Failure in the Field

3 11 2013

Recap: I have completed three successful experimental releases of surrogate egg and sperm in the tide pool habitat, and three successful experimental releases in the crevice habitat.  To support my project design and give plausibility to the experiments, I wanted to replicate the experimental release using live gametes from red abalone.  Last November, I received red abalone with which to practice the spawning protocols, and learned how to spawn pinto abalone up at the Mukilteo hatchery.  Now it’s time to do it in the field…

 

I realize that my last post alluded to the devastation I have felt with some of my experiments, and yeah, this is going to be the post that goes more in depth about that topic.  In truth, science makes me feel bipolar.  I reach such highs, such levels of excitement, triumph, and pure, unadulterated joy when things that shouldn’t possibly work do; but the higher the climb, the steeper the fall.

 

Camp at Site 8 (B. Blaud)

Camp at Site 8 (B. Blaud)

Once my 12 abalone (4 males and 8 females) arrived following the last experimental particle release in the crevice habitat, we set the abalone up in their temporary San Nicolas Site 8 hotel, and made our own camp.  Glenn and I would spend the next two nights camping at Site 8.  Camping was an unforgettable experience, both exciting and exhausting.  The abalone were set up in their temporary home mere feet from high tide (which happened in the middle of the night), and our tents were a short distance up the hill.  The wind was extremely high, reaching speeds of almost 35 mph, and made sleeping both uncomfortable and difficult.  That, combined with the required call-in checks every 4 hours to the Navy, and the water changes to keep the abalone clean, made solid sleep an unachievable luxury.  Did I forget to mention the sea lion serenades – it’s a thing of beauty.  These are not complaints though!  I loved every second of this – ok, I could have done without the cold, wet socks at 4am – but I loved everything else!

 

Finally, spawning day arrived.  It was a gorgeous day, like many days on San Nicolas Island.  No clouds, uncharacteristically low winds, air temperatures in the low-70s (in March – love it!!!), and I was ready to do this.  When everyone arrived, we scoped out the two areas for potential spawning (the crevice habitat and the tidepool habitat) and decided to aim for one spawning release in the tide pool habitat.  Each abalone was placed in a separate bucket, Tris and hydrogen peroxide cocktail, and then we waited.  To get the abalone in the reproducing mood, John played some Hot Chocolate, Barry Manilow, Madonna, Salt N’ Pepa, and other sexy tunes.

Spawning red abalone, marinating in a Tris and hydrogen peroxide cocktail (B. Blaud)

Spawning red abalone, marinating in a Tris and hydrogen peroxide cocktail (B. Blaud)

The spicy cocktail and sexy music worked for two abalone.  Of the 12 we brought to the island, only one male and one female released their gametes, but that’s all we needed!  Once egg and sperm were released, there was so much activity and we needed all sets of hands.  While someone attended to the abalone, getting them into clean, cool water, the gametes were taken to be washed of any residual hydrogen peroxide and be distributed between 21 canisters.  No water was added to the sperm to keep it as concentrated as possible.

 

Anchored canisters located  at -1 m, 0 m, 1 m, 2 m, 4 m, 8 m, and 12 m from the sperm release location (B. Blaud)

Anchored canisters located at -1 m, 0 m, 1 m, 2 m, 4 m, 8 m, and 12 m from the sperm release location (B. Blaud)

The live-gamete release experiment is set up much similar to the previous simulated spawning experiments.  Three canisters containing live eggs are anchored with fishing weights or sandbags at -1 m, 0 m, 1 m, 2 m, 4 m, 8 m, and 12 m from the live sperm release location.  The live sperm is released through an IV bag in the same method as the surrogate sperm in previous experiments.  There was only enough sperm for 13 minutes of release, and the canisters remained in the tide pool for an additional 30 minutes.  Once removed from the water, the eggs were preserved in falcon tubes with Lugol’s solution, and taped up for transport.  The rest of the short day was spent packing and hauling everything up the hill, everyone elated with the apparent success of the venture.

