Join me in the cold, dark, life-sustaining NE Pacific Ocean to discover the great beauty, mystery and fragility hidden there.

 Zyzzyzus rubusidaeus

One of the services I like to provide here on The Marine Detective, is to share words you can try to randomly drop into conversations and annoy your friends. You’re welcome. It’s a task I take very seriously.

Yes, there really is an animal with the scientific name Zyzzyzus rubusidaeus and to me, they look like they have been designed by Dr. Seuss himself. Their common name is the Raspberry Hydroid and they have beautiful predators too.

Zyzzyzus rubusidaeus to 5 cm tall ©Jackie Hildering, The Marine Detective.

The common name for Zyzzyzus rubusidaeus is the Raspberry Hydroid. They were only described as a new species in 2013 by northern Vancouver Island’s own Anita Brinckmann-Voss who lived in Sointula. The research paper is at this link.

Their specific nudibranch prey are Pomegranate Aeolids. To my knowledge, the only documentations for both species, to date, are near Telegraph Cove (Weynton Pass) and Quadra Island (Discovery Passage). I can certainly attest to how fortunate we are to see them so predictably near Telegraph Cove.

What you see here, in addition to Raspberry Hydroids and a Pomegranate Aeolid nudibranch, are Mushroom Compound Tunicates, and a feeding Giant Acorn Barnacle.

See below for more information about both species. Oh, and if you ever are able to use the word “Zyzzyzus” in a word game because of this post, I expect a thank you! 😉

Descriptor for the above photo:


(1) Nudibranch species the Pomegranate Aeolid (Cuthonella punicea to 2.5 cm).

(2)Their only known prey, the stinging celled animals Raspberry Hydroids (Zyzzyzus rubusidaeus to 5 cm tall).

(3) The nudibranchs’ egg masses / strings. As is the way with sea slugs, they most often lay their eggs on their prey. Talk about adding insult to injury. I eat you and I lay my eggs on you so there will be more of my kind to prey on your kind. 😉

More Pomegranate Aeolids feeding on Raspberry Hydroids. This is a female colony. The round structures are female gonophores which may contain embryos.

More about hydroids:

Almost all hydroid species are colonial. They are carnivores. Hydroids are related to jellies, anemones, and corals (phylum Cnidarian).

The reproduction of hydroids is remarkable. Colonies are male or female. They start by reproducing asexually by budding off hydromedusa – tiny free-swimming, jellyfish-like versions of themselves. These produce either eggs or sperm. Fertilization of the eggs leads to larvae that may settle on the ocean bottom and form colonies.

Hydroids catch drifting prey with their polyps aided by their nematocysts (stinging cells). None of the hydroid species off our coast deliver a sting that we humans can feel (no matter how sensitive you are 😉).

The food gets distributed throughout their single-sex colony.

And who loves to eat species of hydroids? Nudibranchs! Specifically, the aeolid kinds of nudibranchs – they have those bushy structures on their backs (cerata). Many of these nudibranch species not only rely on the hydroids for nutrition but also make use of their prey’s stinging cells! The nematocysts get incorporated into the ends of the cerata.

Brinckmann-Voss, A., & Calder, D. R. 2013. Zyzzyzus rubusidaeus (Cnidaria, Hydrozoa, Tubulariidae), a new species of anthoathecate hydroid from the coast of British Columbia, Canada. Zootaxa 3666: 389-397

A Mystery from Poppy

Hello Dear Community,

I’ve saved my favourite 2022 marine mystery for you until now.

It’s from Poppy who was in British Columbia visiting from England with her father, sister Maya, grandpa and grandma.

Poppy found these on a beach on Malcolm Island and they were photographed on the back of a cell phone.

It actually hurt my head to try to figure this out. I knew that I SHOULD know what they were but just not make the ID take shape. In wanting to get the answer to Poppy as soon as possible, I reached out to expertise greater than my own. I suspected I would have a big face-palming moment of “but of course” when the shells were identified.

