All posts by Alisa Vinzant

Happy Halloween with Exoskeletons

Happy Halloween! CIMI staff love to wear costumes, but not just on Halloween! We wear them every time we teach squid dissection. You can often see us dressing up like fairies, senior citizens, mad scientists, pirates, and even ghostly skeletons, which brings me to my next point. Did you know crustaceans, like crabs and lobsters, participate in Halloween every day? They wear skeletons on their outsides all the time! Unlike a costume or an internal human skeleton, called an endoskeleton, crustaceans have external skeletons, called exoskeletons. Exoskeletons are made up of chitin, a compound rich with calcium. This is similar to keratin, which comprises your nails and hair. Exoskeletons are tough, like armor, and relatively inelastic, so much like buying a new costume when you outgrow your old one, crustaceans must shed, or molt, their exoskeletons as they grow in a process scientists call ecdysis.

Ecdysis can be a pretty scary process to undergo. It is comparable to taking off your wetsuit without being able to use your hands! When an organism begins ecdysis, it enlarges the skin cells beneath its old exoskeleton and begins secreting calcium to form its new one. It then pumps in seawater to force the old exoskeleton away from its tissues, splitting it in half at the base of the carapace, or the upper body, and the tail, so it can escape. Now here comes the really scary part… In addition to shedding their outer covering, crustaceans must also shed their eye surfaces, throat and gut linings! Crustaceans have grinding teeth in their stomachs, called their gastric mill, that they use to break down their food. Since these grinding teeth are composed of chitin, the crustacean must shed them to grow a larger gastric mill for a larger stomach. It is possible during this tricky molting process to accidentally tear of an eye or a limb, or get stuck all together! How terrifying! Fortunately, crustaceans have the ability to regenerate, or regrow, their lost appendages just for this occasion. If a crustacean loses an eye, however, they must regenerate it quickly because the hormone that prevents them from molting continuously is distributed from a gland in their eye stalk. Without an eye, and without this hormone, crustaceans are unable to cease ecdysis and perform other normal body functions. Hurry, grow it back!

Escape from an old exoskeleton can take anywhere from several minutes to a half an hour, depending on the species, size, and environmental conditions. While escaping, clawed crustaceans must dehydrate and shrink their tissues enough to pull their whole claw through a hole the size of their wrist! Once all the way out, the crustacean swells with seawater, becoming up to 15% larger in size and 40-50% heavier in weight, only to release that seawater once it is done calcifying, or hardening, its new exoskeleton. This ensures that the newly molted crustacean has formed a larger exoskeleton and provided ample growing room for the future. Often, in order to speed up calcification, the crustacean eats its old exoskeleton to reabsorb some of the calcium it put into making its old armor. This may seem ghastly, but this way, the crustacean guarantees that it has enough calcium to generate its new exoskeleton.

While the crustacean hardens its armor in the next few hours after molting, it is too soft to defend itself against predators or other larger crustaceans. Newly molted lobsters are so rubbery and squishy that they are fondly referred to by fishermen as ‘jellies.’ To prevent a fight they cannot win, crustaceans tend to molt and calcify in the safety of their burrows, whether that be a hole in the sand or a deep crevice in the rocks.

With how spooky a process ecdysis can be, it is a good thing that crustaceans molt less with age as their growth slows. This is especially true for adult females, who naturally molt less because they cannot undergo ecdysis while they are laden with eggs. While an adult male lobster will molt once a year, an adult female lobster carrying eggs will molt once every two years. Regardless of sex, crustaceans grow slower, and therefore molt less, in colder waters. It is then safe to assume that crustaceans are always hoping for a colder Halloween!

Written By: Kathy Miller

The Types of Clouds

The Types of Clouds

Have you ever been watching the clouds move across sky and wondered what you were actually looking at? Do all the names of these clouds seem to sound the same? You are not alone, however, today we are going to alleviate this confusion. Clouds are normally identified by their elevation in the sky and their physical appearance. There are 10 major distinctions of clouds that will cover most patterns you see in the sky. Below are photos and descriptions associated with each cloud type:

Types of Clouds 1

Low Elevation Clouds

  1. StratocumulusTypes of Clouds 2

Below 6,000 feet

Stratocumulus are low lying, white, stretched, puffy clouds that may appear dark in places. These clouds are similar to your average cumulus cloud; however, they are much larger and can appear darker.

