Saltmarsh amphipod (Orchestia grillus) on a Spartina stem. Brown is the normal color morph, compare to the orange, parasitized morphs. Plum Island Estuary, Massachusetts

Amphipods: the new menacing marine menace?

This week a young man in Australia was attacked by something while he was swimming in the ocean. His legs were bloodied and covered with hundreds of small bites. At the hospital, doctors were baffled about what bloodied the young man’s legs. The dad – who rocks in this story – went back into the water with a bloody steak and collected the small, flea-like animals. They were identified as amphipods, which are small crustaceans. If Sharknado has taught us anything, a movie about flesh-eating amphipods can’t be far now. Let’s see what that movie trailer might look like.

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A young, beautiful mother sits on the beach and watches her charming son, who she can’t believe is growing up so fast, swim in the ocean. Gulls wheel overhead and waves roll gently. The sky blue.

Boy: Mom, watch me swim.
Mom: Okay.

[cue the Jaws-theme music rip-off]

Cello: Duh-nuh

 Boy: You watching?
Mom: Yes, dear.

Cello: Duh-nuh

 Cello: Duh-nuh

 [cue that voiceover guy]

 That Voiceover Guy: Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water again.

 Cello: Duh-nuh, Duh-nuh, Duh-nuh, etc.

 The boy screams and grabs his leg. His mother runs into the waves and pulls him out. His legs are bleeding but there’s nothing on them. A handsome and rugged marine biologist who looks just a little bit dangerous but you know you’d feel safe in his arms, runs over.

Mom: What did this!?

 Ruggedly handsome marine biologist: They’re amphipods.

 Mom: Oh my go…wait, what the heck are amphipods?

 Director: CUT!!

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What the heck are amphipods? They are small crustaceans related to shrimp and crabs and lobsters. Typically, they aren’t larger than your thumbnail. If you’ve picked up seaweed on a beach, you’ve probably seen them. They are the small animals flipping and tumbling around like fleas. Those are amphipods. Sometimes called ‘sand fleas.’ Or ‘beach fleas.’ Or ‘beach hoppers.’ Or ‘sea fleas.’ The ‘flea’ name refers to the shape of their body (pressed from the sides) and the fact that they can flip around using their tails.

The media has used the term ‘sea lice’, but that really refers to an isopod, which can be parasitic on fish and look like the rolly-pollies (aka doodle-bugs) you find under logs.

Are amphipods the new marine menace? A pack of ravenous, flesh-eating beasts that roam the oceans looking for prey? Well, no. They do eat flesh, but typically not live flesh. We marine biologists (both the ruggedly handsome and other variety) don’t think of amphipods as predators but as scavengers that eat dead plants and animals. They’re more like tiny vultures swimming through the sea looking for something dead to stick their heads into rather than wild dogs looking to tear apart a baby deer.

I study amphipods in the salt marshes of Massachusetts and Louisiana (you can see pictures of them below). Just like on the beach, if you pick up seaweed in the marsh, hundreds of little crustaceans will flip and spring until they can hide in the grass. Not much of a terror. In terms of diet, these amphipods are more interested in a rotting veggie burger than a hunk of a marine-biologist.   

Then why did they attack the young man’s legs in Australia? We’re not sure. Amphipods can bite humans – sometimes beach runners will have a bite or two – but they have rarely caused such damage. The best guess is that the amphipods were in a feeding frenzy and the young man’s legs happened to get in the way.

While I’ve been playful with this story, as a father, I too would have been worried. As a marine biologist, I am curious. It shows that we still have a lot to learn. The next time I pick up an amphipod I will check to see if it’s wearing a handkerchief and holding a knife and fork.  

 

 

P.S. Now that we have flesh-eating amphipods in the news, soon I will write about zombie amphipods. Stay tuned. Duh-nuh…

P.P.S. If you enjoyed this article then please post it on Facebook, Twitter, or your favorite social media. And don’t forget to follow me. 

Why did the fiddler cross the road?