And indeed that happened.

Take a moment to try to determine the ID yourself? Then scroll down for the answer.

Are you sure you want to see the answer?

Here goes!

Of course! 🤦‍♀️ They are the parts of the shell of a barnacle that open and close!

The answer that came from naturalist supreme Bill Merilees was: “What you have here is a barnacle valve – one of the ‘flaps’ that opens to allow the feeding tentacles to strain food from the water column. Great photo of this unusual shell exoskeleton!

This led me to try to figure out what barnacle species these might come from and what the names of the structures were.

I believe the most specific ID is that these are the opercular plates of a Thatched Acorn Barnacle. The two parts are the tergum and scutum.

Below are some of my photos of another barnacle species, the Giant Acorn Barnacle (Balanus nubilus) which might help in recognizing the shells. Isn’t it wondrous? All barnacle species start off a plankton and then form their own intricate shells so that their foot can extend out to rake in food.

Happy New Year to you. May the next year be filled with happy mysteries, wonder, and empowerment for positive change.

Sources of illustrations:

Coletti, Giovanni & Bosio, Giulia & Collareta, Alberto & Buckeridge, John & Consani, Sirio & El Kateb, Akram. (2018). Palaeoenvironmental analysis of the Miocene barnacle facies: Case studies from Europe and South America. Geologica Carpathica. 69. 573-592. 10.1515/geoca-2018-0034. 

Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, Semibalanus cariosus – A thatched barnacle

Find The Fish – Volume Three!

There are now THREE Find the Fish books.

Here’s the cover of my latest book, now available at this link.

I loved that the online “The Marine Detective” community overwhelmingly chose this image for the cover showing a juvenile Yellowtail Rockfish hiding in the shell of a Red Urchin. The urchin may have lived to be more than 100 years old.

As many of you know from my weekly “Find the Fish Friday” posts, these are eye-spy challenges.

The books are the “Where’s Waldo” of the marine world. In addition to being fun, they are aimed and increasing knowledge about how diverse and colourful the life is in these cold, dark waters. The text provides information about the species in the images and invites children (and the adults who love them) to look for other species as well as the featured fish.

All photos and text are by yours truly with fish illustrations generously provided by Andy Lamb of Coastal Fishes of the Pacific Northwest. 

The trifecta! The books are soft-cover and answer pages are included showing the locations of the fish.  
The books are self-published as Marine Matters Publishing. 

It gives me much joy that this third book in particular allows the facets of my life to come together – diving, photography, whale research and teaching. I dare say Find the Fish – Volume Three is the only children’s book that gives insight into the diversity of life off our coast while ALSO providing empowering scientific content about Sea Star Wasting Syndrome and our Marine Education & Research Society research into a new Humpback Whale feeding strategy.

And hey, the featured wildlife includes a Pacific Spiny Lumpsucker, Wolf-Eels, Scalyhead Sculpins (of course) and three of my beloved dive buddies!

Please see the sample pages below. There are 12 challenges with answer pages, an introductory page and a final page about “The Marine Detective”.

To order or see more information about the books, please click here.  

Take a Stand for Giants – 15 minutes or less of your time

[To jump directly to providing your input into the public consultation survey, click here.
Below I provide background and my answers to the survey in case that is helpful to you.]

The first Fin Whale I ever saw was killed by a large vessel.
Please don’t stop reading.

There’s urgency about what will happen with the protection of Fin Whales in British Columbian waters. And, there is something Canadians can do to take a stand that takes very little time.

Right now, it is being put forward that the protection of Fin Whales be REDUCED under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.  This is being considered when so little is known about them and their threats are increasing.

– We whaled them up to 55 years ago and it is not known how many there are now or if there is more than one population.

