Reader queries help energize marine writer


POSTED: Friday, January 02, 2009

Recently I was feeling overwhelmed with holidays, work and travel.

Then, just as I was slumping at my keyboard thinking, I can't write anything, in flew two great e-mails. These readers' stories recharged my batteries so fully I suddenly couldn't type fast enough to share them.

One letter came from Thereasa, a high school anatomy teacher in Duncan, Okla. She writes, “;...During our arthropod unit we teach our students that there are spiders everywhere except the ocean. While vacationing at Pass-a-grille, Florida we were searching for shells, the tide was out, and I noticed an organism that looked like a spider… I wanted your expert opinion. Thanks for your help.”; And she attached a picture.

Sea spiders bring back fond memories for me. Years ago while touring Palmer Station, a U.S. research facility on the Antarctic Peninsula, our guide breezed past a large aquarium. “;Wait,”; I said. “;What's in there?”;

“;Oh, those are sea spiders,”; she said. “;They get kind of big down here.”;

What an understatement. The several orange-red spiders in the tank had leg spans at least a foot wide, maybe more. I was so mesmerized by these fabulous creatures Craig had to come back to get me to finish the tour.

The oceans of the world host at least 1,000 species of sea spiders, ranging in leg-span from just visible to the naked eye to 16 inches. I saw some tiny sea spiders in Hawaii once when I was cleaning a badly fouled boat bottom in the Ala Wai Harbor. The little arachnids were walking over growth on the hull as if on stilts.

I examined the creature in the picture Thereasa sent and confirmed her guess: It was a sea spider.

But wait. Sea spiders' bodies are usually narrow and the one in the picture was roundish. As I peered at the blurry photo I thought the animal might be a brittle star. (Brittle stars are starfish with a variable number of wiggly limbs.) But these eight limbs had joints like spiders.

Thereasa sent more pictures of the creature. Still unsure, I forwarded the photos to John Hoover, the author of a good marine invertebrate identification book. He thought the creature might be an arrow or decorator crab, two long-legged species, but he wasn't sure either.

So my expert opinion, Thereasa, is: I don't know. But I sure had a good time trying to figure it out.

The other e-mail exchange came from John, a California community college zoology teacher who wrote that he formerly agreed with me when I stated in a past column that amphipods (little shrimplike creatures) don't bite.

He's on sabbatical in Australia right now, and sent me this story: After his little girls told him they'd been bitten by amphipods, which their dad taught them to identify, he sat down in their tide pool and said, “;See? The little amphipods don't bite.”; And then they bit him. And it really hurt.

John ended his note with a fine note I will remember, “;As my old marine biology professor always said, 'The specimen is the authority.'”;

Readers who pose interesting questions and share their marine experiences with me make me want to share my own stories. When this column runs, I'll be in Mexico communing with gray whales and their babies. I don't know much about gray whales, but I will - and so will you.

Happy New Year. Thanks for writing.


Susan Scott can be reached at