Williamsburg, Virginia

Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (28) - Copy
I was riding my bike in my neighborhood when I saw a fiddler crab skitter across the blacktop. I stopped immediately to catch it because when it comes to marine life, I’m like a dog who can’t help but chase the rabbit. Plus, I don’t often see marine life skittering across blacktop in the middle of the day in June. I caught it. It was a red-jointed fiddler crab (this post reminds me that I need to write a post about fiddler crabs, but that’s for later).

Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (11) - Copy
A male red-jointed fiddler crab, Uca minax

Fiddler crabs live in burrows in beaches, salt marshes, and mangroves, not roads. But it’s not unusual to see fiddlers on roads that have been built right through the place where they live. In parts of coastal Virginia where the roads cut through the marsh, you can see herds of fiddler crabs roaming the road like cattle. The question is, why do fiddler crabs cross the road? One reason is that the road used to be a marsh where fiddlers grazed. Now they may cross the road for better pastures. Build a road through my house and I’m liable to wander onto it on my way to the kitchen for an avocado. But mind your honking in my house, I have a 2-year-old trying to sleep and an anxious cat who needs therapy. 

Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (24)
A lady fiddler has eggs underneath her (up to 10’s of thousands) 

To-get-to-the-otherside-for-a-snack is a fine answer for why fiddlers cross the road when the road is in their backyard. But the road I found the crab on today was at least 100 feet uphill from the marsh with a forest in between. I found seven wandering fiddlers total. What drives a fiddler to hike through the woods and then onto the highway? Fiddler crabs eat algae and little bits of dead plant found in the soil. I don’t think blacktop or frontyards or woodlands offer much forage for a fiddler.

Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (17)
A male fiddler crab challenges a baby pine tree. Males. Yeash. Am I right ladies?

My working hypothesis is that because we’ve had so much rain that it made the water too fresh for these marine crabs. But that hypothesis was shot down when I found a fine fiddler party in the marsh. My best guess is that because the temperatures were low and the road and forest were damp, they were simply brave crabs exploring new lands. There have been a lot of For Sale signs around. Now might be a good time to move.

 

Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (16)
Male fiddler crab doing his best, “I’m on Saturn” impression

In truth, I don’t really know why these crabs traveled so far. As I sit here daydreaming in rain, the why of it leaves my mind, like the crabs, to wander.

P.S. If you enjoy these posts, and of course you do, then please sign up for email updates! I don’t post often. Too much time chasing crabs.

Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (10)

Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (13)
Without thumbs, hitchhiking crab can’t get a ride
Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (15)
Soccer crab has got the sideways moves for goalie, but he just can’t find the net.


Snake bush

Jamestown, Virginia

I went down to the river today and found at least three* serpentine sunbathers draped across the branches of this bush. My best guess is that they were brown watersnakes, Nerodia taxispilota, based on my visit to the Virginia Herpetological Society’s awesome site. Can you find the three reptilian sunsoakers? 

3 water snakes - Jamestowne, VAI’ll update the post later in the week with the answers. 

*I say “at least three” because there could be more that I didn’t find.

The buzz of botantical lust

 

Backyard Bees (3)

Three weeks ago, my backyard exploded with lust as honeybees and bumblebees shoved their tongues down the throats of purple flowers. They were worse than a bunch of teenagers. For some, spring is a time of poems and romance. Not in my backyard. It is about satisfying a botanical lust and a zoological hunger.

In human reproduction, courtship may begin with a dance and eventually end with a screaming toddler who tells you ‘NO!’ as many times as you tell him. With their feet stuck in the ground, plants can’t dance so they have figured out another way of courting and reproducing with a partner. Some plants rely on wind or water to carry pollen from one plant to fertilize another. Other plants, like those in my backyard with purple flowers, rely on animals such as bees, bugs or bats. And all it takes is a little sugar to convince these animals to dance.

When winter ebbs and spring arrives, bees are hungry. Nectar is a fast meal. The bumblebees in my yard were so focused on feeding that I petted one on its fuzzy, tennis-ball thorax with my finger. The bee was not at all bothered. I taught my 21-month-old son how to pet bumblebees. And now when he sees a bee he sticks out his finger to pet it; I’m sure his mom will be thrilled.