It is known that their threats are increasing. Fin Whales are particularly vulnerable to being hit by boats. They feed where there will be increased large vessel traffic, including LNG tankers. This will also increase disturbance from noise. Further, the changing climate will impact their prey. There has also already been an “Unusual Mortality Event” where is it is believed that warmer water led to more toxins being in the whales’ prey (domoic acid from Red Tide Algae).

The process determining if the protection of Fin Whales will be reduced in Canada or not involves an opportunity for public comment. This is not a petition. It is using YOUR voice to be part of the federal process that will determine the fate of Fin Whales. The deadline for comment is December 2nd, 2022. It is a short survey.

I share the above graphic showing the fate of that first Fin Whale I saw because I think it helps make clear how the second biggest animal in the world can be so vulnerable. Nature versus human technology, efficiency, ingenuity and, disconnect.

The reality of that first Fin Whale I ever saw is known because he got hooked up on the bulbous bow of the cruise ship after being hit. Apparently, no one on the vessel felt the impact. The fate of the whale was only known when the cruise ship came into the harbour in Vancouver.

It must have been the same Fin Whale we saw that day near Telegraph Cove because Fin Whales are such a rarity on the inside of Vancouver Island. We first saw the Fin Whale, and then we saw the cruise ship. And yes, this is the Fin Whale whose skeleton with shattered vertebrae now hangs in the Whale Interpretive Centre in Telegraph Cove.

Standing under the skeleton of the first Fin Whale I ever saw. Photo by Phil Stone Photography.

It’s so important to understand that the evolution (or creation) of toothed whales like Orca, required them to have biosonar / echolocation to detect their prey, etc. Baleen whales like Fin Whales and Humpback Whales do not have this biosonar. So often these giants are oblivious of boats, and many boaters are oblivious to how different these whales are. 

You may never have seen a Fin Whale. In fact, the only one known to be in the Salish Sea this year was killed by a boat. I’ll spare you the photos of him but you can see more detail at this link.

Fin Whales are more often off the Central and North Coast, Haida Gwaii, or in BC’s vast offshore waters. In having the privilege of doing surveys in these areas, I’ve seen them, and the overlap with large vessel traffic.

If the protection of Fin Whales is reduced, one of the most dire consequences is that there will be no determination nor protection of their habitat needs. There will also be far less priority for research into how many there are and how to reduce threats.

So about that short survey to provide your input.

The questions in the survey are simple.
Below, I provide the three main questions and answers that may be of use to you.

For more detail, see this link for the media release we did as the Marine Education and Research Society and the North Coast Cetacean Society.

The survey for public consultation is at this link.

My answers are below.

You will note that the survey only allows for brief answers which is why I have pointed to our media release which provides detail about the concerns.

1. Do you think the reclassification of Fin Whale (Pacific Population) from Threatened to Special Concern under the Species at Risk Act would have economic, environmental, cultural and/or social BENEFITS for you or your group/organization?

No. There would be no benefits to reducing protection for a species for whom threats are increasing and for which too little is known to justify reducing protection.

2. Do you think the reclassification of Fin Whale (Pacific Population) from Threatened to Special Concern under the Species at Risk Act would have economic, environmental, cultural and/or social COSTS for you or your group/organization?

Yes. There are significant societal costs to choosing to reduce protection for a species for which not enough is known about their population while threats are known to be increasing. This includes that it is acknowledged how vulnerable Fin Whales are to being hit by boats; that it is not known how many there are; and that it is certain that there will be increased vessel traffic and that increasing temperatures can impact their prey.

3. Should the Government of Canada reclassify the Fin Whale (Pacific Population) from Threatened to Special Concern under the Species at Risk Act?

It is the antithesis of precaution to reduce the protection of Fin Whales when there is so much that is not known about their population and when threats are increasing due to climate change, noise, and risk of collision.

As above, the limits on the length of answers in this survey (at only 500 characters for this question), did not allow for the appropriate opportunity to provide feedback. Therefore, reference this link for my concerns

4. Please provide any other comments about this reclassification consultation that you would like us to consider.

As above, it is not sufficient that the limits on the number of characters/words in this survey (at only ~500 characters / 80 words), did not allow for the appropriate opportunity to provide feedback on concerns. Thereby see the following link for my concerns

It’s not a show . . .

