Tag Archives: Rock pools

Pseudoscorpions, springtails and colourful eggs

“We’re going to meet some friends to look for pseudoscorpions,” I say to Junior. “Have you heard of them before?”

I’m expecting him to say no. I only heard of them myself quite recently and although I bought myself a book all about them last year, I’ve yet to get round to looking for them.

“Of course,” Junior shrugs. “They eat springtails.” It’s in one of his books apparently.

We find Steve Trewhella and Julie Hatcher on Hannafore beach, taking photos for their new book, The Essential Guide to Rock Pooling, due out in 2019.

Steve has recently been specialising in finding and studying marine insects and other air-breathing invertebrates that live on the shore, hiding in cracks in the rocks. It seems improbable that beetles and acrachnids can survive out here in the marine environment, but Steve tells me that they’re everywhere, and just get overlooked.

He prises away a piece of rock and points to a minute ant-like insect that’s scurrying across the stone. A rove beetle. It doesn’t take him long to find what he’s been searching for, a pseudoscorpion.

I borrow Steve’s headband magnifier, which is a must-have item for anyone who wants to look like a mad scientist.

Me and Steve looking cool in our waders. A magnifying headband is now on my wishlist.
Me and Steve looking cool in our waders. A magnifying headband is now on my wishlist to complete the look.

It takes me a few seconds to find what I’m looking for and under the magnifier, with its pincers raised towards me, it looks alarmingly like a real scorpion. Pseudoscorpions lack the stinging tail typical of the true scorpions, but they have another way of capturing their prey; they use a poisonous gland in their claws.

Pseudoscorpion Neobisium maritimum showing off its fabulous pincers.
Pseudoscorpion Neobisium maritimum showing off its fabulous pincers.

Neobisium maritimum is the only species of pseudoscorpion that can live out here on the shore, although others may be found at the top of the beach above the strandline or on cliffs and many species are found in gardens and houses, with one species (Cheridium museorum) even specialising in eating book mites.

It's no wonder pseudoscorpions are overlooked - they're only a few milimetres long and live hidden away in cracks in the rocks.
It’s no wonder pseudoscorpions are overlooked – they’re only a few milimetres long and live hidden away in cracks in the rocks.

This pseudoscorpion seems quite at home exploring the back of Steve’s hand, but its favourite hideouts are deep in the joints of the rocks, where it lurks, hunting for springtails and other tiny prey.

I’m meant to be helping Steve and Julie find spiny starfish and bull huss shark egg cases, but it’s too windy to access the best areas. Undeterred we see what turns up and this beach never disappoints.

A blob gets me excited (as blobs often do). I frequently see Lamellaria perspicua here – it’s a kind of cross between a snail and a slug and has a syphon tube sticking out the front, which makes them look like mini daleks. This one is different. It’s paler, flatter and doesn’t have the usual crusty appearance. Finally, I’ve found a Lamellaria latens.

Blob of the day - My first Lamellaria latens. This is a sea snail but the shell is internal.
Blob of the day – My first Lamellaria latens. This is a sea snail but the shell is internal.

Having failed to find any eggs when filming with Countryfile looking for signs of spring, I’m now seeing them everywhere. Every other crab I find seems to be in berry and there’s a wonderful variety in the colour of the eggs between species.

This long-clawed porcelain crab is around the size of my thumb nail and has a small clutch of eggs to match. I don’t remember ever seeing the eggs of this species before. They’re a rich lemon colour, visible under the female’s tail even when she’s upright because they’re so bright.

Bright yellow eggs under the tail of a long-clawed porcelain crab
Bright yellow eggs under the tail of a long-clawed porcelain crab
Her eggs are visible even when she's standing upright.
Her eggs are visible even when she’s standing upright.

Also sporting colourful eggs, this Xantho pilipes crab is wandering near a patch of sea grass I’ve not seen on this beach before. This time, the eggs are a deep burgundy red and there are so many of them it’s amazing the crab can still walk.

The Xantho pilipes crab holds her huge clutch of eggs in place with special feathery grips on her tail.
The Xantho pilipes crab holds her huge clutch of eggs in place with special feathery grips on her tail.