 

From my foreshadowing early on, you, my intelligent reader, may have surmised that something went horribly wrong.  Once the eggs made it back to Seattle, I opened the tubes to discover they have all degraded beyond identification.  I had not properly mixed the Lugol’s solution with the iodine, and therefore no preservative was added to the eggs.  It’s still difficult for me to think back on these moments when I discovered that all the work that everyone put in to getting abalone to the island, the nights camping on location, all the gear carried to the location, the sweat, the tears, the highs of perceived success on spawning day were all for nothing when the eggs became unidentifiable.  I won’t go into detail about the tears shed over this loss.  I had amazing support, and was heartened as several other researchers shared their tales of woe and failures in the field.  It is common for the first, and even the second field experiment to not work.  Unfortunately, I had everything riding on this one spawning release.

 

 

There were many things I learned from this venture, the most obvious being to mix the iodine into the Lugol’s solution before adding it as a preservative to the eggs (duh).  I also later learned that the larger abalone are more difficult to spawn, and more successes are achieved with younger, smaller abalone.  While this experiment would have strengthened my project and supported my results, it is not my only experiment.  I still have a Master’s project without it.  I would like to try again.  It can still be done and may support my project once published.  I promise, I will keep you updated on any more ventures.  This part of the story is not over…





Allee Effect

22 01 2013
A "crackle" of black abalone on San Nicolas Island (B. Blaud).  Crackle: a group of black abalone.

A “crackle” of black abalone on San Nicolas Island (B. Blaud). Crackle: a group of black abalone.

The Allee effect was first described by its namesake, Warder Clyde Allee in the 1930s in an article on goldfish.  His article (which I cannot access but have a summary through other sources) investigates the effect aggregation has on overall fitness on the individual goldfish, in this case.  He found that goldfish grow more rapidly in a tank that holds more individuals.  Although he never comes right out and says, “the Allee effect is defined as…”, the generally accepted definition is that higher densities within a population lead to improved individual fitness.  This basically means that larger group sizes provide individuals with more opportunities to mate, defend themselves, feed themselves, and/or can work together to alter their environment in a beneficial manner to the whole group.

 

The term, Allee effect, was often misused and erroneously applied, however, so Stephens et al. (1999) decided to take it upon themselves and define the principle in clear terms laden with scientific jargon and information.  I have a secret to admit: when I see scientific papers, my eyes gloss over.  If the paper has equations, game over.  I check out completely.  If you talk to researchers, many admit to only reading the abstract (a roughly 200 word summary of the paper at the very beginning of the paper), looking at the figures, and skimming the conclusion.  With the overwhelming amount of publications out there, that really is the only way to see if the paper is relevant to what we’re studying and saves a considerable amount of time.  Between the jargons, big words scientists use to justify the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on earning advanced degrees; you can tease out the basic information of what they’re trying to get across.

 

Black abalone on San Nicolas Island (B. Blaud)

Black abalone on San Nicolas Island (B. Blaud)

Stephens et al. (1999) paper, titled “What is the Allee effect” has large amounts of jargon as well as confusing equations.  I was able to bear down and wade through it.  I need to justify the exorbitant amount of money being spent on my education as well, and prove that I understand demographic stochasticity as much as the next overly educated person.  Side note: I think that if my spelling autocorrect in Word doesn’t know that it’s a word, I should either.  But then again, the autocorrect doesn’t know my last name, so this opinion doesn’t have strong support.  But as usual, I digress; back to the point.  After exploring the numerous examples Allee lays out to support his principle, Stephens et al. (1999) is able lay out a clear definition:

 

…we thus define the Allee effect as: a positive relationship between any component of individual fitness and either numbers or density of conspecifics.

 

Basically, the more of you there are, the better you all will be in terms of certain basic needs (reproduction, food, protection, etc).  There are limitations with this.  Too many individuals and you become competitors for resources, such as food, so oftentimes there is a threshold.  A population size below 50, for example, is bad; a population between 50 and 100 is good; and, a population over 100 is bad.

