Rare, Bizarre Creatures from the Deep: An Unexpected Nature Study

I grew up on the Oregon Coast in beautiful Bandon by the Sea. I spent many a day on the shoreline investigating the marine invertebrates under the rock crevices and walking the sandy beaches. My brothers and I longed for the minus tides, providing us the rare opportunity to go spelunking in the sea caves just off shore. These rocky islands are now protected areas for marine bird nesting habitat but back in the 70s, it was our playground.

dune geology tunicates

Dune geology features: foredune and deflation plain

Tracking Marine Debris

In all the years I have spent on the beach, I have found a diverse amount of debris and organisms in varying states of decay. I probably spend an equal amount of time sifting through the wrack on the high tide line as I do in wave zone digging in the sand looking for mole crabs.

I have found marine debris from Japan evidenced by the kanji script. An occasional flip flop or fishing net remnants are not uncommon. While immersing myself in marine biology courses at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology one summer, I even found several squid egg cases that washed ashore after a winter storm, providing my peers and I an opportunity to observe the development up close. Yet, once in a while, I am still surprised at what washes ashore.

tunicates

Walking along the ATV trail across the deflation plain

This past holiday weekend, my family and I enjoyed a leisurely walk on the beach near our home. Our goal was to field test a new marine debris app, a joint initiative between the NOAA Marine Debris Program and the Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative. The tracker app allows you to help make a difference by checking in when you find trash on our coastlines and waterways.*

We drove out to the North Spit and thereafter began our excursion through the deflation plain. We soon discovered, however, that there was too much standing water to stick to the trail that meandered through the wetland area. We thus walked along the ATV road until we reached the small foredune. Just a few feet up and over and we arrived on the sandy beach.

No sooner did we arrive at the shore and we immediately were captivated by the presence of a strange organic material that was strewn across the beach for miles. Upon first glance, it looked like a hard plastic tube resembling a sea cucumber. My first suspicion turned out to be incorrect, however. Upon returning home, I learned that what we had found were actually colonial tunicates. Fascinating!

tunicates rare creatures

Planktonic salps, Pyrosoma atlanticum, strewn across the beach.

What are Tunicates?

This bizarre and rarely-seen creature is called a pyrosome, a species of pelagic colonial tunicates. Their scientific name, Pyrosoma atlanticum, is derived from the Greek words pyro meaning ‘fire’ and soma meaning ‘body’ which refers to the fact that they are known for bright displays of bioluminescence.

Pyrosoma atlanticum are one of the few pyrosomes that make it to the west coast of the U.S. The species found here are less than a foot but can get as long as 24 inches. Largely colorless, they can show up as pink, grayish or purple-green.

tunicates invertebrates

A specimen of the colonial tunicate, Pyrosoma atlanticum 

These massive colonies of cloned creatures are related to a kind of jellyfish called a slap. A tunicate is a marine invertebrate animal, a member of the subphylum Tunicata, which is part of the Chordata, a phylum which includes all animals with dorsal nerve cords and notochords.

Each individual organism is about 1 cm long – less than a third of an inch. They are all connected by tissue and in turn form this colony that looks like a plastic tube. The recent winter storms have caused them to strand on the shores and have been found in all areas of the coast.

Usually found in temperate waters as low as 800 meters. The colony of animals is comprised of thousands of individual zooids and moves through the water column by the means of cilia (an organelle found in eukaryotic cells that project from the much larger cell body).

As they move through the water column, sometimes close to the surface and sometimes as far down as 2600 feet, they filter plankton out of the water for food. As it sucks water in, it then pushes it back out, thereby propelling it through the ocean. It does all this via one opening only, so it moves incredibly slow.

For more images of Pyrosoma, check out Bob Perry’s photographs. Included in his work are a few pseudoconchs (false shells) of the pelagic mollusk Corolla which we similarly found.zoologyIf you are interested in learning more about invertebrates with your students, I encourage you to look into the Amazing Animals curriculum unit I have written to introduce middle level students to zoology. This 10-week unit is full of inquiry-based activities and lesson plans fully outlined for you.

Due to our fascination with these rare creatures, we didn’t spend as much time with the debris tracking app as I had intended. We’ll give it a go another time.

Oregon Nature Quiz – First Summer Edition

I have always loved the outdoors and enjoy sharing my passion for nature study with others. I’ve recently completed my coursework to become a certified Oregon Master Naturalist.