Steve finds an unusual crab with an arched front, but otherwise like a Green shore crab. We think it might be a species we’ve not seen before and take lots of photos but decide in the end it’s probably just a weirdly shaped shore crab.

The front of this crab sticks out, but we decide it's probably an unusual Green shore crab.
The front of this crab sticks out, but we decide it’s probably an unusual Green shore crab.

It’s quite late in the season now for scorpion fish eggs, and the clutch that Julie finds are looking dried out and generally unhealthy, although there are still eyes visible in there. The dead eggs are being scavenged by hordes of hungry springtails (Anurida maritima).

Scorpion fish eggs being scavenged by marine springtails (Anurida maritima)
Scorpion fish eggs being scavenged by marine springtails (Anurida maritima)

It makes me wonder if there’s a pseudoscorpion nearby, waiting to guzzle the springtails up.

Everywhere I step there seem to be sea hares, roaming the sea floor and feasting on the freshly sprouted seaweeds. I even find my first tangle of ‘pink spaghetti’ of the season – these are the eggs of the sea hare.

The pink spaghetti eggs of the Sea hare (Aplysia punctata) - a type of sea slug
The pink spaghetti eggs of the Sea hare (Aplysia punctata) – a type of sea slug

Other-Half, who has been specialising in fish catching recently, manages to scoop up a topknot flatfish. This one is a good size and has the classic highwayman-style dark mask pattern across its eyes.

Topknot flatfish showing the classic dark stripe across the eyes.
Topknot flatfish showing the classic dark stripe across the eyes.

These fish specialise in living on the shore and have a specially adapted sucker fin allowing them to cling on to the underside of rocks.

The finds come in thick and fast. Julie and Other-Half both come across fully-grown spider crabs covered in seaweeds, pretending to be rocks.

Julie with her spider crab
Julie with her spider crab

Junior discovers a Green shore crab with a classic clutch of orange eggs under her tail, to complete our kaleidoscope of crab egg colours.

Junior's shore crab showing its orange egg mass
Junior’s shore crab showing its orange egg mass

Not to outdone, there are mollusc eggs everywhere too. I see clutches of sting-winkle eggs under every overhang and there are plenty of netted dog-whelk eggs on the seaweed too.

Sting winkle eggs capsules showing the eggs inside.
Sting winkle eggs capsules showing the eggs inside.
Netted dog whelk egg capsules
Netted dog whelk egg capsules

It’s almost a given that you never find what you’re looking for. There’s not a spiny starfish in sight when normally I see them everywhere. We manage to find some catshark egg cases, but most of them are already hatched. It doesn’t matter. What we do find is incredible and I’m so excited to have seen my first pseudoscorpion. As Louis said on Countryfile the other week, there’s always something!

If you’d like to know more about the insects and other animals that specialise in living on the shore, Steve and Julie’s book The Essential Guide to Beachcombing and the Strandline is a brilliant resource.

Searching in vain for spiny starfish and baby bull huss/cat sharks at Hannafore
Searching in vain for spiny starfish and baby bull huss/cat sharks at Hannafore

Cornish Rock Pools on Countryfile

When the BBC approached me about filming a Countryfile episode with Matt Baker on the signs of spring, I reeled off all the exciting things we might find in the Cornish rock pools. By mid-April there would be male pipefish with eggs on their bellies, scorpion fish babies already hatched, crabs with egg masses under their tails and so much more. No problem.

Worm pipefish are related to seahorses - it is the male that broods the eggs along a special groove on his underside.
Worm pipefish are related to seahorses – it is the male that broods the eggs along a special groove on his underside.

What I hadn’t considered was that the TV crew’s packed schedule would require us to film on an exposed north coast beach on small tide. All I could do was to hope for good weather and some luck.

The West Cornwall episode of Countryfile is available on BBC iPlayer here. (Available at the time of writing).

Portreath, near Redruth, has wide, golden sands and magical craggy cliffs. Like many other beaches in Cornwall, it has a fantastic community group working to conserve wildlife and keep it clean – Love Portreath.