 

Stephens et al. (1999) continue with their definition to explore the distinction between the component Allee effect and the demographic Allee effect.  The distinction lies basically in the scale, where the component Allee effect is the positive relationship between any measurable component of individual fitness (breeding, feeding, or defense) and population density; the demographic Allee effect is the positive relationship between the overall individual fitness and population density.  So adding component Allee effects together produces an overall demographic Allee effect.  This is where a lot of the fun equations come into existence, but I’m going to avoid all that because I don’t want to get away from the whole point of this post, which is: how does the Allee effect apply to my project.

 

Black abalone on San Nicolas Island (B. Blaud)

Black abalone on San Nicolas Island (B. Blaud)

This leads back to the basic core question I’m trying to answer dealing with recovering black abalone populations on San Nicolas Island.  How close together do two black abalone need to be in order to successfully reproduce?  My question delves into a component Allee effect, just one aspect of individual fitness that’s investigated as a result of population density.  The more dense abalone are, the closer they are located, the more their gametes will mix and more babies will be made.  When 99% of the population was eliminated, numbers drastically decreased and density was also affected.  As they are recovering, numbers are slowly rebounding, but more interesting is the rate the population density is increasing.  Black abalone are clustering closer together as they recover, which leads us to another interesting story about the Nearest Neighbor Data.  But that is a story for another time…

 

Stephens, P.A., W.J. Sutherland, and R.P. Freckleton.  1999.  What is the Allee effect?  Oikos, Vol. 87(1): 185-190.





Invincible Black Abalone

29 12 2012
Pre-disease black abalone population on San Nicolas Island (G. VanBlaricom)

Pre-disease black abalone population on San Nicolas Island (G. VanBlaricom)

When I first began this blog, I introduced withering syndrome and it’s devastating effect on black abalone populations in Southern California.  The effect of the disease on the populations on San Nicolas Island is the equivalent of wiping out all the people in the world except for the populations in the US, Indonesia, and Brazil.  Only three of the most densely populated countries out of the total 242 countries in the world manage to survive.  It’s a little sobering when you think of it that way.  If you break it down so populations are evenly lost among each country, only the populations in Washington and Idaho would survive in the United States (I’m in Washington, so I’m happy I survive the fake apocalypse).  I’m not stating the statistics in the manner to convince everyone to move to the northwest, even though it’s the best place to live, I’m just trying to paint a picture of how the US would look if only 1% of the population survived.  Out of the 315,077,987 people in the US, only approximately 3 million make it.

 

Then, imagine among the people dodging the zombies in the apocalypse (I’ve been watching a lot of Walking Dead, so that’s the only apocalypse scenario I can picture right now), there is a group of individuals resistant to the brain-eating bacteria!  And they’re found on San Nicolas Island.

 

Disease-resistant black abalone discovered on US island

Biologists have discovered that black abalone on San Nicolas Island in the Santa Barbara Channel are more resistant to the deadly bacterial disease known as withering syndrome than abalone on the mainland. The discovery may help save these now rare intertidal molluscs from extinction, as scientists hope to soon breed these animals in captivity for release in the wild.

According to Carolyn Friedman, from the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, San Nicolas Island has been the site of several severe outbreaks of withering syndrome. The present population appears to be the descendants of that 1% of the population that survived the onslaught.

Friedman and her colleague on the California Sea Grant project, Steven Roberts, also at the University of Washington, are now trying to identify which genes are responsible for resistance and the mechanisms by which this resistance is conferred. This work includes studying differences in gene expression between island black abalone and those from Carmel in Monterey, as the animals are subjected to high loads of the withering syndrome pathogen.

Withering syndrome, which causes severe atrophy of the animal’s foot muscle and is caused by a water-borne pathogen excreted in abalone faeces, occurs in relatively warm water, such as those found in the Santa Barbara Channel. Until recently, waters off the more northerly Carmel have been too cold to trigger outbreaks. As a result, abalone in Carmel have little natural protection against the disease.