I wrote the following in my role with the Marine Education and Research Society to accompany the graphic below. Our efforts include workshops on Marine Mammal Regulations and the ethics of imagery and language used by mainstream and social media.

It is so jarring and unfortunate when wildlife encounters are described with language like “the whales put on a show for us”. No, they didn’t.

How I hope my words resound with you.

“It’s not a show.

Wildlife does not perform for humans.
Whales do not “put on a show” for us.

Words matter.
Words reflect, and perpetuate, our values and actions.

Thankfully, society has come a long way in understanding our connection to the natural world.

May our words reflect that we know the privilege of observing wild animals, living wild lives.

Not “for us”.
Not “up close and personal”.

Rather, may we value most that what we observe in the wild happens . . . as if we weren’t there.”

The graphic is available as a sticker or card at our MERS Ocean Store. The card includes the above text.
All sales support our research and education efforts.

Illustration made by friend Dawn Dudek based on a photo I took of Humpback Whale Inukshuk (BCZ0339) while conducting research for the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) under Marine Mammal License MML-57.

Related posts:
Whale Watching – Not “Up-Close-and-Personal!” How to make a good choice?

To Think Before We Click

Amber Forest

Sob! I am having a moment.

The photos you see here are from the new exhibit “Seaweed: Mysteries of the Amber Forests” at the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea. Those are my kelp photos. 💙

I am choking up at typing that. I have never seen my photos printed that big and am massively moved that they are part of this education aimed at increasing awareness and action for algae.

Mayor Cliff McNeil-Smith cutting the Bull Kelp stipe to open the exhibit yesterday 🙂 .
In green – friend and Director of Exhibits & Engagement, Leah Thorpe.
On right, Executive Director of the Centre, Pauline Finn. On left, Director Allan Lane.

Also featured is the art of Josie Iselin. She scans seaweeds with her flatbed scanner and then often places the photos atop historical images from when that species of seaweed was first described.

Executive Director Pauline Finn pointing to some of Josie Islelin’s art.

I am so grateful to Leah Thorpe, Director of Exhibits & Engagement, for all of her work to make this real.

I have NOT seen the exhibit in person but am now strangely compelled to go to 9811 Seaport Pl, Sidney, southern Vancouver Island. How about you? Show me photos when you go?

You will be thrilled to see there are also some my Find the Fish challenges in the exhibit but in BIG photos WITH answers. 🙂

Yep, choking up at seeing this. That’s my photo associated with all this vital messaging.

How to Help the Kelp, and Why?
The Ocean’s algae, from the microscopic and to the giant kelps:

  • Produce at least 50% of the Earth’s oxygen.
  • Another result of their photosynthesis is that they absorb very significant amounts of carbon dioxide – a very significant climate-changing gas.
  • The algae / seaweeds are producers, converting sunlight to food to fuel the food web. They offer we humans so much nutrition too.
  • Kelps are habitat for hundreds of species.

Kelp Is in Trouble
Where every species lives is, of course, because the conditions are right. For example, the temperature is not too cold. It’s not too hot. It’s just right. Yes, this is referenced as the Goldilocks Principle. Changing temperatures are impacting the health of kelp forests, as are other variables involved with climate change such as more frequent and stronger winds ripping away more kelp.

Also, there are far fewer Sunflower Stars due to Sea Star Wasting Disease which is believed to be associated with climate change. Sunflower Stars are predators of Green Urchins. Green Urchins graze on kelp. With less Sunflower Stars, there are more Green Urchins. More urchins leads to more grazing on kelp. In the extreme, this leads to “urchin barrens” where the kelp forest has been grazed away.
Less kelp = less food, oxygen, habitat and buffering of carbon dioxide.

