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Posts tagged ‘Tunicates’

Tunicates – Your Distant Cousins?

Here’s one of your highly evolved and wonderfully unique marine neighbours.

It’s one of many species of tunicate in the NE Pacific Ocean. The tunicates, as simple-looking as they may appear to you, are our closest invertebrate relative*.

That’s how complex their anatomy is.

Five colonies of Mushroom Tunicate. I believe this is Distaplia occidentalis.

So here are some fascinating facts that may help influence how we perceive organisms that look very different from us.

Tunicates have a unique exoskeleton called a tunic.

Some tunicate species are solitary, living as distinct individuals. Please see further down in this blog for my photos of other species of local tunicates. These will reveal the great diversity in this phylum. 

Photo showing how a colonies of compound tunicate species share a stalk. Gee I wonder why some are called Mushroom Tunicates? Insert cheeky grin here.
I am uncertain of which species of compound tunicate this is. 

But this is a species of COMPOUND tunicate where individuals live together in the colony, within one tunic. The individuals in the colony are called zooids. The zooids have specialized functions that can serve the collective colony. In this species each individual has its own incurrent siphon and pharynx (think throat) to bring in water to filter feed. But individuals share digestive, reproductive and circulatory organs and excurrent siphons (to carry water out). Oh, by the way, tunicates are the only animals known to have a heart that can pump in two directions; they can reverse the direction of circulation.

They are hermaphrodites where reproduction occurs both by cross-fertilization and self-fertilization. The fertilized eggs are brooded inside the colony in a brood pouch and the timing of when parents hatch out the relatively large tadpole-like larvae has been found to be influenced by light (morning appears to be preferred). The larval stage of these animals is tadpole like, including having a primitive backbone (as is the case in all tunicate larvae). Reportedly development from fertilized egg to larval release is around 4 weeks (at 12 degree C) for the species.

Photo showing the diversity of colour in Mushroom Tunicates.

Some species of tunicate have been found to have bacteria associated with them providing chemicals that ward off predators and disease-causing microorganisms. You can imagine there is strong interest in how these chemicals might be of use to humans re. antibacterial properties.
And in case this all isn’t wild enough colonial species of tunicate are known to regenerate their complete body from a group of cells named “blood cells.” This too makes them of particular interest to we human distant relatives who evolved to NOT be able to regenerate body parts.

*Tunicates are classified as chordates because, the tadpole-like larvae stage has the following structures: notochord, dorsal nerve tube, and muscle tissue behind the digestive tract (postanal tail).

As a personal note to you who  are interested and caring enough to read this far: I have just lost myself for several hours striving to synthesize this information. I have deadlines to meet for other tasks and yet, and yet . . . this compulsion to understand, educate, and connect. Thank you very much for making it feel worthwhile.

After the following photos, there is excellent, detailed information on tunicates from Dr. Laura Cole.


Photos of other species of tunicate living in the NE Pacific Ocean.
Note that there are many more species that what I show here.

 

Solitary tunicate species: Pacific Sea Peach, Halocynthia aurantium, to 15 cm tall. Species like this have led to tunicates sometimes being referenced as “Sea Squirts” due to to larger, solitary species of tunicate having the “tendency to squirt seawater periodically from the main branchial siphon to back-flush sediments, other indigestible matter, and small animals from the filtering basket (about 10 times per hour in some species). Source: Snail’s Odyssey. 

 

Another Pacific Sea Peach.

 

Solitary tunicate species: Glassy Tunicate, Ascidia paratropa to 15 cm tall. 

 

Solitary tunicate species: Sea Vase – multiple individuals “reaching” out of a crack in a wooden piling. Ciona savignyi to 15 cm tall.

 

Solitary tunicate species: These Transparent Tunicate have a problem. This species gets invaded by a wicked parasite (as opposed to all those gentle and meek parasites out there) . . . the Spotted Flatworm! This species of flatworm curls up, sneaks in through the tunicate’s branchial siphon, unrolls, eats the tunicate’s internal organs over 3 to 7 days and then moves on, leaving behind the empty tunic. They are species specific parasites, apparently specializing in invading Transparent Tunicates. The dark coil you see here is the waste inside their rectums. Transparent Tunicate = Corella willmeriana to 7.5 cm tall.
Spotted Flatworm = Eurylepta leoparda to 2.5 m.

 

Social tunicate species: Light-Bulb Tunicate. Clavelina huntsmani to 5 cm tall.

 

Compound tunicate – a stalked compound tunicate. Not certain of species.

 

Compound tunicate species: Red Ascidian. Aplidium solidum to 20 cm across.

 

Compound tunicate species: Lobed Compound Tunicate. Cystodytes lobatus, irregular size and shape, can be more than 50 cm wide.

 

Compound tunicate species: Lobed Compound Tunicate. Cystodytes lobatus with a feeding Orange Sea Cucumber.

 

Compound tunicate species: Lobed Tunicate and Mushroom Tunicates (and a whole lot more) 🙂

 

 

Compound tunicate species: May be Pale Mushroom Compound Tunicate. Aplidiopsis pannosum to 5 cm wide. 