To celebrate, I thought it would be fun to create a little quiz to help you get to know Oregon a little better. My vision is to create a new quiz every quarter.

Oregon Nature Quiz #1

How Well Do You Know Oregon?

Here are five photos of plants and animals that are found on the Oregon Coast. Can you identify them? (Hint: All of these photos were taken on the Oregon coast)

  1. What kind of rodent is this?

mammal

2. What is this creepy looking black thing?

fungi

3. Can you name this flower?

flower

4. Is this cutie a lizard or amphibian? Can you identify the genus?

herp

5. This invertebrate is a common sight along the trails and even in our gardens. What is it? slug

Answers:

1. The California ground squirrel (Otospermophilus beeches) is pictured here on the rocky shoreline in Depoe Bay. The squirrel’s upper parts are mottled, the fur containing a mixture of gray, light brown and dusky hairs; the underside is lighter, buff or grayish yellow. The fur around the eyes is whitish, while that around the ears is black. Head and body are about 30 cm long and the tail an additional 15 cm. As is typical for ground squirrels, California ground squirrels live in burrows which they excavate themselves. Some burrows are occupied communally but each individual squirrel has its own entrance. They commonly feed on seeds, such as oats, but also eat insects such as crickets and grasshoppers as well as various fruits.

2. It is rather common in the maritime Pacific Northwest, Frog Pelt Lichen (Peltigera neopolydactyla) can range in color from bluish green to olive brown. It is found growing on both rocks and dead wood, in shady, open forests at varying altitudes. A large, loosely appressed leaf lichen, the lobes are broad, 10-25 mm wide, and the upper surface hairless. Often bearing brownish, tooth-like fruiting bodies on raised lobes along the lobe margins, the lower surface is whitish, cottony, bearing low, broad, brownish or blackish veins and long, slender holdfasts (rhizines).

3. Trillium (sometimes called Wakerobin) is a genus of perennial flowering plants native to temperate regions of North America. Growing from rhizomes, they produce scapes (similar to a stem) which are erect and straight in most species but lack true, above ground leaves. Three large photosynthetic bracts (modified leaves) are arranged in a whorl about the scape. The flower has three green or reddish sepals and usually three petals in shades of red, purple, pink, white, yellow, or green.

4. Rough-skinned Newts are amphibious and are often seen moving to breeding sites during the breeding season. Migration to and from breeding sites varies among populations. Some newts spend the dry summer in moist habitats under woody debris, rocks, or animal burrows with adults emerging after the fall rains. In some populations, adults remain in the ponds and lakes throughout the summer and migrate back onto land in the fall when the rain starts. Often they will form large aggregates of thousands of newts in the water.

Poisonous skin secretions containing the powerful neurotoxin tetrodotoxin repel most predators. The poison is widespread throughout the skin, muscles, and blood, and can cause death in many animals, including humans, if eaten in sufficient quantity. Populations in Crater Lake have been shown to lack this neurotoxin. In most locations the Common Gartersnake, Thamnophis sirtalis, is the only predator of the newt.

5. The infamous banana slug is the common name for three North American species of terrestrial slug in the genus Ariolimax. These slugs are often yellow in color and are sometimes spotted with brown, like a ripe banana. These shell-less mollusks are detritivores or decomposers. They process leaves, animal droppings, moss, and dead plant material, and then recycle them into soil humus.

SCORING:
5 points: You must be a nature docent!
4 points: You are at home on the coast.
3 points: You think the coastal forest is beautiful, but would never spend the summer here.
2 points: You guessed randomly, right?
1 or 0 points: You’d really rather stay indoors.

Whale Watching on the Oregon Coast

A few months ago, I shared a number of Great Spots to Watch Oregon’s Winter Storms. But winter storms are not the only thing that draws the crowds to our shoreline. Gray whales, which migrate farther than any mammal on Earth, can also be observed and volunteers all along the coast are eager to share their knowledge with you. Whale watching takes place almost year-round on the Oregon Coast.

Whale Migration

Each winter in the warm waters of Mexico, gray whales give birth, nurse their calves, rest and play before their long journey north in spring. They swim 5,000 miles along the Pacific coast from Mexico to the waters of the Arctic. The trip ends in the nutrient-rich feeding grounds of the Bering Sea in Alaska. In fall, they travel back to Mexico again to complete a round trip annual journey of 10,000 miles.