Source: California Sea Grant

Anonymous.  2008.  Disease-resistant black abalone discovered on US island.  Marine Pollution Bulletin, 56(1): 7

 

Super Black Abalone (B. Blaud)

Super Black Abalone (B. Blaud)

Beginning in 2001, isolated populations on San Nicolas Island began to increase, so Dr. Friedman hypothesized that there may be disease resistant animals.  My very first trip to the island in 2004 was to collect animals and bring them back to UW to test this hypothesis.  The exposure of naïve (uncontaminated, un-diseased) black abalone from Carmel and comparing the rate of mortality to infected animals from San Nicolas Island indicated that San Nicolas Island black abalone are, in fact, resistant to the disease.  It’s a snail…it’s a rock…it’s SUPER BLACK ABALONE!  Yeah, I’m a dork.

 

But the story doesn’t end here.  Continuing this work, Dr. Friedman and PhD student Lisa Crosson investigated which genes were potentially responsible for the disease resistance in black abalone populations, and in doing so, made a surprising discovery.  But that is a story for another time…

 





Run #7

24 12 2012

Recap: My preliminary runs were exciting, although it was difficult to get used to releasing a thousand dollars in the form of small particles and watching it drift away in the ocean.  In my experiment, as designed, a single male abalone was incapable of fertilizing an egg, even if a female was spawning right next to him.  I wasn’t convince that my design was perfectly awesome since it only showed the results of a single male spawning for 10-minutes when often a spawning event takes place for up to an hour.  After revising my project design, I was ready for a second take…

My tide pool at Site 8 (B. Blaud)

My tide pool at Site 8 (B. Blaud

 

It was the perfect day for a tide-pool experiment.  The tide was low, but not too low, the sky was clear, the temperature a comfortable 72 degrees, and the waves were not too high.  By all reasoning, I should have been in a great mood, but I couldn’t relax.  The experiment has tripled in size, and we are now releasing three times as many particles into the water, which means that over $2500 is now being released into the tide pool to float away.  I couldn’t deal with any thought of failure and wanted this run to be successful so bad, I could taste it.  It tastes salty, like a combination of ocean, sweat, and tears. 

 

 

I scrambled to get everything ready: all the sample bottles clean and present, all the tubes labeled and secured, triple checked that the particles were packed (there’s nothing like hiking for an hour to realize the guest of honor is back in the room), and hoped I wasn’t forgetting anything major – I knew I would forget something, I could feel it, but was hoping it was something that could be fixed in the field.  While setting up for the run down at the site, I realized I forgot the snap-shackles, which are used to firmly anchor the nose of the IV tube in the water.  I knew I forgot something!!!  Annoying, but not major, and something that can be improvised with some well-placed rocks.  Catastrophe averted, but I still couldn’t relax.  There were too many possibilities for things to go wrong along the way.

 

Black abalone on San Nicolas Island (B. Blaud)

Black abalone on San Nicolas Island (B. Blaud)

I went over the choreography for the experiment, because in my mind, the whole thing is like one big dance.  It needs to be timed, everyone’s movements synchronized, and when it goes well, it’s quite pretty to watch.  Dave, to clarify after I described the process, asks if he is releasing his sperm at 0, 1, 5, 10, 20, 30, 45, and 60 minutes after the initial release.  Incredulous, and rather impressed that anyone would be able to release their sperm in timely intervals like that, I suggested that I be the only one to release sperm, as mine is in the form of surrogate, sperm-sized particles and not real sperm.  Everyone agreed that that would be best, and would collect samples at those intervals instead.

 

Everyone took their place, and I had enough amazing volunteers that each person was responsible for only one distance.  I was the bucket lady, running around rinsing sample bottles between collections to avoid left-over particles, making sure the sperm supply didn’t run out, keeping track of the time and orchestrating the sample collections.  Someone later suggested I should teach an aerobics class, because my voice barked orders in a no-nonsense way.  I took it as a compliment.

