Aggregating Anemone

At the beach, search among rocks and in tidepools, and you may see what look like clusters of flowers. Could they be flowers ‐ or some kind of strange animal? This is the aggregating anemone, usually light green with tentacles tipped pink or purple. As these tentacles spread out under water the anemone does look more like a small elegant flower than the animal it actually is. This anemone is a voracious carnivore that uses stinger cells on its tentacles to paralyze its prey. Anemones will eat almost anything including crabs and then spew out the shell.

The name "Aggregating" Anemone comes from the fact that this animal can rapidly clone itself. Although all the groups of anemones living side by side appear identical, they aren’t. Each group is different and enemies with its neighbors. The clones at the edge are warriors and fiercely defend their group. If a warrior comes in contact with an enemy, they exchange poison darts causing wounds. The warriors withdraw, leaving a corridor between groups.

When the tide goes out, anemones exposed to air retract their tentacles to conserve moisture. They shrink and look more like little green lumps than elegant flowers.

Remember to watch your step when tide pooling so you won't crush or disturb the resting anemones or other tide pool critters.

Beach Hoppers

Although also known as "sand fleas," unlike true fleas these animals aren’t insects at all. They’re crustaceans related to barnacles and shrimp but live high up on the beach above the tide. Beach Hoppers do resemble fleas in their ability to spring away from predators. With a sudden movement of its abdomen, the hopper’s back two pairs of legs can vault it 10 inches away.

Beach Hoppers burrow 12 inches into the sand. Their occupied holes are closed and hard to spot, but you can easily see the empty ones and their spidery trails crossing the beach. Hoppers move to higher ground and make temporary burrows to avoid waves and the highest tides. They mostly feed at night avoiding the hot sun and eating washed up seaweed and eelgrass. If you disturb these piles of vegetation during the day, Beach Hoppers will come jumping out, sometimes in big numbers. Seabirds are their main predators and are adept at flipping stones and seaweed to find these salty little creatures.

From June to November Beach Hoppers reproduce in their burrows. Until they hatch, females carry the dark blue fertilized eggs in pouches on their legs. Once born, hoppers settle under small stones or piles of seaweed and immediately go to work munching and cleaning up the beach.

You can help these little creatures do their work by letting them stay covered during the day so they can emerge when the sun goes down. It’s tempting to poke into those piles of rotting seaweed, but better not to!

Encrusting Coralline Algae

Marine scientists once thought the pink or reddish purple blotches lining tidepools were corals, tiny colonial creatures. In fact, these blotches are seaweeds in the group called red algae. Specifically, they are Encrusting Coralline Algae. These tiny plants absorb calcium carbonate from sea water into their cell walls, hardening them to resist waves and grazing animals.

In tidepools you can see how successful this unusual plant is. The walls, rocks, even some of the living shells may be covered with pink. As tough as these crusts are, some creatures eat them. The dunce-cap limpet, a little conical gastropod, can do this and often has coralline algae growing on itself. Sea urchins graze the crusts getting the lime they need to maintain their own skeletons.

Though coralline algae have to resist excessive grazing to survive, a little benefits them. Other algae grow on the crusts threatening to block sunlight needed for photosynthesis. The shellfish called abalone are particularly good at cleaning off this layer as they feed. Coralline algae seem to give off a chemical that attracts abalone larvae to settle on them and grow up to provide this service.

When the crusts get old and thick enough they provide tiny nooks and crannies where juvenile sea urchins, limpets, and chitons (pronounced as "ki-tons") can hide from predatory fish.

Durable as they seem, we can easily damage these colorful and crusty algae and the creatures living on or in them when we disturb tide pools. Observe the pools without wading in them. Using a small stick to point things out to others will prevent oils from your hands affecting tidepool dwellers.

Pinto Abalone

The Pinto Abalone is a shellfish almost extinct in the Northwest. For centuries, people harvested abalone at low tide. The meat was good to eat, and the abalone's iridescent shell made beautiful jewelry and inlay decoration.

This unusual creature's shell is oval and 2 to 6 inches across. The abalone clamps onto rocks and holds tight to resist predators and strong waves. Abalone are grazers. With a kind of tongue lined with tiny teeth called a "radula", they scrape algae off rocks. Adult abalone also eat kelp, giant seaweed floating close to shore.

On top of the abalone's shell there's a line of raised holes like tiny volcanoes. Oxygen-rich water comes in these holes; carbon dioxide and waste go out. The abalone has several kinds of tentacles too. Two have simple eyes, and others poke through the breathing holes to keep them clear.

When diving equipment was invented, collecting abalone became much easier. Because abalone reproduce and grow slowly, their population plunged - and continued to decline even after harvesting was prohibited almost 20 years ago. Today, the abalone population may be too small to recover on its own. Public agencies and private organizations in the Northwest are growing pinto abalone in tanks to plant in the wild and re-grow the population. This could work, but the biggest threat to the abalone may still be poaching - illegal collecting. If you see an abalone, don't collect it, and don't pry it off the rocks because abalone are easily injured. Report your rare sighting to the Department of Fish & Wildlife.

Information on this Trail Tales website was prepared under funding from the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Public Participation Grant Program. While the information was reviewed for grant consistency and accuracy of project references, this does not necessarily constitute endorsement by the Department.

Learn more about Ecology’s Anacortes Baywide Cleanup

Photo credits: Anacortes History Museum, Washington state Dept. of Ecology, Samish Indian Nation and others, as noted. Illustrations by Linda Feltner.