DepoeBayWe enjoyed a little weekend getaway this past weekend, driving north along Highway 101 to Newport. We stopped at numerous scenic points along the way to observe the waves crashing on rocky shoreline. In Depoe Bay, we visited with the Oregon Parks and Recreation volunteers who helped us to spot the gray whales migrating offshore.

The first phase (non-calves) of the northbound gray whale migration appears to have peaked and the second phase (moms with babies) is just beginning – just in time for Spring Whale Watch Week, March 19 – 26.

Whale Anatomy

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay was constructed during the postwar period designed to serve the rapidly increasing ranks of the motoring public, while taking advantage of a unique scenic vista—the world’s smallest navigable harbor at Depoe Bay.

While here, we also took time to enjoy the touch tables and pictorial history inside the center. What fascinated me most was the whale ear bone pictured here.

whaleearbone

In land mammals, the fleshy pinna or the outside part of the ear helps collect sound and funnel it into the ear. That works because the acoustical properties of the air and flesh are different, so sound  gets channeled into the ear canal where it vibrates the eardrum and the ossicles (or ear bones).

In water, the acoustical properties of flesh and water are pretty similar, therefore the fleshy outside part of the ear serves no function. Though hearing in baleen whales is not well understood, in toothed whales, instead of sound coming in through the ear canal, sound comes in through fatty tissues in the jaws which are attached to an acoustic funnel. Scientists believe that the ossicles vibrate this fluid-filled inner ear.

whalebaleen

Baleen whales like the Grey Whale do not have teeth, instead they have 130 to 180 baleen plates that hang down each side of their upper jaws, like a fringed curtain. The plates are made out of fingernail-like material called keratin, the same substance found in human fingernails and hair. It makes the baleen strong, but still flexible.

Baleen is a filter-feeder system inside the mouths of baleen whales. The baleen system works when a whale opens its mouth underwater and the whale takes in water. The whale then pushes the water out, and animals such as krill are filtered by the baleen and remain as food source for the whale.

Inside the center, there was also a display that discussed how man has hunted the whale in the past for oil and baleen. It provided a fascinating reflection of how man has impacted our natural resources and how times have changed.

depoewildlifeOther Wildlife

Whales are not the only wildlife one can observe here at the Whale Watching Center. In addition to the whales we glimpsed with spotting scopes, we also observed the following at wayside viewing center:

  • Black Oystercatcher Haematopus bachmani
  • Black Turnstone Arenaria melanocephala
  • Pelagic Cormorant Phalacrocorax pelagicus
  • Several species of gulls
  • Ground Squirrel – species yet unidentified, but resembles Belding Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus beldingi)

Whale Watching Sites

Beginning north and traveling south along highway 101, the following locations are excellent view points from which to watch for whales.

  • Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, Cape Disappointment State Park
  • Neahkahnie Mountain, south of Cannon Beach
  • Cape Meares State Park
  • Boiler Bay State Scenic Viewpoint
  • The Whale Watching Center, Depoe Bay
  • Cape Foulweather
  • Cape Perpetua Stone Shelter
  • Sea Lion Caves Viewpoint
  • Umpqua River Whale Watching Station
  • Shore Acres State Park
  • Cape Arago State Park
  • Face Rock State Park
  • Battle Rock Wayfinding Point
  • Cape Sebastian
  • Klamath Overlook

For more detailed information on Whale Watching, download the brochure from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.

A Look at Oregon Coastal Winds: A Nature Study

We have recently moved from the northern end of California’s Central Valley at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains to the southern Oregon Coast. One of the most noticeable differences between these two areas is the weather.

Oregon Coastal Winds: A Nature Study @EvaVarga.net

Photograph by Jamie Crawford

In Redding, we enjoyed a hot Mediterranean climate. Here on the coast, the weather is more moderate with partly cloudy days and windy afternoons the norm. It is the perfect place to dive into a study of Oregon coastal winds.

I recently wrote an article for the Handbook of Nature Study monthly newsletter describing ways in which you could undertake a study of wind. If you don’t already subscribe to Barb’s newsletter, I encourage you to do so.

Wind results from pressure gradients, differences in air pressure from one place to another. When high pressure and low pressure areas come close to each other, air from the high pressure area will move into the low pressure area, creating wind. Because of the rotation of Earth, the air will not move directly toward the low pressure area. Instead, it spirals in, creating a cyclone. A cyclone is any weather system with winds around a low pressure area. The wind will continue until the pressure between the areas is equalized.

Students often have misconceptions about wind and where it comes from. Before beginning a unit study or lesson on wind, begin with a discussion to reveal their ideas of wind and its origins.

