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Critter of the Month Archives - 2005

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December 2005

Photo© 2005 Janna Nichols

Penpoint Gunnel (Apodichthys flavidus)
Gunnel Family

Description: Gunnels are elongated, eel like fishes that are often found mixing in with the bottom debris and marine plants. The thin black bar through the eye and dark and or pale spots in a row along the mid body are good visual clues for this species. No ventral fins. Reaction to divers is to remain still relying on camouflage. Easy critters to photograph.
Color: They take on the color of their habitat. Green, dark reds and browns.
Range: Alaska to Southern California
Size: Typical 4 – 8 in. but can reach 18 in.
Habitat: The frequently inhabit leafy kelp, sea lettuce and algae beds. Also rocky areas with recesses to hide in.
Depth: Intertidal to 60 ft.

- contributed by Mark Dixon

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November 2005

Photos © 2005 Claude Nichols

White Lined Dirona (Dirona albolineata)
Mollusc Phylum

Other names: Alabaster Nudibranch, Frosted Nudibranch, Chalk-Line Dirona
Description: Translucent nudibranch with with large, flattened, pointed,
Color: Grayish-white, salmon, or purple translucent body with white lines
edging the large, flattened, pointed, appendages (known as cerata).

Range: Kachemak Bay, Alaska to San Diego, California.
Size: Maximum size of 7" (17.5 cm). Largest that I have personally seen have been at Titlow Beach in Tacoma, WA.
Habitat: Rocky areas and occasionally on mud. Feeds on stalked bryozoans and snails.
Intertidal to 115' (35m)

- Text and photo contributed by Claude Nichols

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October 2005

Photos © 2005 Janna Nichols

Kelp Greenling (Hexagrammos decagrammus)
(Male-upper photo, female-lower photo)

Other names: greenling sea trout, speckled sea trout, rock trout, bluefish, tommy cod
Description: Males and females look significantly different from one another and were once believed to be two different species. MALES: Brownish-olive or bluish-gray colored. Bright blue spots outlined with black on head and fore body. FEMALES: Bluish-white to pale cream, light brown or gray. Speckled with rows of red-brown to gold spots. Both have a small, prominent, bushy cirrus above each eye and another tiny pair between eyes and dorsal fin.
Range: Aleutian Islands to La Jolla, California.
Size: 10-18 inches up to 24 inches
Habitat: Generally inhabit kelp beds, but also around rocky areas and on sand bottoms. Intertidal to 150'.
Behavior: Although I read that these fish are unafraid and curious, may follow divers and can be hand-fed (of course, we would NEVER do that), it has been my experience that they are pretty shy and flee from divers.
Males actively guard masses of pale blue to mauve eggs.
ID Clues: They have 5 lateral lines.

- Contributed by Georgia Arrow

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September 2005

Photo © 2005 Janna Nichols

Leather Star (Dermasterias imbricata)

This particular sea star is easy to identify and spot, since it looks so different from the other sea stars. Typically, these are found on rocky surfaces at all recreational diving depths. The Leather Star is named such because its top surface is soft, like suede leather. The coloration is gray with brownish - orangish patches. It has 5 arms, with a bit of webbing in between, and each arm can be up to about 6" long. Leather stars eat sea pens, anemones, sea cucumbers and sea urchins. When removed from the water, they smell like garlic.

Now, if you really want to see some action, watch what happens when a Leather Star gets near a Swimming Anemone (Stomphia). Whoa!! You'll see an escape response like no other, with the Swimming Anemone gyrating and flopping back and forth, attempting to sting the Leather star, and then simply lifting off its perch, swimming away in the water.

We've seen large numbers of juvenile Leather Stars in the eelgrass at Twanoh State Park. Not exactly rocky habitat, eh?

- Contributed by Janna Nichols

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August 2005

Photo © 2005 Wes Nicholson

(Aulorhynchus flavidust)

Description: The tube-snout is a species that is easy to identify. The tube-snout has a slender elongated body with a single triangular dorsal fin preceded by many small spines. The fish has a long tubular snout with a tiny mouth. The body is fairly rigid. Normal movement is slow and uneven; achieved by rapid fin movement. Occasional lunges are made while feeding on planktonic prey. The fish are sometimes found in large schools.

Range: The tube-snout ranges from Baja California to southeastern Alaska and is usually found in water less than 33 ft (10 m) deep but may occur as deep as 100 ft (25 m). They can reach a length of 7 inches (18 cm).

Breeding: During spring and early summer breeding and spawning take place. Careful observers may see territorial behavior by the males. The males develop a fluorescent blue snout and flash an orange patch near the pectoral fins as a display while defending their turf. Up to 60 dark honey colored eggs are deposited on a nest of strands of sticky material built by the male. A favorite nest site seems to be at the top of the bulb like air bladder on a stalk of kelp where the blades attach. Schools of juvenile tube-snouts can be seen at this time of year around structures close to the bottom.

ID Hints: One possible identification trap is the similarity to the bay pipefish, another fish with an elongated body. The ID tip is that if the fish is horizontal, it's a tube-snout. If it is vertical, it's a pipefish; pipefish are usually found near eel grass which they use as camouflage in their vertical position.