To the east of the bay lies what used to be an important mining port, sheltered by a long harbour wall with a stretch of rocks alongside.

Portreath in the drizzle as the tide drops
Portreath in the drizzle as the tide drops

The pools here are a great habitat, but the fierce waves sweep any small stones away, leaving only large boulders and deep overhangs as hiding places for the rock pool creatures. Great for wildlife, but tricky for rock poolers, especially with a strong swell rolling in.

Fortunately, I had help in the form of Cornish Rock Pools Junior and two of his friends, Ashley and Rowen. Without their keen eyes and amazing patience, it would have been an impossible task to find as much as we did in just fifteen minutes.  Louis led Matt Baker crashing surf, assuring him there would be more to find on the lower shore, while Ashley plunged waist-deep into pools trying to catch a goby. Rowen spotted a cushion star at the back of a crevice in the rock. Needless to say I was prepared to risk getting my hand stuck to retrieve it (and nearly did).

Matt Baker and the kids at Portreath
Matt Baker and the kids at Portreath

In just a few minutes we managed to assemble a good collection of common rock pool creatures: a green shore crab, a common blenny, some top shells and, of course, the cushion starfish.

Everyone loves starfish, but now the nation knows that cushion stars and their relatives have some gruesome eating habits. Go me!
Everyone loves starfish, but now the nation knows that cushion stars and their relatives have some gruesome eating habits. Go me!

Inevitably, I made my television debut by telling the nation that starfish feed by pushing their stomachs out of their mouths and dissolving their prey. You’re welcome!

The common blenny (or shanny) is perfectly adapted to shore life and can even breathe through its skin when out of the water. It also has a great smile.
The common blenny (or shanny) is perfectly adapted to shore life and can even breathe through its skin when out of the water. It also has a great smile.

Although we failed to find many signs of spring other than the large amounts of seaweed sprouting all around us, the magic of television went to work and the final programme included some fabulous footage of green shore crab eggs hatching out into the plankton.

Female crabs keep their eggs underneath their tails until they hatch out.
Female crabs keep their eggs underneath their tails until they hatch out.

It’s incredible how all the snippets we filmed on the day were woven together into the final programme. Huge thanks go to the all of the Countryfile crew for putting us at ease and doing their TV magic, and to Matt Baker in particular for taking the time to chat and take photos with the children.

Even though conditions weren’t ideal, it was a wonderful opportunity to showcase the Cornish beaches and the creatures that survive in this extreme environment.

Junior getting his radio microphone pack installed - his least favourite part!
Junior getting his radio microphone pack installed – his least favourite part!

 

A Year in the Cornish Rockpools – 2017 Highlights

Happy New Year everyone! Having started 2018 in bed with flu, I’m hoping this year’s going to improve as it goes along. The sun’s shining and there are some good tides later in the week, so I’m feeling hopeful.

In the meantime, I’m cheering myself up looking back at some of the incredible creatures I met in the Cornish rock pools last year.

I hope you enjoy last year’s highlights and I’m looking forward to seeing what 2018 brings.

January

'Sea potato' - these little urchins are covered in spines when alive. They bury themselves in muddy sand but sometimes get washed to the surface in storms.
‘Sea potato’ – these little urchins are covered in spines when alive. They bury themselves in muddy sand but sometimes get washed to the surface in storms.

Feburary

My unexpected encounter with 'Bob' the lobster in February was one of those wildlife moments that takes your breath away. You really never know what might be lurking in the Cornish rock pools.
My unexpected encounter with ‘Bob’ the lobster in February was one of those wildlife moments that takes your breath away. You really never know what might be lurking in the Cornish rock pools.

March

This mutant double-headed stalked jellyfish (Calvadosia cruxmelitensis) caught my eye in March. Stalked jellyfish have special protection and I spend a lot of time recording these species. There are several different species in Cornwall and some of our Marine Conservation Zones and other areas of coast are importants sites for them.
This mutant double-headed stalked jellyfish (Calvadosia cruxmelitensis) caught my eye in March. Stalked jellyfish have special protection and I spend a lot of time recording these species. There are several different species in Cornwall and some of our Marine Conservation Zones and other areas of coast are importants sites for them.