Oregon Coastal Winds

As Meriwether Lewis observed during his encampment along the coast in the early 1800s, it can get windy on the Oregon Coast. In the winter, storms approach the coast from primarily a westerly direction. In this case, strong southerly winds occur ahead of the storm’s advancing frontal zone, as higher pressure to the south tries to compensate for falling pressures to the north. Once the front passes inland, winds shift to westerly.

The winds from the Land brings us could [sic] and clear weather while those obliquely along either coast or off the Oceans bring us warm damp cloudy and rainy weather. The hardest winds are always from the S.W.
~ Meriwether LewisJanuary 311806at Fort Clatsop

Such an observation is completely true in the winter. However, had Lewis and the other members of the Corps of Discovery experienced a summer along the Oregon coast, they would certainly have experienced other conditions. The prevailing winds shift to northwesterly along the coast throughout the spring and falls off remarkably along the entire coast during the summer months.Oregon's Coastal Winds: A Nature Study @EvaVarga.net

High Wind Advisory

Winter is a great time to visit the Oregon coast and watch our magnificent winter storms. There are at least a few fairly nice days in between the stormy squalls and near-gale force winds.

The winter storms are one of the things I like best about living on the coast. Meteorologists have stated that several storms are excepted to hit the Northwest coast this week and perhaps through much of December. According to AccuWeather.com,

The storms, which will vary in intensity and location, will hit every one to three days with waves of drenching rain, heavy mountain snow and gusty winds.

Our rain gear is packed and we will head out periodically to measure the strength of the wind with our Kestrel 1000 Pocket Wind Meter. Our plan is to do this several times over the course of the year to get a feel for seasonal changes.

Take it Further

? Students may be interested in investigating storms, like tornadoes, in which pressure differences between two areas are very great. This would create an opportunity to talk about safety precautions that should be followed in tornadoes and strong wind storms.

? A discussion of the Coriolis Effect may also be appropriate. Important to airplane and rocket navigation, the phenomenon of the Coriolis Effect results from the rotation of Earth.

?When the children were younger, I introduced them to the concepts of air pressure and wind with a couple simple activities. As I shared in this post, the air in the balloon is pressurized. The air around the balloon has a lower pressure than the air in the balloon. When the balloon is opened, the high pressure air rushes out to a region of low pressure. This is the same principle that governs wind – though there are some key differences between the model and reality.

? Wind is an important alternative source of energy. The history of wind machines, modern wind machines, the economics of wind power, and the environmental aspects of wind power can also be explored. Challenge students to build a windmill of their own using fischertechnik or other building systems. How can you improve the efficiency of their design?

?Find a poem or musical piece that was inspired by wind or other weather. Better yet, write your own!

Who Has Seen the Wind?
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you.
But when the leaves hang trembling.
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.
~ Christina G. Rossetti

Great Spots to Watch Oregon’s Winter Storms

Having lived in the Redding for the past four years (in the midst of a severe drought), we are delighted to be back on the Oregon coast. We’re smack dab in the middle of peak storm season and it is fun to catch the fury of the Pacific as the waves and wind crash into the shoreline.Great Spots to Watch Oregon's Winter Storms @WellTraveledFamily.net

On the Oregon Coast south of Depoe Bay, there is a rocky outcropping called Cape Foulweather. It was named by Captain James Cook as he searched for a passage to the Atlantic Ocean. Though his quest was not successful, winter storms on the Oregon Coast can be most certainly be foul. It is a perfect place to watch Oregon’s Winter Storms.

A little storm science

Peak winter storm season typically runs from November through March. While it doesn’t tend to get cold enough to snow here thanks to the warming influence of the Pacific, our mild winter weather is punctuated by spectacular storms featuring high winds and heavy rain that roll in from the ocean.

In the winter, the eastward-flowing atmospheric river of air known as the jet stream intensifies and moves south, pushing rain-bearing weather systems along with it. These storms form over the ocean, typically where warm and cold air masses collide.

Beginning this week, meteorologists have predicted a train of winter storms approaching our coastline. Varying in intensity and location, the storms will hit every one to three days with waves of drenching rain, heavy mountain snow and gusty winds.

Where to watch

Perfect high spots from which to view spectacular surf include Rocky Creek Scenic Viewpoint near Depoe Bay, the viewpoint at the lighthouse at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, multiple spots at Cape Perpetua Scenic Area south of Yachats, and Shore Acres State Park near Charleston.