I am amazed at how clever plants are. They have convinced an entirely different species to take part in their botanical lovemaking, and have done so with only a dab of sugar. I’m not nearly as clever. While the act of reproduction in humans is relatively uncomplicated, the act of convincing another human to reproduce with you is not. First dates, kissing the top of her ear because she turned her head when you went in for a kiss, handmade cards, not sure if she likes you, not sure if you like her, origami flowers, emails, drunk emails, break-ups, make-ups, bad movies, good movies you’re too nervous to watch, dinners with too much pepper and too much cabbage, dinners so good you forgot what you had, fights about nothing, fights about something, apologies for everything, hurt feelings, not being able to parallel park, building a garden together, telling her you’re tired when your exhausted because you want to impress her, farting in front of each other for the first time, wanting to build a life together, nerves about a new job and a new home, deciding to have a child that you will love more than anything but are terrified and excited about at the same time, teaching that child to pet bumblebees and then writing about it. Human reproduction is exhausting.*

I can’t imagine trying to convince another species to participate.

*I say as the one who did not give birth.

The cypress swamp

Darlington, South Carolina

Cyrpess wading in the creek (1)We walk through a cypress swamp full of trees that love to get their feet wet. Some are thick with gray shaggy beards of Spanish moss, while others are only tinseled with a sprig or two. Some trees wade in the middle of a creek, one that flows with water the color of sweet tea, though not nearly as sweet.

Village of knees

 

The walking path rises above a village of knees; stubby, leafless and unbranched versions of their tree parents. These cypress knees support the tree and let oxygen get down to the roots when flooded. A cypress tree doesn’t have to hold its breath underwater, it can breathe through its knees.

 

Swamp backbone (1)

 

Among the knees and trees is a backbone standing as straight as a soldier. It was formed by hogwire fence nailed to a tree long ago. The tree grew around the fence, died, rotted and fell away, but the hogwire held its backbone erect.     

 

 

Strip of bark in cypress swamp, Darlington, South Carolina
(c) Alison Gould

 

A strip of twisting bark stands as tall as roof. Though we don’t know how it stands because it is a bark without its tree, as though the tree was suddenly frightened and ran off leaving a strip of its backside behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Swamp rose

The swamp is abloom with flowers, but I am a poor botanist who just learned that Spanish moss is not a moss*. A red flower dots the swamp, a flower I will call a swamp rose, but it may not even be a rose. It may not even be a flower, just a moss masquerading as a flower, just as a flower masquerades as a moss – because Nature enjoys how clever it is.

 

 

Crane fly in cypress swamp, Darlington, South CarolinaA crane fly rests on a tree. The crane fly is sometimes called a mosquito hawk, under the impression that it eats mosquitos. I am a better entomologist than botanist and I know that a crane fly does not eat mosquitos. What I don’t know is how it got this mistaken identity because all I’ve ever seen a crane fly do is beat itself stupid against the drywall in my house until it successfully wrapped itself in spider web.

In the gravel parking lot a sign tells me about all the plants I saw, but I forget to remember all the information.     

 

*Spanish moss is not a moss but a flowering plant like daffodils in your lawn. Unlike the daffodil, it uses the air as its soil. Spanish moss is in the same family of plants as pineapples, the bromeliads, a family of epiphytes (means “living on plants”) that use other plants as habitats like lichen on rocks. They are a tropical plant-family that require indirect sunlight and little water, which is why my red-tongued bromeliad died when I watered it daily and put it in a bright, sun-filled, bromeliad-killing window. My bromeliad simultaneously drowned and burned to death. I told you I was a terrible botanist. For the Spanish moss, it may seem strange to have a pineapple as your cousin, but we all have a strange pineapple cousin who doesn’t quite fit but just like the Spanish moss, you can’t pick who’s in your family. If we could, there’d be a lot of lonely pineapples.