 

It all went rather smoothly.  I glared at Glenn when he suggested as much halfway through the experiment.  “Don’t jinx it!”  I know science and superstition don’t exactly go hand in hand, but science is about exploring the unknown.  I’m not about to tempt fate and will do anything to ensure a successful run, including not mentioning how well it’s going until I’m sure nothing can go wrong!  It’s along the same line as not saying the number seven at the craps table when the button is on.  If someone had suggested that I can also improve my odds of success by clicking my shiny, red heels together while exclaiming, “this WILL work” three times, I would have done it without a second thought, totally comfortable looking like an idiot as long as all is right in my world.  Essentially, even though it was going amazingly well, I still couldn’t relax until the last sample was collected and safely packed away.

Mel, Eric, and Glenn enjoying an E.O.D.B. at the top of Heartbreak Hill (B. Blaud)

Mel, Eric, and Glenn enjoying an E.O.D.B. at the top of Heartbreak Hill (B. Blaud)

 

Despite my fears and insecurities, it was perfect.  There are always things that can be corrected and perfected, but nothing major went wrong.  Once all my samples were stowed, I could finally smile and laugh at the sperm-related jokes.  At the end of the day, for the first time ever, I was able to hike up Heart Break Hill without stopping to “look for whales,” while carrying a 50lb backpack.  Although my backpack was heavier, weighed down with water samples, my burden was lighter now that the run was successfully completed. 

 

Since we were only able to find funds to pay for one run, the rest of the week was spent in the kitchen counting particles.  Planning for this, I brought a dissecting scope (I’m no longer going to even try to deal with a coulter counter) and all the supplies needed for counting the egg and sperm-sized particles.  With few distractions that life on SNI offers (mainly, no cell reception and limited internet access), I was able to buckle down and power through the counting, completing over half my samples.  It’s a good start!





Spawning By Myself…

20 12 2012

Recap:  To bring more credibility to my project and determine how realistic my experimental design with surrogate particles is, I will release live gametes and measure the amount of fertilized eggs in a mesh container as a function of distance from live sperm, released from a fixed distance using an IV bag.  To learn how to spawn abalone, I participated in a pinto spawning up in Mukilteo several weeks ago.  I received 16 red abalone from the Cayucos Hatchery, and have been holding them for six weeks with the intention of further honing my spawning skills…

 

My red abalone (B. Blaud)

My red abalone (B. Blaud)

Spawning by myself sounds like something completely dirty, but I assure you, it’s not.  Since November 6th, I have been holding red abalone in the basement at the University of Washington with the intention of practicing the spawning protocol I learned with pinto abalone up in Mukilteo and honing the methods to something I can use in the field as part of my experimentBy the time I was ready to practice spawning them, I had 13 red abalone, 9 females and 4 males.  I was preparing to go to San Nicolas Island (SNI) for one of my experimental runs with surrogate particles, but wanted to have one solo spawning under my belt beforehand.

 

I headed down to the basement fairly early on the Friday morning to set up for the spawning experience.  The first steps are measuring up the participants, their gonads to be exact.  I measured the gamete index for each abalone, to identify which abalone was ripe, and separated them into buckets based on gender – boys in one bucket, girls in another.  Determining ripeness was a little more difficult than I anticipated, as none of my abalone were all that ready to spawn.  I looked under each of their skirts, but had a hard time identifying males from females in many cases.  It’s supposed to be fairly straightforward.  I hold the abalone, shell down in my right hand with the base of the swirl in the shell, their head near my fingertips and the apex in my palm.  After the abalone calms down for a second, I’m able to move the foot to the side to see the gonad at the base of the shell.  The gonad index identifies ripeness based on color and the amount of swelling in the gonad.  Yellowish-creamy white means male (makes sense – sperm is white), and a greenish-purple indicates female (the eggs come out an olive green).  An index of 0 is unripe, where the gonad is indistinguishable as either male or female; an index of 1 indicates when there is slight coloration and swelling of the gonad; an index of 2 has swelling of the gonad up to the mantle, the edge of the shell; and the highest index of 3 is visibly swelled over the edge of the shell, where you can see it with barely moving the foot to the side.  All of my abalone were at my un-expert opinion a gonad index of 0 or 1. 