  1. Nimbostratus (rain)Types of Clouds 3

Below 6,500 feet

When you see nimbostratus clouds you are almost surely being rained on or will be rained on. These dark, thick clouds lay at mid to low levels because they are weighed down with water concentration.

  1. StratusTypes of Clouds 4

Below 6,000 feet

Like fog, stratus clouds lay very low in the sky and have very little structure. Stratus clouds are great movie days associated with mist, spit, or a light drizzle. Although stratus clouds look like fog, they are higher in the atmosphere, normally lining the horizon.

  1. Cumulus (fair weather)Types of Clouds 5

Below 6,000 feet

If you picture yourself having a picnick on a beautiful day. Now look up. If you are seeing clouds on this beautiful day, you are probably envisioning cumulus clouds.The classic white, puffy cloud with a rounded top and a flat bottom.

Mid Elevation Clouds

  1. AltostratusTypes of Clouds 5

Between 6,000-20,000 feet

Altostratus clouds are reserved for those hazy days when the dark blue-grey clouds seem to engulf the sky. Sometimes the sun or moon will shine through and appear fuzzy.

  1. AltocumulusTypes of Clouds 6

Between 6,000- 20,000 feet

Altocumulus are the classic cotton ball clouds. These puffy, white clouds are the most common mid-level clouds and sometimes signal that a storm is on the way.

High Elevation Clouds

  1. CirrostratusTypes of Clouds 7

Above 18,000 feet

Cirrostratus clouds are spread across the entire sky and almost seem transparent. This wispy cloud formation signals that there is warm weather ahead.

  1. CirrusTypes of Clouds 8

Above 18,000 feet

Cirrus clouds are extremely common year-round on clear days. At their high altitude, ice crystals are spread apart as if they are painted across the sky. Less widely spread as cirrostratus clouds and more

  1. CirrocumulusTypes of Clouds 9

Above 18,000 feet

Cirrocumulus clouds are similar to cirrus clouds in height, however, they appear more splotched than stretched. To elaborate, cirrocumulus clouds are groupings of packed ice crystals (cloudlets) that are more uniform than their sister cirrus clouds.

Both Low and High Elevation

  1. Cumulonimbus (thunderheads)Types of Clouds 11

Near ground level to above 50,000 feet

Cumulonimbus are the clouds most closely compared to what you would imagine a thunderhead would look like. These giant billowy towers are composed of water droplets in its’ base and ice crystals towards the upper levels. Cumulonimbus clouds almost always signal that there is a thunderstorm happening.

Web Sources

The California Moray Eel

It is reaching the end of your orientation snorkel on day one of your field trip to CIMI and your instructor dives down one last time before exiting the rocky reef structure of Pinnacle rock. As you watch his luscious blonde locks flowing underwater, you realize that he isn’t attempting a subsurface dance move, he is frantically signaling toward a giant, terrifying, green head looming from the darkness of a crevasse. The organism has incredibly sharp teeth and seems to have a problem keeping its mouth shut. Although you may think you are looking at a scene from Alien vs. Predator, you are actually looking at a California Moray Eel (Gymnothorax mordax).

Moray EelThe California moray eel is relatively common in our Channel Island’s shallow rocky reef habitats; however, they range from as north as Point Conception and as south as Baja California. They tend to conceal their entire bodies between rocks while peaking their heads out to stay aware of potential predators and prey. How aware are they? Well, like most eels, these morays have awful eyesight that does not significantly contribute to their hunting capabilities. CA moray eels are nocturnal ambush predators and rely on acute chemosensory organs (nares) to detect their prey. Common snacks include crabs and crustaceans, small fish and surprisingly, octopuses.