Green Urchins grazing on kelp.

Don’t Despair!
This is not an additional problem. It’s another symptom of the same problem. Whatever you do to reduce fossil fuel use (from consumerism to how you vote), will help the kelp and all that depends on them.

May the knowledge motivate, not lead to fear and paralysis which perpetuates the problem. It truly is the case that if you are not contributing to solutions, you are part of the problem.
Care more. Connect more. Consume less.

Finding Fish at the Exhibit! ☺️

The exhibit “Seaweed: Mysteries of the Amber Forests” will be at the Salish Sea Centre for about a year.

See my other blogs about the importance of kelp at this link.

There’s seaweed in that! Display showing products containing algae. Hello Arlen!

Nakwakto Goose-neck Barnacles

Please tell me these made you gasp?

These are barnacles that live in only a very few places on the planet. The most are at Nakwakto Rapids, north of Port Hardy. The red is hemoglobin!

I think these are one of the most achingly and extraordinarily beautiful animals I have ever seen.

They are Nakwakto Barnacles. They need really strong current and that was very clear during the dive where I photographed these, even on a small tidal exchange). The dive site was Turret Rock, also known as Tremble Island because of the appearance that the island shakes in the tidal exchange (apparently up 39 kilometers per hour during its largest tidal exchanges).

Nakwakto Goose-neck Barnacles with Split Kelp wafting behind.

The next photo shows you the SAME species but in shallow water where you can’t see the hemoglobin because, near the surface, the gooseneck barnacles need a protective black pigment against sun exposure. How’s that as a metaphor for how your environment influences your beauty?

These barnacles are perceived to be a variant of Gooseneck Barnacles with the same species name, which is Pollicipes polymerus.

The barnacles’ stalk can be 15 cm long and body to 4.5 cm long.

An attempt to show you the density of this species in this extraordinarily high current area.

From Hanby and Lamb’s Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest: ” . . . the spectacular formations of the Nakwakto goose-neck barnacle, a large and colourful variation of the goose-neck barnacle – found in Nakwakto Rapids, Slingsby Channel, c. BC. The glorious red colour is actually the hemoglobin in the barnacle’s blood. The blood is obvious in subtidal specimens like these, which do not have the black pigment that protects the sun-exposed populations inhabiting shallow or intertidal zones . . . this unique and isolated population must be preserved via a No-Take Marine Protected Area.

From Rubidge et al 2020; “A unique subtidal variety of the Gooseneck Barnacle, Pollicipes polymerus, forms large aggregations at Nakwakto Rapids (Lamb and Hanby 2005). The “Nakwakto variety” of P. polymerus, is bright red as the hemoglobin in the barnacles’ blood is visible. Subtidal populations do not need the black pigment found in the sun-exposed intertidal populations (Lamb and Hanby 2005). The red “Nakwakto variety” of P. polymerus has been recently reported in other subtidal areas including a sea cave on Calvert Island on the central coast and Race Rocks near Victoria. Because of its slow recovery rate after perturbations and its ecological role as a habitat-forming species, P. polymerus was identified as an Ecologically Significant Species and conservation priority for the Marine Protected Area network planning process in the Northern Shelf Bioregion (DFO 2017).

Photos: September 17 and 18, 2022, near the Nakwakto Rapids in Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Territory ©Jackie Hildering.


Rubidge, E., Jeffery, S., Gregr, E.J., Gale, K.S.P., and Frid, A. 2020. Assessment of nearshore
features in the Northern Shelf Bioregion against criteria for determining Ecologically and
Biologically Significant Areas (EBSAs)
. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Res. Doc. 2020/023. vii +
63 p

You Never Know . . .

I am daring to share the following with you, with Hannah’s permission. I do so because, we are all educators and, as I often express, education is like throwing seeds into the wind. Usually, we don’t know how, or even if, the seeds take root.