Interestingly, Hart (Reference 1) says this family contains only one species. Lamb (Reference 2) says that the family has two species; our local tube-snout and a similar species found in the western Pacific off the coasts of Japan and Korea. Note that Lamb is a more recent publication.


1.) Pacific Fishes of Canada, J. L. Hart, Fisheries Research Board of Canada Bulletin 180, 1973, pg. 273.
2.) Coastal Fishes of the Pacific Northwest, A. Lamb and P. Edgell, 1986, pg.54.

- Contributed by Kirby Johnson

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July 2005

A Twofer this time around - two jellies for the price of one. Learn to tell them apart. (Jellies, not Jellyfish as they are not fish!)

Jelly Contestant #1

Views from top and bottom: Photos © 2005 Don Coleman

Jelly Contestant #2

Photo © 2005 Janna Nichols

Lion's Mane (Sea Blubber) first photo
Egg Yolk Jelly for the second

Key in telling these jellies apart is the number of lobes along the margin, and color. The Lion's Mane jelly, which can give you a nasty sting, has eight large lobes and generally a purplish to red color - the egg yolk jelly has 20 lobes and is light yellow in color.

Lion's Mane Jelly or Sea Blubber
Cyanea capillata

Description: Nearly transparent bell with margin divided into 8 large lobes. Large central mass of frilly oral lobes or arms around the gastric cavity - often hang down below the bell. These lobes can be extended. They have 8 clusters of tentacles, each of which may have up to 150 tentacles. The tentacles are armed with nematocysts - stinging cells. These are the most commonly encountered jellies that can give you a bad sting.
Color: ranges from light yellowish brown to deep red and purple, with the darker colors associated with larger critters. The tentacles are usually dark - a red or purplish color.
Range: From Oregon to Alaska, circumpolar - also found in Atlantic. The largest animals are found in the coldest waters of the higher latitudes.
Size: Bell up to 6.5 + feet in diameter, tentacles to 30 feet. Along the west coast, these jellies are usually no wider than 20 inches in diameter. Largest individuals are found in the fall.
Habitat: Pelagic species - open coastal water & the Salish Sea (Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Georgia Strait).
Depth: surface to 60+ feet.
Behavior: Planktonic - drifts with the currents, with some limited mobility from swimming motions resulting from contractions of the bell that expel water from the bell - jet propelling the critter forward.
Other: Have a life expectancy of about 1 year. The jellyfish we see is the medusa - sexual reproduction phase. Also has a polyp - asexual reproduction phase. Reproduce in spring and die in winter. Preys primarily on zoo plankton.
Phylum: Cnidaria
Class: Scyphozoa
Family: Cyaneidae

Egg Yolk Jelly or Fried Egg Jelly
Phacellaphora camtschatica

Description: Nearly transparent whitish or yellowish bell with margin divided into 16 large lobes that alternate with small lobes. Large central light yellow to yellow mass of gonads and frilly oral lobes or arms around the gastric cavity - often hang down below the bell. They have 16 clusters of tentacles. The tentacles are armed with nematocysts - stinging cells.
Color: Central mass ranges from light yellow to yellow. The tentacles are usually white. Smaller individuals may be colorless or milky white.
Range: temperate waters from the Gulf of Alaska to Chile. Also in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
Size: Bell up to 24 inches in diameter, tentacles to 20 feet.
Habitat: Pelagic species - open coastal water & the Salish Sea (Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Georgia Strait).
Depth: surface to 60+ feet.
Behavior: Planktonic - drifts with the currents, with some limited mobility from swimming motions resulting from contractions of the bell that expel water from the bell - jet propelling the critter forward.
Other: Preys primarily on medusae and as a result the tentacles and oral arms are sticky and only have a mild sting.
Phylum: Cnidaria
Class: Scyphozoa
Family: Ulmaridae

- Contributed by Wes Nicholson

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May 2005

Photo © 2005 Janna Nichols

Buffalo Sculpin
Enophrys bison
Member of the Sculpin Family

Description: Critter has a round snout and large head with a prominent pair of spines on gill cover. The top one pointed up and back and the lower flattened and pointed down. There are also raised plates along the lateral line.
Color: Colors range from mottled brown, grey, green to pink and black.
Range: California to Alaska
Size: To 14 ½" (37 cm.)
Habitat: Rocky reefs to gravely shallow sub tidal areas.
Depth: To 65 ft. (20 meters)
Behavior: Relies on camouflage and stays put when disturbed making them easy to photograph. Titlow Beach in Tacoma in the summertime is an excellent dive site for viewing a large abundance of these sculpin.

- Contributed by Mark Dixon

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April 2005

Photo © 2005 Janna Nichols

Northern Kelp Crab
(Pugettia producta)
Member of the Arthropod Phylum

Alternate Names: Spider Crab
Description: The carapace is smooth and typically clean in a shield shape with kelp brown or dark red color. The underside is yellow or scarlet. The legs are long and slender and end in sharp points.
Range: Prince of Wales Island, Alaska to Baja California.
Size: Male Carapace widths up to 3.6” (93mm), females up to 3” (78mm).
Habitat: In kelp beds, pilings, and rocks intertidal to 240’ (73m).
Behavior: Tend to stand their ground when approached and to raise claws to defend themselves.
ID Clues: Shield shaped carapace.

