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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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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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Blushing Rosette

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Sometimes you can find crazy things in your backyard – all you have to do is look. This week I can across this strange organism.

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Abortiporus biennis is a true oddball – a gnarled, messy-looking mass of irregular white pores that exude a reddish juice and bruise reddish brown. There is hardly a cap or a stem to speak of, and as it grows it engulfs sticks and blades of grass.

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This gnarled form of this species is sometimes given the separate species name of “Abortiporus distortus;” it is apparently the most commonly encountered form of the species, though it does have a more normal looking variety with an identifiable cap and stem

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This ground-dwelling polypore often puzzles collectors with its mixture of “normal” shelving clusters and “aberrant” cauliflower-like fruiting bodies.

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Despite the common name “Blushing Rosette,” which refers to the hues seen in many fruiting bodies, the color is actually quite variable, ranging from cream, reddish, ochre, to brown.

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Aggregating Anemone

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This organism was quite abundant and frequently seen on my quest for Pacific Ocean tidepool creatures.

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Their green color comes from an endosymbiotic (living within the anemone mutually benefiting both organisms), photosynthetic algae in their tentacles and body.

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The tentacles can be retracted inside the body cavity or expanded to catch passing prey. When not submerged in the water, they pretty much look like blobs covered with fragments of shells from things they’ve eaten.

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Aggregating Anemones catch prey that comes within reach of their tentacles and immobilize it with the aid of their venom-filled stinging cells within their tentacles.

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The tentacles are triggered by the slightest touch, firing a harpoon-like filament into their victim and injecting a paralyzing neurotoxin. The prey is then transported to the anemone’s mouth and engulfed.

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Despite the potency of its venom to its prey, sea anemones are harmless to humans. I stuck my finger near this one and it wrapped around it, trying to pull my finger into its mouth!


The closest relatives of these amazing creatures are jellyfish and corals. This was a fun animal to make an acquaintance with on my trip to California.

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Scenes From My 2013 Children’s Wildlife Drawing Class

Animals awaiting the first day of school
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Drawing a Praying Mantis
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Florida Box Turtle
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Alligator Lizard
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Bobwhite Quail
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Day 2 was “creepy-crawly things.” Here are the students observing how scorpions glow under UV Light.
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Emperor Scorpion
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Snapping Turtle
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Gopher Snake
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Getting to know a Corn Snake a little better.
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Day 3 – Underwater Day
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Asian River Turtle
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The teacher drew a Creek Chub
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It takes some keen observation skills to be an artist
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Day 4 – A Celebration of Amphibians
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Leopard Frog
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Spotted Salamander
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Barking Treefrogs
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The End
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