Hannah has gifted me an example of how a simple act from 22 years ago may have contributed to someone’s path. Yes, I cried upon reading this. I am crying again now.

“Dear Jackie,

I wanted to give you this memory you so appreciated hearing. If I were an artist, I would draw or paint or somehow physically create this moment for you. Instead, as a linguist, I will do my best to describe it.

A flurry of sensory information was hitting my not-yet-developed brain, so I don’t have many specifics for this memory. I know two things: this memory is one of my first, and I was on the Gikumi, so I felt safe. [Gikumi was the beautiful wooden boat then used by Stubbs Island Whale Watching].

Sight: I sat facing one of the doorways, so my view of the outside was framed. Strangers swiftly appeared and disappeared as they walked along the deck. The land gently rose and fell when some wake hit the boat. It wasn’t too bright for my young, blue eyes. I know now that a slightly cloudy day makes for better nature watching…enough light but no glare.

Sound: The radio blared with voices and static. Captain Jim lowered the volume. Boats engines hum in the distance. A dozen strangers’ voices chatter, so there must not have been whales yet. Something about whales makes us go silent. I’ve always liked that. Even my busy, loud brain goes silent with them.

Smell: Coffee. Mom always had coffee. The breeze never quite made it around that doorway, so the smell of the ocean would arrive later.

Touch: Mom had on a rain jacket, so the arms that surrounded me felt a bit loud for my fingers. Some people understand that a feeling can be loud. It is like how linen is not smooth or rough, but somehow loud to feel. My life jacket provided me with consistent, surrounding pressure, like a hug. I never minded wearing it. Sitting on Mom’s lap, I didn’t have to worry about balance. She held me tightly as the waves made the boat rock. This is a comforting feeling for me, like a vertical rocking chair.

Taste: Captain Jim gave me a cookie. Yum.

The boat continued to glide forward. Suddenly, there was a pickup of chatter and movement. My eyes darted around. Too young to listen to or understand a naturalist talk, I didn’t really know the kinds of creatures that could appear or nature I could experience.

Then, a familiar face appeared in the doorway. It was your kind, sociable, empathetic, and passion-filled face. Your face had excitement in it. Not on it, like a painter choosing an emotion for the subject or a reaction learned through customer service. The excitement was in it. It was true. You said something to Mom, and she plopped me down from her lap and lifted me over the door frame.

This is the vivid moment in my memory. I don’t have much of a mind’s eye. I can’t “see” anything when I read books, and I always thought “picture this” was a metaphor, not an actual instruction. But in my mind, I can see blue-grey sky with your hand reaching down for mine. I take your hand, and it feels warm. You guide me to the bow and position me by the rail. You squat down so you can talk to me, not over me. Your left arm is around me, holding me safe and steady. Your right hand switches between holding the rail and pointing to the water. You brought me out to see the Dall’s Porpoise riding Gikumi’s bow.

This is when I feel the cool wind on my face and smell the slightly salty water. It smells green and blue. The open ocean just smells blue to me, but where we are also smells green. I now know it is the lower salinity, but you intelligently didn’t try to educate me on that fact. Instead, you instruct me to look at how the porpoises glide through the water and move up and down for air. I see the water turn white when they disturb the surface. I hear the puffs of them breathing. You point to their tails and tell me to look at how fast they can go.

I don’t have the ability yet to “wonder” in the sense of pondering or thinking, but I do have the ability to “wonder” in the sense of awe. This new information could have skidded past my brain as unintelligible data too complicated to process. But you took the time to help me see it and help me learn it. You crouched down to my physical and mental level to help me see what you see in this incredible world.

This moment sparked the joy that began my passion for cetaceans. It isn’t the joy that is synonymous with happiness. It is the Joy that C.S. Lewis talks about: an unsatisfied desire for and lifelong pursuit of God. He describes Joy as a longing that comes to you in pangs as you head in the right direction toward God. At this point in my life, I simply consider God to be the ultimate source of goodness. My pangs of Joy are when I feel like I am heading in the right direction toward whatever meaning my life is supposed to have. I believe it is good to pursue knowledge of the world around me, even if it is just for knowledge’s sake. At least, it is good to pursue finding meaning. I think I found my purpose in killer whale research. You sparked that Joy, and I thank you.