- Contributed by Claude Nichols

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March 2005

Photo © 2005 Georgia Arrow

Brown Rockfish
(Sebastes auriculatus)
Scorpionfish Family

Other Names: Bolina, Chocolate Bass, Brown Bass, Brown Rock Cod
Description: The basic body colors are various shades of brown overlaid with dark brown, red-brown, or blackish mottling. Red-brown, brown, or orangish stripes radiate back from the eyes and upper jaw resembling Copper Rockfish but Coppers don't have the identifying prominent dark blotch on the rear gill cover.
Range: Northern Gulf of Alaska to southern Baja California. Particularly abundant in central and southern Puget Sound and northern California to southern Baja California. From very shallow inshore water to 444 feet. Most common to 396 feet.
Size: Heavy-bodied. Up to 22.4".
Habitat: Inhabit hard bottoms and sandy areas near rocks, dock pilings, debris, and low profile reefs. Often lie quietly on the bottom relying on camouflage to protect them.
Behavior: Unconcerned, allowing close views when approached with slow nonthreatening movements.
ID Clues: Prominent dark blotch on the rear part of the gill cover.
Thin lateral line visible from gill cover to base of tail.

- Contributed by Georgia Arrow

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February 2005
This month is a double-dipper...

Photo © 2003 Mark Dixon - Madrona Point, BC

Photo © 2003 Janna Nichols - Les Davis, Tacoma WA

Giant Pacific Octopus on the top,
and Red Octopus on the bottom
Enteroctopus dofleini
Octopus rubescens

In honor of the Seattle Aquarium Annual Octopus Survey this month, we want to point out some of the differences between the two common types of octopuses in our area. We do encourage all of you to participate in the survey!

Since the Giant Pacific Octopus grows to much larger sizes than the Red Octopus, it's easy to rule out the Red Octo simply by size if you happen upon a large critter. However, the tricky part is when you come across a small octopus - how do you tell which one it is?

Dr. Roland Anderson, of the Seattle Aquarium, and founder/manager of the Annual Octopus Surveys, has graciously given us lots of clues to help ID the little buggers. Check out the boxes below and compare to the photos above.

Giant Pacific Octopus
Red Octopus
  • no 'eyelashes' under eyes
  • 1 white spot centrally located in front of the eyes
  • body papillae are flat and paddle-like with longitudinal wrinkles along the mantle
  • 3 'eyelashes' under each eye
  • 2 white spots in front of eyes
  • body papillae (the bumpy things) are pointed and cylindrical

See the three 'eyelashes'? This eye belongs to a Red Octopus.
You can find lots of these little guys on a night dive at Redondo Beach.

Good luck! And you can also check out this page that Dr. Anderson created for field ID of octopuses.

- Contributed by Janna Nichols

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January 2005

Photo © 2004 Janna Nichols - Titlow Beach, WA

C-O Sole
Pleuronichthys coenosus

The C-O Sole is one of the flat fish that divers can readily identify. The fish has an oval shaped body and often is colored in rich brown tones; the color varies to blend with the habitat. The eyes are large, closely spaced and protruding.

The most prominent identifying features are; a dark spot, about the same size as the eye, located in the middle of the back, a second sometimes not quite so prominent spot in the center of the caudal (tail) fin, and a dark band at the base of the same fin. The band and spot on the tail resemble the letters "C-O", hence the name. Not only easy to ID, but the name is written right on the fish! Who could ask for more?

[Maybe the fish could fill out the scan forms.]

The C-O Sole ranges from Baja California to southeastern Alaska and is found in water less than 50 ft (15 m) deep to well beyond safe diving limits. They can reach a length of 14 inches (36 cm).

These fish are often found where sandy areas abut rocky reef. If coralline algae is present on the reef, observers may be treated to seeing the same purple hue in the color pattern of the fish.

The C-O Sole eggs are pelagic, drifting in the water column and hatching after about a week. The larvae begin life near the surface like other fish. As the young fish settle to the bottom they undergo a change where the left eye shifts across the head to the right side. The now sightless left side is protected by proximity to the bottom and swimming becomes the undulating movement we associate with flat fish. The skin pigmentation is entirely on the right side.

C-O Sole belong to the family of flat fish known as Right Eyed Flounders because of this trait. This turns out not to be very useful characteristic for identification because most of the common flat fish in our waters are right eyed.

For something a little bit different, find the website of Dr. Stephen Palumbi from Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station. Select music on the webpage and listen his recording of " Sustainable Sole".

(Or you could just click here - so much easier!)

1.) Pacific Fishes of Canada, J. L. Hart, Fisheries Research Board of Canada Bulletin 180, 1973, pg. 633.
2.) Coastal Fishes of the Pacific Northwest, A. Lamb and P. Edgell, 1986, pg.213.

- Writeup contributed by Kirby Johnson

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