 

Pygmy Rock Crab in the shell of a dead Giant Acorn Barnacles, surrounded by multiple species of compound tunicate

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Further information on tunicates from Dr. Laura Cole, from her much-valued resource – a Smithsonian blog “Tunicates — Not So Spineless Invertebrates” from June 2018. 

About 3,000 tunicate species are found in salt water habitats throughout the world. Although tunicates are invertebrates (animals without backbones) found in the subphylum Tunicata (sometimes called Urochordata), they are part of the Phylum Chordata, which also includes animals with backbones, like us. That makes us distant cousins.

The most common tunicates are sometimes called sea squirts because when touched or alarmed by a sudden movement, their muscles contract and the water in the animal shoots out. They are sessile after their larval stage, meaning that they remain attached to a hard substrate, such as dead coral, boat docks, rocks or mollusk shells, all of their adult lives. The name “tunicate” comes from their outer covering, called the tunic, that protects the animal from predators, like sea stars, snails and fish. Unlike the sessile sea squirts, other kinds of tunicates float in the water their entire lives. The salps and pyrosomes are mostly transparent tunicates that look a bit like jellyfish floating freely—some pyrosomes have be known to reach 60 feet (18 m) in length. Much smaller but still visible to the naked eye are the larvaceans—tiny tadpole like creatures that live inside a small house that they build and regularly replace.

[Note there are two related The Marine Detective blogs: (1) “Pyrosomes! Say What?” at this link and (2) “Otherworldly Drifter. Mind Blown” at this link.]

What unites these diverse groups and makes them our relatives? All animals in the Phylum Chordata have a notochord, a flexible backbone like structure, at some point in their lives.

Sea squirts have a notochord only in the larval stage which they use to swim and find an ideal place to attach—one that is bathed in particle-rich waters, since like all tunicates they are filter feeders and rely on water currents for food and nutrients. Once a good location is found, the larva attaches with a suction-like structure and metamorphosis begins. The notochord shrinks and gets absorbed into the body as the animal changes into an adult, and the tunic forms as the transformation occurs. The animal will then spend its days feeding on tiny particles from the water, primarily bacteria. 

There are two types of sea squirts: solitary and colonial. The solitary animals live separately all of their lives inside of their tunics. Each has two siphons—the oral siphon that receives the nutrient rich current and the atrial siphon that excretes the waste. Colonial species share a common tunic and sometimes also share the atrial siphon. Colonies of sea squirts are formed as a result of budding—when the larva settles and changes into the adult form, it then splits (or buds) to produce new individuals, called zooids. Colonies can be a few centimeters to several yards wide depending on food availability and predation.  

Sea squirts don’t look much like us as adults on the outside, but they have a digestive system similar to ours—with an esophagus, stomach, intestines and a rectum. But there are plenty of other differences. Unique to the benthic tunicates is a heart that reverses its beat periodically. It’s still a mystery to researchers why the tunicate heart will circulate blood through the heart in one direction and then switch to the opposite direction, or if the ability gives them some sort of advantage. 

On land, we don’t encounter sea squirts that often, although they are increasingly eaten by some Mediterranean, Asian and South American countries. Not only is the soft body inside of the tunic eaten, but the tunic itself can be pickled and enjoyed later. Compounds from several tunicate species could be useful in medical treatments for diseases ranging from cancer to asthma. Tunicates act as ocean purifiers, since they consume bacteria, and they can send a message that heavy metals are present in ecosystems where they are found, since they absorb metals like zinc and vanadium. Because they like to attach to hard surfaces, sea squirts are often found on the underside of boats, or inside motors, where they can wreak havoc on equipment, and some have become invasive species after being transported from their native ranges. Their relatives the pyrosomes, also called sea pickles, sometimes wash up in large numbers on the shore and are known for their bioluminescence

Like with many a large family, most of us don’t know about these distant relatives found in the ocean, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth keeping an eye on.”


Further sources include:


Invasive Tunicates

This is an example of an invasive tunicate found off the coast of British Columbia (and many other places). It’s the Lined Compound Ascidian, Botrylloides violaceus.


Otherworldly Drifter. Mind Blown.

Today was the first time ever that, while diving, I made a gesture to my dive buddy indicating that my brain had exploded.

We weren’t deep; the remarkable find that had me awestruck was at 3 to 5 metre depth. It’s a known species and is found throughout the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans but  . . . . it’s certainly extremely rare here around NE Vancouver Island and it is SO otherworldly.

Let me take you on a short journey of discovery.

I was already pretty excited when I found the organism in the photo below. I knew it to be a salp “aggregate” and was delighted that there was an amphipod hitchhiker. See it?

Cyclosalpa bakeri with amphipod hitchhiker ©Jackie Hildering; www.themarinedetective.ca

Cyclosalpa bakeri with amphipod hitchhiker.
©Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

Salps are such unique gelatinous animals! They belong to the group of highly evolved invertebrates known as tunicates. Most tunicate species live attached to the bottom when they are adults but salps remain Ocean drifters for their whole lives. Because of their gelatinous “tunic” they have even been referred to as Ocean Gummy Bears.