Be well,
Hannah Cole”

Hannah is clearly an extraordinary writer, and human. Her undergraduate degree is in Computer Science and Computational Thinking with a minor in Philosophy, she is pursuing a Master’s in Linguistics. From Hannah: “I want to combine these into a PHD in Natural Language Processing, studying the language of killer whales. Dr. John Ford discerned their linguistic variation, and I hope to use artificial intelligence to discern any meaning that may be present.”

Found! Cryptic Nudibranch

I finally observed some of the most cryptic nudibranchs on our coast! 💙

The Cryptic Nudibranchs you see here are only about 1 cm long and look at how astoundingly evolved they are! They are virtually invisible on the Kelp-encrusting Bryozoan which is growing on Bull Kelp at this time of year. This species of nudibranch is also known as Steinberg’s corambe (Corambe stinbergae to 1.7 cm).

You can see in the photos here that we found some of the nudibranchs mating and there were many of their egg ribbons (each of those coils has a lot of eggs that result from both parents becoming inseminated and laying eggs).

You can also see where they have been feeding on the bryozoans (colonies of animals).

I have looked for them for years knowing their range is from Alaska to Baja California, Mexico.

Mating: Right-side-to-right-side attached via the gonophores. Both hermaphrodite parents lay eggs.

What made the difference in now being able to find them:

(1) Getting the clue from Robin Agarwal to look at the kelp fronds that were REALLY tattered with the Kelp-encrusting Bryozoan colonies .

(2) Having a skilled dive buddy willing to join me in burying our heads in old, tattered kelp in the surge for 30 minutes instead of looking at all the big, colourful life at this dive site. Thank you Janice Crook!

(3) Once we knew what the egg ribbons looked like (those s-shaped little masses), we had a really good clue and knew better where to look even more closely for the nudibranchs.

Now on to finding the SECOND really cryptic nudibranch species that feeds on Kelp Encrusting Bryozoans – Corambe pacifica to 1.5 cm long and whose egg masses are tiny, flat coils.

For more photos and my previous blog on what Kelp-encrusting Bryozoans look like, please see my other blog “Kelp Lace? Bryozoans”.

Photos: September 19, 2022, Browning Pass ©Jackie Hildering, The Marine Detective.

Happy dive buddies
– Janice Crook and yours truly.

What on earth . . . and its tail is a snorkel!

Here’s one of the best mysteries I’ve been gifted recently.

It started with videos sent to me from Leesa Flynn that she had taken at Cordova Bay, southern Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Just look! What powers of observation Leesa has. This animal is less than 6 cm long and what’s with that tail?!

I did NOT know what this animal was and how my interest was piqued. I did suspect it might be an organism found in non-marine environments since it was so high up in the intertidal zone. Likely the water was not very salty where it was found.

The mystery had to be solved
I am very fortunate to have quick access to expertise far greater than my own. Those I reached out to included Rick Harbo, author of many ID guides for marine life of the Pacific Northwest. Rick did not recognize this animal, so off the videos went further into the web of expertise, intriguing many biology experts along the way.

To the relief of all, the identification came back through Hugh MacIntosh of the Royal BC Museum and Kevin Kocot of the University of Alabama. They recognized that this was a larval stage of a species of Hover Fly. The larvae are not known to be in marine environments so the water near this organism must have been from a creek flowing on the beach or highly diluted by rain.

One of the many species of Hover Fly – an Orange-spotted Drone Fly, Eristalis anthophorina.
Photo by Jimmy Dee via Wikimedia

Larva of a bee-like insect
The long tail of these larvae functions like a snorkel. It’s a breathing tube whereby larvae of Hover Flies can be underwater feeding while breathing from the surface. What a remarkable adaptation!