 

Diagram of abalone gonad (Rogers-Bennett et al. 2004 J Shellf Res 23: 553).

Diagram of abalone gonad (Rogers-Bennett et al. 2004 J Shellf Res 23: 553).

I separated the abalone I rated as a gonad index of 1 into separate buckets, then put a couple abalone rated as 0 into their own buckets, since I couldn’t conclusively determine their gender, but wanted to spawn more than a handful of my abalone.  I added the appropriate amount of Tris(hydroxymethyl) aminomethane (or Tris, for short) and 6% hydrogen peroxide, covered them in a tarp to provide darkness (and a little privacy), and then left them alone with only short, periodic checks for spawners.  I mentioned before that these are all unripe abalone with a gonad index of 0 or 1, so it goes without saying that I wasn’t overly optimistic about the possibility of getting any of them to spawn.  So, imagine my surprise when I went down after only 90 minutes of them sitting in the dark to find one male and one female spawning in separate buckets!  I was so excited, I barely remembered that I was supposed to rinse them off and put them in a bucket of clean seawater (with no chemical additions), so they could finish spawning and have usable gametes.  As soon as that was done, I ran up a couple flights of stairs to find Glenn, who would share my astonishment and simple joy at these unripe, unready abalone suddenly releasing their gametes.

 

Hatched abalone larvae (http://www.lib.noaa.gov/)

Hatched abalone larvae (http://www.lib.noaa.gov/)

Eventually, after about 3 hours, all the red abalone had been rinsed and placed in buckets of clean seawater.  Due to the unripe nature of the abalone, they didn’t spawn a significant amount of gametes.  It was a great exercise going through the protocol, and learned a lot about what would work in the field, what needs to be modified, and ponder what it would be like to be an abalone parent, with millions of children, somewhere out there… but I’m weird.

 

After spawning my red abalone, a good practice run, I felt oddly optimistic about future experiments.  I should say, cautiously optimistic, because when you say the word “experiment,” I get an ominous chill and view of everything that could potentially go wrong.  I am starting to get more and more excited about the results that experiments with live gametes will yield.  But that, my faithful readers, is a story for another day.

 

And next, I will tell you all about Run 7, and my latest stay on the island…I can’t wait to go back!





Come Out; Come Out, Wherever You Are!

27 10 2012

E.O.D.B. (B. Blaud)

Now that you have been properly introduced to my friends, you probably want to go meet them in person.  I don’t blame you.  Any excuse to hang out on the beach is a good excuse, in my opinion.  You might have a tough time finding them though.

 

Once upon a time, black abalone were so common, it was difficult to walk along the rocky shoreline without inadvertently stepping on one.  Millions of black abalone sunned themselves on California beaches from Mendocino County down to Baja, where they enjoyed limes in their Corona’s and salt with their margaritas.

Black abalone infected with withering syndrome (B. Blaud)

 

[Cue creepy, evil sounding music] Then withering syndrome hit the species.  Strong and healthy growing boys and girls became anorexic and it wasn’t due to some fad in a magazine telling them that skinny was cool.  Withering syndrome is a bacterial disease that invades the digestive gland and prevents the absorption of materials, so although they ate and ate and ate, no nutrients were absorbed, and they were forced to metabolize their foot muscle to survive.  That continued until they were too weak to hold onto rocks, and died shortly after.  The beach party had ended.

 

My advisor, Dr. Glenn VanBlaricom, caught the whole story in data.  He began counting and measuring black abalone around San Nicolas Island in the late 1970s.  I enjoy teasing him, reminding VanBlaricom that his project is older than I am, but the timeline in which he has studied black abalone has been an invaluable tool.  He documented black abalone numbers in the 1970s and 1980s when they were a strong, stable community dominating the shoreline, captured the sudden and sharp decline beginning in 1992 when the disease first hit San Nicolas Island, the following years when individual abalone were rare and far between, and now the most exciting part…the recovery!