Their reproduction is totally otherworldly! They alternate between two forms. The image above is of the “aggregate” form or “salp chain” that, dependent on species, can be made up of millions of individuals. The aggregate form reproduces sexually to form a barrel-shaped solitary form. The solitary form buds off (asexually) to produce the individuals that make up the aggregate form and so on! Salps apparently grow faster than any other multicellular organism! (Source: JelliesZone).

Back to the dive  . . . so I was already pretty thrilled to have seen the salp chain of this unique species and was taking the photo below of an Alabaster Nudibranch (because you can NEVER have enough photos of Alabaster Nudibranchs)  . . . .

Alabaster nudibranch. Dirona albolineata to 18 cm aka “white-lined dirona” or “frosted nudibranch”. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

Alabaster nudibranch. Dirona albolineata to 18 cm. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

. . . . and then I saw something hovering above me, zeppelin like.

Brain exploded. WHAT was this?!

Pelagic tunicate. Salp species - Thetys, solitary phase. To 33 cm. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

©2015 Jackie Hildering

It was about 25 cm long.

It had openings on both ends.

It clearly had internal organs.

And it had unique projections on what I assumed was its back end.

The look on my dive buddy Natasha Dickinson’s face in the image below says it all!

Dive buddy with Thetys. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

Dive buddy Natasha Dickinson with Thetys salp. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

I was pretty sure that it was the solitary form of some species of salp but  . . . so big?

Pelagic tunicate. Salp species - Thetys, solitary phase. To 33 cm. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

Good view of gut. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

As soon as I got home I grabbed my copy of Wrobel and Mills’ “Pelagic Coast Pelagic Invertebrates” and emailed a few photos of this unique find to Andy Lamb, co-author of Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest.

Ahh – it’s wonderful to have friends in deep places. Andy came back very quickly with the ID. It was a salp indeed, in fact, the world’s biggest. Thetys* in the solitary form can grow to 33 cm!

From Dave Wrobel’s The JelliesZone webpage: “Thetys is truly an impressive member of the zooplankton.  It is the largest species of salp along the West Coast and is relatively easy to distinguish from all others.  Unlike most gelatinous animals, the body is relatively firm due to the thick spiny test (the test, or tunic, is the hard outer covering typical of many tunicates, hence the name for the group).  It retains its shape even when removed from the water.  Solitary individuals have 20 partial muscle bands . . . that are used for constricting the body while pumping water for feeding and locomotion.  A pair of pigmented posterior projections are very distinctive, as is the darkly colored, compact gut . . . Like other salps, Thetys continuous pumps water through a mucous net to extract phytoplankton and other small particles.   Although relatively uncommon in Monterey Bay [and therefore very uncommon so much further north where I sighted this individual], this widespread species can be found in temperate and tropical waters of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, to depths of about 150 meters.”

Pelagic tunicate. Salp species - Thetys, solitary phase. To 33 cm. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

©2015 Jackie Hildering

I was intrigued how an animal that lives in the open Ocean and depends on plankton could be so big?

How could it filter enough plankton out of the water?

Pelagic tunicate. Salp species - Thetys, solitary phase. To 33 cm. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

©2015 Jackie Hildering

I came upon research from MIT (2010) that revealed how salps could get enough nutrients to be so big and fast growing.  Their mucus nets are astounding in how they are able to trap incredibly small-sized plankton. With this find, the researchers referenced salps as “the vacuum cleaners of the ocean” and confirmed how important they are because of what they do to huge volumes of climate-changing carbon.

In the Oceanus Magazine article Salps Catch the Ocean’s Tiniest Organisms, the researchers explain “As they eat, they [the salps] consume a very broad range of carbon-containing particles and efficiently pack the carbon into large, dense fecal pellets that sink rapidly to the ocean depths, Madin said. “This removes carbon from the surface waters,” Sutherland said, “and brings it to a depth where you won’t see it again for years to centuries.” And more carbon sinking to the bottom reduces the amount and concentration of carbon in the upper ocean, letting more carbon dioxide enter the ocean from the atmosphere, explained Stocker” [thereby reducing the amount in the atmosphere where it impacts climate.]

I of course also hoped to find a good photo or video of the salp chain of this species (the aggregate form) and came upon this 1-minute clip by Patrick Anders Webster (taken off the coast of central California).

Wow!!! Mind-blown again.

 

And below, an additional video from Patrick from May 2016, also off the coast of California.

 

[*You may have noticed that the full scientific name for this tunicate species is Thetys vagina as assigned by the German naturalist Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius von Tilenau in 1802. Likely at that time, “vagina” did not yet have its anatomical meaning and the species name was chosen for the Latin origin of the word meaning “wrapper” / “sheath”.]

 

Further information:

Scripps zooplankton guide – https://scripps.ucsd.edu/zooplanktonguide/species/thetys-vagina

Jelly Zone – http://jellieszone.com/pelagic-tunicates/thetys/