There are MANY species of Hover Fly and they are really important to the environment. The adults are important pollinators and the larvae recycle nutrients and some feast on pests like aphids (which parasitize on plants / crops).

But what species of Hover Fly specifically was the larva that Leesa observed? I think this mystery organism is a species of Drone Fly of genus Eristalis. I provide detail about that at the end of this blog. First let me address . . . Rat-tailed Maggots.

Rat-tailed Maggots and Bum Breathers?
I learned that the broad grouping of larvae in the family of Hover Flies appears to be referenced as “Rat-tailed Maggots”.

There’s an increased chance that you’re cringing now – right? Many of us have negative associations with the words “maggot” and “rat”.

That wonderful adaptation of the long breathing tube allows these larvae to live and feed in environments that may poor water quality e.g. sewage. As described by Real Monstrosities: “Since Rat-tailed Maggots breathe air, they have no use for gills, which in turn means they’re not particularly reliant on water quality. Thus, there’s many a Rat-tailed Maggot that lives in the squalor of cesspits, pools of sewage, watery manure or carcasses.

The one featured in this mystery is not likely to have been in water of poor water quality. It’s just that they could live and feed in those environments. They can also be terrestrial. They do tend to lay eggs in nutrient rich environments.

Here you have colourful text from IFLScience about this broad group of larvae to accompany the video above of a different species of Hover Fly larvae (not the species in this mystery).

“Rat tailed maggots are the larval form of some species of hoverfly, which can be terrestrial or aquatic. They start out life as a blob with a breathing tube, later dragging themselves onto land to pupate and turn into certain flies. Rat tailed maggots enjoy feeding on decaying organic matter which is why you’ll often find them in dank ponds and rotting trees, as well as anywhere there’s an open source of feces (including, one time, Glastonbury Festival).

They have a long breathing tube called a siphon attached to their rear end which is why some entomologists affectionately refer to them as “bum breathers”. They bulk up in their larval, rat tailed maggot form before pupating in soil or other dry material and emerging as several species of hoverfly.

You might think the rat tailed maggot is a little ugly, but they are champions for the environment both in their larval and adult forms. As rat tailed maggots, they encourage the turnover of nutrients by eating decaying matter and pooping it out again. They also predate on common plant pests such as aphids.

As adults, they’re hugely important pollinators which facilitate gene flow across isolate plant populations as they are big travelers. So, if you see a rat tailed maggot, do your bit by simply letting it do its thing.”

Screen grab from Leesa’s video.

But which larvae is this specifically?
I think that the larva in this mystery is a species in a subgrouping of Hover Flies (family Syrphidae), known as Drone Flies (genus Eristalis).

In what I was able to learn from the contributions to, it appears there are 6 species of Drone Fly that have been found on Vancouver Island. I am hopeful that an etymologist reading this blog will be able to narrow down which one this larvae is.

The six are:
Common Drone Fly Eristalis tenax
Dusky Drone Fly Eristalis obscura
Orange-legged Drone Fly Eristalis flavipes
Orange-spotted Drone Fly – Eristalis anthophorina
Orange-spined Drone Fly 
Eristalis nemorum

Thank you so much for your interest in all creatures great and small, furred and maybe what some human brains interpret as a little freaky. These species are perfection with adaptations that ensure success in the web of life. A web to which we, of course, belong. 💙


Screen grab of larvae from Eristalis genus from this source.

Above: Comic by which included the text: “Ever spend time outside and notice an insect that looks like a bee but has wings like a fly hovering near you? Well sir, that’s a hoverfly. And my favorite kind is the drone fly—because, as you can see from the comic—it has an amazing lifecycle.

Before they become bee-lookalikes, their larval stage resembles a deep sea diver. They breathe through a tube that comes out of their butt and they laze around eating plant particles. How crazy is that?”