April

I'm always getting distracted... while surveying for stalked jellyfish at a site which may be threatened by development, this absolutely tiny sea slug caught my eye. It's a Doto coronata - such a great name. There were several 'crowned Dotty' slugs among the hydroids at this site.
I’m always getting distracted… while surveying for stalked jellyfish at a site which may be threatened by development, this absolutely tiny sea slug caught my eye. It’s a Doto coronata – such a great name. There were several ‘crowned Dotty’ slugs among the hydroids.

June

2017 was my first year of leading events for the Cornwall Wildlife Trust's junior branch. I used to love the events as a kid and introducing a new generation and their families to jellyfish, starfish and other rockpool creatures is so much fun! I can't wait for my 2018 Wildlife Watch events and the Looe Marine Conservation Group rockpool rambles where I also volunteer.
2017 was my first year of leading events for the Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s junior branch. I used to love the events as a kid and introducing a new generation and their families to jellyfish, starfish and other rockpool creatures is so much fun! I can’t wait for my 2018 Wildlife Watch events and the Looe Marine Conservation Group rockpool rambles where I also volunteer.

July

Fish always seem to get away, so we were all very excited when I managed to coax this beautiful Corkwing wrasse into my bucket on a family rockpooling day. It's such a tropical looking fish.
Fish always seem to get away, so we were all very excited when I managed to coax this beautiful Corkwing wrasse into my bucket on a family rockpooling day. It’s such a tropical looking fish.

August

My absolute favourite finds of the year were the two species of sea slug that feed on fish eggs. Calma glaucoides (pictured here with its own eggs) feeds on clingfish eggs. I also found Calma gobioophaga, which feeds on goby eggs. Sea slugs really do have the best names.
My absolute favourite finds of the year were the two species of sea slug that feed on fish eggs. Calma glaucoides (pictured here with its own eggs) feeds on clingfish eggs. I also found Calma gobioophaga, which feeds on goby eggs. Sea slugs really do have the best names.

September

I was away in Brittany in September visiting our twin town, Quiberon. I couldn't resist having a rummage to see what was in the pools and was amazed to find this crab, Pachygrapsus marmoratus. It's native to the Mediterranean but is gradually moving north. Next stop Cornwall?
I was away in Brittany in September visiting our twin town, Quiberon. I couldn’t resist having a rummage to see what was in the pools and was amazed to find this crab, Pachygrapsus marmoratus. It’s native to the Mediterranean but is gradually moving north. Next stop Cornwall?

October

Portuguese Man O'War jellies began washing onto Cornish beaches in the summer, but didn't turn up in Looe until October. Amazing creatures - like pink and purple stinging pasties. Happy days!
Portuguese Men O’War began washing onto Cornish beaches in the summer, but didn’t turn up in Looe until October. Amazing creatures – like pink and purple stinging pasties. Happy days!

November

Most people think there's not much to see in the rock pools in November. They're wrong, of course! This sponge, possibly Myxilla rosacea, was one of the prettiest things I saw all year.
Most people think there’s not much to see in the rock pools in November. They’re wrong of course! This sponge, possibly Myxilla rosacea, was one of the prettiest things I saw all year.

December

The Cornish rock pools are full of tiny creatures that are often overlooked. I could have spent all day watching this 3-spot cowrie (Trivia monacha). The colours are amazing and there's something incredibly fetching about its big orange syphon. A perfect way to end the year.
The Cornish rock pools are full of tiny creatures that are often overlooked. I could have spent all day watching this 3-spot cowrie (Trivia monacha). The colours are amazing and there’s something incredibly fetching about its big orange syphon. A perfect way to end the year.

 

 

Chilly autumn rockpooling

I’m not a fan of winter. Even though I go rock pooling all year round and love the way the wildlife varies with the seasons, the November to February period is a challenge for me. The thought of sticking my hands in icy-cold water makes me want to hibernate. Right on cue, a fierce northerly wind blows in for the spring tides. I layer up and wear my fluffiest, most comforting jumper to bring you this week’s blog post.