  1. Seaside
  2. Ocean Front Cabins near Tillamook Bay (503) 842-6081
  3. Tyee Lodge in Newport (541) 265-8953
  4. Coos Bay
  5. Sunset Oceanfront Lodge in Bandon (541) 347-2453

If you choose to experience the full wrath of a winter storm, safety should be your first concern. Some storms are simply too dangerous for beach walks, so be sure to heed all safety warnings issued by the authorities. If you do venture out, stay up high out of the reach of sneaky storm waves. They can always reach further up the beach than you think and sneaker waves can be deadly.

If you prefer to watch frothy waves and horizontal rain as you sip hot chocolate by a wood fire, then snuggle up comfortably – here are our top picks for places to watch these storms in Oregon.

After the storm

One of the great bonuses of coastal storms is the exceptional beachcombing that can often be done after the storm has subsided. All kinds of fascinating debris is more likely to be found after a storm, including glass Japanese fishing floats, tsunami debris left over from the 2011 tsunami, and interesting biological specimens wrenched from the depths of the ocean.

I once found cigar-shaped egg cases on the beach near Depoe Bay. I brought them to the lab at Oregon Institute of Marine Biology and was able to watch the embryos of Pacific Squid develop.

Storm-watching season has just begun. Make your reservations now to catch an Oregon Coast storm from a cozy cabin or waterfront lodge.

Don’t forget your rain gear! ?

Roosevelt Elk at Dean’s Creek: A Nature Study

The Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area and the O.H. Hinsdale Interpretive Center are popular tourist stops along Hwy. 38 near Reedsport. Here, visitors are able to observe up-close views of Roosevelt Elk, with the herd sometimes reaching as many as 120 elk. This area of mountains, meadows, and marshes also are home to beaver, coyote, muskrat, mallards, Canada geese, and great blue heron.

Roosevelt Elk: A Nature Study @EvaVarga.netThe Roosevelt Elk are native to the area and are considered Oregon’s largest land animal. Inhabiting forests and meadows from northern California to British Columbia, they are the largest of six sub-species of elk. They generally live between 10 to 15 years, but some may live more than 20 years.

In this short video by Chris Cru, you can observe the Roosevelt Elk peacefully grazing as well as a coyote running in the background.


The antlers of a Roosevelt elk can reach spreads of nearly 3 feet and are thicker than the antlers of the Rocky Mountain elk. Older, stronger bulls have larger antlers, with 6 or more points per side, while yearling bulls have single spikes.

A mature bull elk can weigh an imposing 700 to 1200 pounds, standing 5 feet tall at the shoulder. Cows weigh about 500 to 700 pounds, while a calf weighs just 23 to 45 pounds at birth.

Their brown-gray winter coat will turn to a glossy, reddish-bay color in the summer. A tawny rump patch is outlined in black and they boast a thicker mane. At birth, calves are spotted and more tawny in color. As mature elk age, their coats will lighten in color.

Roosevelt Elk: A Nature Study @EvaVarga.net

Using a range finder to calculate our distance apart

Nature predators include mountain lion and black bear which primarily feed on new calves and sick animals. When approached or threatened, both cows and bulls will use their sharp front hooves for protection. Cows will bark an alarm that sounds like a high-pitched neigh while calves will bleat when danger approaches.

In late summer, bulls shed their velvet by rubbing antlers against tree limbs and bushes until the new antlers are hardened and shiny. This helps the males win over the female when the mating season begins in autumn.

Roosevelt Elk: A Nature Study @EvaVarga.netThe elk bulls bugle during the fall season. This is a great time to see the males in action. The bull elk’s deep, resonating bugle can be heard across the meadow as the males call to attract a female, move in to spar with a competitor, and take control of the harem.

To signal their status and fitness, the bulls will wallow in mud and spray themselves with urine. They will also tangle plants in their antlers to appear more imposing and better emphasize their size and power.

Roosevelt Elk: A Nature Study @EvaVarga.netWhen the rut season is over, the females will force the males out of the heard once again. He will generally join up with a small group of other males though occasionally he’ll remain solitary. They then focus on grazing to gain nourishment fro the oncoming winter months.

The bulls drop their antlers in the later winter which become an important source of calcium for smaller forest mammals including coyotes, squirrels, and mice.

~ ~ ~

We’ve always enjoyed taking part in the monthly challenges at Handbook of Nature Study. This month our selected challenge was to Sketch Outdoors.