rocks) but no - it was quite different.

What seems to have happened is that the storm's power actually loosened up the small stones upon which fairly large clumps of rockweed were attached. Rockweed is a name we use for a group of brown seaweed species found in the intertidal in great abundance. These stones of orange and grapefruit size are often buried in the beach substrate and provide a good solid place of attachment for rockweed plants. Once the wind and the waves hit them it is apparent that their foothold on the beach gave way and they became mobile. Because of the floats on the rockweed, that is their air bladders, provided enough floatation for the rocks to then be carried up the beach and into the tangle of other 'storm-cast' seaweed at the high tide line. See my UTube video about this seaweed and what happened to it in this storm. Besides rockweed there were bits of Spartina grass, little beach fleas, and other organisms found inside.

Have to share this picture of some sea cucumbers we had here at Gulf of Maine this summer. What a fantastic pile of sea pickles. I just dove my arms into the mass to see what they would feel like..... it was creepy. Sea cucumbers do respond much to touch other than to purse up their tentacles and wait for danger to go away. These guys came from a fisherman in Milbridge, Maine. Ug!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Wow - pouring rain here in Maine today!  Nice to be inside, but I need to go dig some sandworms - guess I will be getting wet.  Haven't blogged in a long time - had a 2 week trip to Peru compliments of my son winning a National Geographic Kids contest.  What a trip it was!  15 kids from across the nation were chosen based on their essays and a photo they submitted.  Dewey took his of some Brachiopod fossils in the shale on the beach in front of our house.  They look like the picture below.   We can talk more about these sometime. The kids and I, cousins, friends, etc. love finding fossils on the beaches in our area.  A neighbor just gave Dewey a fossilized coral they found locally.  We are still waiting to learn where they found those!

I wanted to share my collecting notes from yesterday when I was finding Dwarf Britttlestars, genus Axiognathus,  in a local tidepool.  It took me years of chancing upon these little Echinoderms before I realized that they were not just small Daisy Brittlestars, genus Ophiopholus but a new species to me.  I needed to find a few dozen of these critters for a Gulf of Maine, Inc. customer and with my experience I knew right where to find them.  

The key habitat for Dwarf Brittlestars seems to be in shell mounds.  We find them hidden among cast blue mussel shells.  They are a bit hard to spot at first, and they are not kidding when they call them "BRITTLE" stars.  Not only are they tiny, one has to handle them with kid gloves so to say.  The best way to pick them up it to not directly pick them up.  We scrape them onto shell pieces so that when they end up in our buckets, they go substrate and all.
So I headed to the tidepool on a sunny morning and managed to hit the tide at just the right time.  Dwarf Brittlestars prefer to be subtidal, but you can find them at the lower end of low tides in your area.  I believe that like any tidal specimen as long as they can stay moist and protected during the drain off of the sea they will survive until the flood tide comes again.
I use my hands like a small dredge in low wet areas to scoop up  handfuls of shells and debris and then I spread this out on a flat surface like a rock or on a ledge.  Then by carefully sifting through each shell I can look for their fuzzy little arms (rays) to tip me off to where they are hiding.  Often you will see only  one ray protruding from the shells, but with experience they become easier to spot.   I am not sure, but I think these guys feed on detritus.  Whenever I get a big order of these for Gulf of Maine, Inc.  I try and find a submerged mound of shells that seems well silted and muddy. The muddier the shell mound the better the habitat.   Once I found a one gallon plastic milk jug that had been sitting on the sea floor for a long time.  When we emptied it of muddy silt, out came a pile of dwarf brittles.  It makes sense that this habitat would work well for them not only for feeding, but for protection.

It did not take me long to get the stars I needed to fill my order and to head off to work.  I saw lots of Silky Sea cucumbers, Limpets, Scuds, Trumpet Worms, and other inverts as I collected but did not need any of those at this time.  Will get those later - it was time to head out.  Lots to do as I have been away from the office for about three weeks and it is time to catch up.  Catch me next time in the tidepools! - TT

Friday, March 20, 2009

Fisherman's bucket

Hermits, hermits, hermits!     Yesterday a local fisherman Mike brought us in a pile of goodies fresh off his sea urchin drag boat.  The weather had finally warmed up and the seas subsided enough for him to go out safely and try and make his living.

Besides the sea stars he brought in, I had asked him to keep an eye out for some hermit crabs and other small invertebrates.  The hermits were HUGE - mostly Flat - Clawed variety, but there were some Hairy Hermits as well.  Some of them were a bit stressed due to the anoxic conditions in the small pail and they had exited their shells. This was a bit concering, at first - I wondered how they would do outside their shells.  I placed them into my tank 'naked' for the evening and when I returned in the morning, they had all found suitable shells to move back into... 'shall I slip into something a bit more comfortable...?'.  To my surprise, many of the hermits were egg laden (gravid, berried?).  You wouldn't be able to see this unless they had come out of their shells.  The eggs look just like a lobsters egg mass.  The color was very black and the eggs a bit smaller though.

Hermit crabs are one of the easier marine inverts to take care of  in a tank.  I feed mine bits of clam or  squid when I have it.  They will all gather round a lump of feed like cows at a trough, snipping and tearing bits to feed into their mouths.  It is pretty neat to watch.  As for the  shell species that were represented - there were all the major mollusc snails we have here in Cobscook Bay.   Wave Whelk shells, Moon Snail shells, Stimpon's Colus shells, and Dogwinkle shells.  The Moon Snail shells are the most impressive.  Since these snails get very large, the Hermits that inhabit them are big too.  

As for other species that came up in the fisherman's trawl, we found tunicates, other crabs and worms.  There were several Toad Crabs - Hyas genus.  The largest of these was about 8" across.  The Sea Squirts in the pail were Sea Grapes  (Molgula), Sea Vase - Ciona, Sea Potatoes - (Boltenia), and Sea Peaches (Halocynthia).  All of these was cemented to other tunicates in clusters or they attach to mussels,, rocks, and other debris.   Final inspection of the pails contents revealed some fan worms, finger sponge, scaleworms and some tiny isopods - benthic creatures that had come up in the holdfasts of the tunicates and sponge.  I dumped the remainder in our tanks.  Hopefully they will adapt to the smaller quarters and find there niche - it's a crab eat , worm eat, snail eat world in there! - TTim