Obelia geniculata - a hydroid known as 'sea fir'.
Obelia geniculata – a hydroid known as ‘Kelp fir’. Recognisable by its zig-zag ‘stems’.

I’m trying to photograph hydroids at the moment. These relatives of the jellyfish and anemones are generally translucent and no more than a few centimetres long, making them hard to spot. At this time of year when the seaweeds die back and the waves roll in, it’s especially tricky. My camera doesn’t like focussing on them and they won’t stay still in the current, but their nodding tentacles and curious structures are mesmerising.

Another hydroid - Coryne pusilla. This one can't retract its tentacles into little cups. It has a ringed stem (visible in the bottom-left of the photo).
Another hydroid – Coryne pusilla. This one can’t retract its tentacles into little cups. It has a ringed stem (visible in the bottom-left of the photo).

As always there are strange creatures galore. This Sea gherkin is unusually large and gnarled.

A Sea gherkin (Pawsonia saxicola) - this is a type of sea cucumber and clings onto the rock with its tentacle feet.
A Sea gherkin (Pawsonia saxicola) – this is a type of sea cucumber and clings onto the rock with its tentacle feet.

Among the sponges and brittle stars I come across this invasive species from the South Pacific, the Orange-tipped sea squirt, Corella eumyota.

The invasive Orange-tipped sea squirt
The invasive Orange-tipped sea squirt

The twisted gut is very prominent in this species and you can see the orange colouration at the top. It’s thought this species may compete with native squirts and other invertebrates, but we will only find out by monitoring its spread. This is the first one I’ve recorded here.

Nearby I find the native sea squirt Ascidia mentula with lovely red flecks in its almost transparent test.

Ascidia mentula - a tunicate sea squirt. The red streaks reminded me of fireworks.
Ascidia mentula – a tunicate sea squirt. The red streaks reminded me of fireworks.

This sponge also catches my eye. It’s hard to identify many sponges with any certainty without examining their spicules under a microscope, but this one has the appearance of Myxilla rosacea.

A striking sponge with its fine structures and deep pores. Possibly Myxilla rosacea.
A striking pink sponge with fine structures and deep pores. Possibly Myxilla rosacea.

On the next tide we make a successful return visit to the beach where Cornish Rock Pools Junior achieved finding a world record haul of stalked jellyfish last year. We come close to matching the numbers we found last time. I lose count at 25 because Junior makes it clear he doesn’t want his record broken.

Many of the stalked jellyfish are juveniles, only a few millimetres long and it tests my eyes to pick them out among the swirling seaweed. Then I spot this 1mm pinprick of a jelly blob and take a photo in case it turns out to be a stalked jelly.

My eyes must still be good - a 1mm baby stalked jellyfish. It's not possible to say for sure what species.
My eyes must still be good – a 1mm baby stalked jellyfish. It’s not possible to say for sure what species.

On my screen at home its column is clearly visible although the tentacles are either retracted or haven’t yet grown. Little is known about the very early stages of development of these creatures and how to separate the species by sight, but David Fenwick who runs the amazing Stauromedusae UK website confirms that it is definitely a stalked jelly.

It’s great to be able to show a friend from Natural England how abundant these species are in the Looe and Whitsand Bay Marine Conservation Zone, which aims to give them protection from developments and disturbance.

Haliclystus octoradiatus - the blobs between the arms are primary tentacles, which easily identify this species from most others we see.
Haliclystus octoradiatus – the blobs between the arms are primary tentacles, which easily identify this species from most others we see.

One of her sons does an impressive job of finding stalked jellies and even finds one that is in the middle of eating an amphipod. The current is too strong to get a great photo, but you can clearly see the unfortunate creature’s head sticking out of the stalked jellyfish’s mouth here.

A stalked jellyfish (Haliclystus octoradiatus) eating an amphipod.
A stalked jellyfish (Haliclystus octoradiatus) eating an amphipod.