Black abalone on San Nicolas Island, CA (B. Blaud)

 

Beginning around 2001, abalone numbers started to grow in isolated areas around the island.  In just the last year, almost all locations that VanBlaricom has monitored annually for the past 33 years have increased by 30 to 50%, but not all.  This leads to my favorite part of research: the questions!

 

Why are abalone populations only recovering in some locations, but not all?  Why are they not recovering evenly, but instead at different rates?  What is so special about San Nicolas Island, and why aren’t we seeing the same recovery patterns in other Channel Islands and on the mainland?

 

And more!  There are so many more questions!

Next up: the project…





The Cute Black Abalone

27 10 2012

Worldmap
(http://www.vetigastropoda.com/
ABMAP/text/worldmap.html)

“Can you make them sound cute?”  That was my friend’s suggestion on how to get more people interested in black abalone.  To accomplish this, I would need to describe their big, expressive eyes, their soft, furry shells, and their cuddly, trusting nature.  The black abalone would end up looking more like an anime creation that belongs on Pokémon than the elegant sea snail you find on rocky beaches in California. 

 

So, no big beautiful eyes, no soft, otter-like fur, and no outgoing nature; but what they do have is a lovely, smooth black shell and a hardy nature that survives in one of the most turbulent, hostile environments.

 

Black abalone are just one of eight species along the Pacific Coast of North America, and one of hundreds of species around the world, but they are unique.  Almost all other species are subtidal, meaning they live below the tide line, while the black abalone are exclusively intertidal, living on beaches where oftentimes they are exposed at low tide.  Beachcombers and shell collectors can’t resist them. 

Abalone jewelry (http://www.ehow.com/
how_5063857_cut-abalone-shell.html)

 

The shell itself is beautiful.  Abalone shells in general are oval, ear shaped shells, which is where they get their witty nickname, the ear snail or sea ear.  There are holes (respiratory pores) around the outer third of the shell, which act as vents for water that has passed through the gills or to release gametes (eggs and sperm) during spawning events.  The most popular part of the abalone shell is the inner surface, which is covered with nacre, a mother-of-pearl iridescence that gets all the shell collectors hot and bothered.  While many other species shells’ get encrusted with algae and organisms as they hang out under the sea, black abalone shells remain fairly unencumbered except for the odd barnacle here and there, and are simple, smooth, and have a nice bluish-black hue.

 

What makes abalone such good eating is their strong foot muscle that makes up about a third of their body weight.  They use this invaluable muscle to cling onto rocks and snag any nearby kelp for a snack.  While black abalone is not the preferred species among seafood connoisseurs (with red abalone being the escargot of choice in California), it was commercially harvested for a period in the late 1960’s when all other species were depleted due to overharvest.

 

I’m not a seafood eater, and I don’t really collect shells, so why do I find black abalone so darn awesome?  I admire them for being tough buggers!  They live in one of the most hostile environments and have managed to survive the ravages of a devastating disease.  In their habitat, they are covered with a couple feet of 57°F seawater one moment, and a few hours later, they are exposed to direct sunlight and air with temperatures in the mid-90s, common in Southern California.  They are pounded by waves, which have forces that bend and break steel bolts.  A disease, called withering syndrome, has decimated the population.  They once numbered in the millions and now have disappeared from some areas altogether.  Remaining individuals have held on for more than 20 years, and are struggling to bounce back.

Black abalone on San Nicolas Island, CA (B. Blaud)

 

Although you’re probably not going to find the black abalone featured on the next Sponge Bob episode enjoying a crabby patty with Patrick, they’re definitely a main character in my adventures.  Now that you have been properly introduced, please don’t be afraid to say hi more often, especially if you’re in the neighborhood.  The ones that I know and am familiar with are easy-going and humble, just going along with their lives in the instable rocky intertidal, and don’t mind visitors just as long as you look and don’t touch!