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While tidepooling on the California coast, I came across these strange looking creatures. At fist I didn’t think that they were organisms at all, but rather pieces of plastic.

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It is a free-floating hydrozoan that lives on the surface of the open ocean. Each apparent individual is a hydroid colony and most are less than three inches long.

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Though their deep blue color is eye-catching, their most obvious feature is a small stiff sail that catches the wind and propels them over the surface of the sea. They catch their prey (generally plankton) using tentacles that hang down in the water and bear stinging cells.

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These creatures typically live far offshore in open ocean waters and their little sails help distribute them using the force of the wind. However, because they sail only downwind or at a slight angle to the wind, they are often blown ashore in very high numbers, with millions piling onto beaches in drift rows.

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There are two forms of By-the-wind-sailors. California specimens have a sail which is angled to the right of the main axis. This means that as the wind pushes it along, the creature tacks as much as 60 degrees to the right of the true wind direction. California’s predominant wind is from the northwest, therefore these animals are usually kept offshore.

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The other form of By-the-wind-sailor has a sail angled to the left of the main axis. Not surprisingly these animals are found on the other side of the ocean – Japan, Korea and Siberia. Here the sail functions in the same way – it keeps the animal offshore and therefore safe from being stranded.

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Each By-the-wind-sailor is a colony of all-male or all-female individuals (called polyps), which are divided into separate groups within the colony. Some polyps specialize in feeding and reproduction, while others protect the colony and provide structural support.

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All polyps of an individual By-the-wind-sailor are connected by a canal system that distributes food and eliminates wastes. Even though they are very common and distributed throughout the oceans of the world, very little is known about the details of their life.

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This was indeed one of the coolest creatures that I found on my visit to the Golden State. These animals may be alternately known as Sea Rafts, Purple Sails and Little Sails.

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European Starling

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This bird was introduced to North America in 1890 and 1891, when about 60 individuals were released into New York’s Central Park as part of the local Shakespeare society’s plan to introduce all the birds mentioned in their author’s favorite writings.

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Today, more than 200 million European Starlings range from Alaska to Mexico and many people consider them pests. Here in Ohio, this may be the most numerous of any bird species, with massive Winter roosts numbering into the tens of thousands.

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This is a surprisingly long-lived creature, with the North American record for a wild bird being 17 years and 8 months. Starlings are great vocal mimics; they readily imitate other birds as well as mechanical sounds and even human speech.

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European Starlings turn from spotted to glossy and dark each year without shedding their feathers. The new feathers they grow in Fall have bold white tips – that’s what gives them their spots. By spring, these tips have worn away, and the rest of the feather is dark and iridescent brown. It’s an unusual changing act that scientists term “wear molt.”

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Starlings will eat nearly anything, but they focus on insects and other invertebrates when they’re available. They also eat fruit including wild and cultivated types. We most often see them at our suet feeders.

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Though they’re sometimes resented for their abundance and aggressiveness, European Starlings are still dazzling birds when you get a good look at them.

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Wandering Broadhead Planarian

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It’s not very often that I come across these very cool creatures, but I did recently while flipping rocks along a creek. Land Planarians are a type of flatworm that have about 1,000 different species living worldwide. The Wandering Broadhead Planarians are identified as flat, yellow and with a dark stripe down the middle of their backs. They are quite slimy, like a slug. Apparently the slime helps them move as well as maintain internal moisture levels.

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Wandering Broadhead Planarians are nocturnal predators that feed on slugs, snails, pillbugs, millipedes, spiders and earthworms. They use chemical signals that are produced in folds of their skin to detect prey. When a land planarian feeds, it slimes over top of potential prey, attaches its mouth opening and vomits digestive juices, liquifying its food. Then it sucks up the soupy nutrients.

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Like many other flatworms, they are able to reproduce either sexually or asexually. Sexual reproduction culminates in eggs being placed in cocoons that hatch in three weeks. A single planarian will, every couple of weeks or so, attach its tail to a rock or some other immoveable object and slime away, tearing its tail from its torso. A new tail grows from the wound, as we might expect of a flatworm. The tail segment left behind, however, grows a new torso and head within 10 days.

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I often think of these strange creatures as being in the tropics and although I found these on a chilly Ohio day, they are indigenous to Southeast Asia. In the United States, they were first encountered in 1943 in Westchester County, New York. Since that time, and despite the disparity in climate between the USA and Southeast Asia, they have spread practically from coast to coast.

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Trentepohlia Alga

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While hiking in Brecksville Reservation, I noticed this bright orange coloration on a rock wall. Upon closer examination, it appeared to be made up of tiny orange “cushions.”

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The genus Trentepohlia would not, at first glance, be taken as a green alga. But this free-living species is mostly yellow to bright orange or red-brown in color, due to carotenoid pigment, which usually hides the green of the chlorophyll.

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Trentepohlia is a genus of filamentous terrestrial green alga with a worldwide distribution. It grows on rocks, old walls and the trunks and branches of trees. It does not do any damage to the surfaces that it resides on.

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Algae (singular alga) are members of a group of predominantly aquatic photosynthetic organisms. Algae are almost ubiquitous throughout the world and can be categorized ecologically by their habitats.

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Their photosynthetic pigments are more varied than those of plants, and their cells have features not found among plants and animals. Algae serve ecological roles as oxygen producers and as the food base for almost all aquatic life.

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This was a fun and colorful find on an otherwise dreary February day in northeast Ohio.

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