I’ll be submitting all my stalked jellyfish records to help reinforce the evidence that will hopefully keep these protected species from harm.

A juvenile Calvadosia cruxmelitensis stalked jellyfish. We found 3 species of stalked jellyfish on the site.
A juvenile Calvadosia cruxmelitensis stalked jellyfish. We found 3 species of stalked jellyfish on the site.

I can’t help taking a look at some other things while I’m here. But before long the cold is hurting my fingers and chilling my insides in the sort of way that can only be fixed by a steaming mug of hot chocolate.

That’s the bit of winter I look forward to!

Rayed trough shell
Rayed trough shell
Aslia lefevrei - the brown sea cucumber. This sea cucumber lives in crevices in the rock with just its tip poking out.
Aslia lefevrei – the brown sea cucumber. This sea cucumber lives in crevices in the rock with just its dark tip poking out.
Dysidea fragilis - or the hedgehog sponge as I call it.
Dysidea fragilis – or the hedgehog sponge as I call it.
3-spot cowrie hanging on an overhang
3-spot cowrie hanging on an overhang

 

Happy rockpooling!

Wrasse and wrack

The Cornish summers are anything but predictable. One day I’m sweltering in shorts and beach shoes and the next I’m shivering in waders and a thick jumper. Although the showers are back with a vengeance, there’s always something to be found if I can make it across the rocks without breaking an ankle.

Painted top shell, East Looe
Painted top shell, East Looe

My first outing is to the rocks beyond East Looe beach and I’m pleased to come across a new colony of St Piran’s hermit crabs on the mid-shore.

A St Piran's hermit crab starting to emerge from its shell.
A St Piran’s hermit crab starting to emerge from its shell.

They’re becoming a familiar sight around Cornwall and I’m starting to recognise them from the tips of their red legs, before their chequerboard eyes and equal-sized claws emerge from their shells. Continue reading Wrasse and wrack

My First Fox Club Expedition To Porth Mear

It’s the middle of the night and I’m convinced there’s something wrong with my eyes. I’ve unplugged my phone, tried blinking several times but I’m still seeing flickering lights and flashes. Finally I twig what’s going on and open the curtains to reveal incessant sheet lightning.

My first thought is that it had better stop by the morning, else no-one will turn up to my first rock pooling event at Porth Mear with Fox Club, the junior branch of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust. As a child, I was a keen member myself so I’ve been looking forward to this for months.

By the morning the lightning storm has given way to wind and rain, but conditions are less than inspiring. It’s amazing anyone shows up for rock pooling, but a few hardy well-wrapped-up folk do, as does a lovely volunteer assistant. Continue reading My First Fox Club Expedition To Porth Mear

Discoveries on my Doorstep – Rockpooling with the experts in Looe (Day 1)

There’s a questionable theory that 10 000 hours of practice makes you an expert and I may be close to ‘doing my time’ in the Cornish rock pools by now. However, I often feel I’m only scratching the surface of what’s out there. What better then, than to spend a few days on the shore with the genius that is David Fenwick, creator of Aphotomarine together with a fabulous group of fellow rockpool fanatics from Coastwise North Devon?

With layers and waterproofs aplenty, Junior and I joined them at Hannafore Beach, a site I know intimately, to see what new discoveries might await us.

 I realised within minutes that I should have brought a notebook. David’s knowledge of marine species is immense and he wasted no time in finding signs of nematode worms living inside seaweed, reeling off their names. It was windy, drizzling and cold and to make matters worse Junior sprung a leak in his wellies, but there was no doubt this is going to be a fascinating day. Leaving Junior playing at reconstructing ancient ruined cities from the rocks of a mid-shore ridge, we waded across the lower shore.

Sea hares (Aplysia punctata) were everywhere munching on the seaweed.
Sea hares (Aplysia punctata) were everywhere munching on the seaweed.

Some species were familiar. The sea hares were everywhere and so abundant that it was impossible to avoid them. This swirling cloud of purple ink in the water was a sign we’d accidentally disturbed one of them. Continue reading Discoveries on my Doorstep – Rockpooling with the experts in Looe (Day 1)