Although CA moray eels look like an alien creature, they are much more familiar than the appear. They are part of the taxidermic classification Osteichthyes or “bony fish” along with other beloved bony fish like the garibaldi. The reason these eels look so foreign is because they lack scales, a gill cover and both pelvic and pectoral fins. CA Morays are different from their relatives through an adaptation that allows a second set of jaws (pharyngeal jaw) to extrude from the back of their throat and pull their meal further into their mouths after the initial bite. The thought of this is so terrifying that it inspired Ridley Scott to model an extraterrestrial being after it in his movie Alien. Our worldly aliens can grow up to five feet in length at around 30 years of age.

Moray Eel 2The moral of the disgustingly horrifying California moray eel is that they are truly misunderstood. These organisms are extremely unique and are so ugly they’re cute, so next time you see this green slimy friend stashed in a crevasse blow them a kiss or better yet, sing them a song!

The California Moray Eel Fact Sheet

The California moray eel – Gymnothorax mordax

Movie Alien?

Our moray eels live in shallow rocky reef habitats from Point Conception down to southern Baja California.

Although California moray eels may not look like fish with their lack of scales, apparent fins and an operculum, moray eels are part of the Osteichthyes (bony fish) taxonomic group.

The moray is thought to have a life span of up to 30 years and possibly longer.

Moray eels have adapted a second set of jaws that extrudes from the back of their throat to pull their meal further into their mouths after the initial bite.

Being an ambush predator can be difficult when nearly blind, however, these eels have an excellent sense of smell that allows them to pin point prey.


The Mysterious Ninja Pigs

In the early 1930’s feral pigs were intentionally introduced to Santa Catalina Island. They became extremely abundant and were hunted by sportsman for over fifty years! They were also introduced to help control the island’s rattlesnake populations. After the population of these feral pigs began to skyrocket seemingly out of control, a pig control and eradication program began in the 1990’s. From 1990 till July of 2003, over 12,000 feral pigs were removed to help protect the island’s native species.


(Feral Pig – Sus scrofa )

The feral pigs were uprooting many of Catalina Islands’ fragile plant species. The rooting caused serious soil erosion, especially on hillsides. Not only were Catalina Island’s plant species in danger from the feral pigs, but some of the native species of animals were also at risk. Populations of golden eagles from the mainland were attracted by feral pig carcasses, and then decided to turn their sights to the islands’ endemic Catalina Island fox population. Although the feral pigs were declared eradicated from the island within the last decade, there is said to be one feral pig that remains…The Ninja Pig.

Many people have heard stories about the Ninja Pig and some believe that this pig is still on the island. They say that the pig has survived the eradication efforts and continues to live on the island. The Ninja Pig is known to be shaggy and large, with tusks. Evidence that there could still possibly be a pig on the island is the proof that people have found pig scat. Some people even claim to have seen the Ninja Pig themselves. There is only one question that remains…do you believe in the Ninja Pig?

Written By: Brooke Fox




Beach Love – There are So Many Treasures


The beach is such an AMAZING place where you can discover so many interesting things! From living organisms to unfortunately trash, I’m going to be talking about some of the most attention-grabbing things we find on our beach!

We get a lot of Algae that washes up on the beach. From the invasive sargassum that tends to wash up from our bay, to pieces of giant brown kelp, we see it all! We also find lots of different parts of algae, including the holdfast, stipe, and air bladders! Sometimes looking under the holdfast (which can pretty much have it’s own entire ecosystem, how cool!) we have found tiny sea slugs and sea stars!

Also washing up more recently in our bay are red pelagic crabs, otherwise known as tuna crabs! These mini looking lobster creatures end up floating around the ocean their entire lives! Unfortunately sometimes they wash up on our beach and become stranded! Our seagulls sure do love to eat them as a snack!

beach love

(Above: Tuna Crabs will wash up on our beach, sometimes by the hundreds!)

Lastly, we find many amazing seashells, sea glass, and really cool looking rocks! A lot of the seashells we find are the purple olive snails! We also find lots of sea glass, which comes in many different colors including white, brown, green, and blue! Sea glass is glass that ends up in the ocean and becomes textured and tumbled! Super beautiful and fun to craft with! The crazy amount of different types of rocks we find on our beach is also pretty diverse! On our beach you will find sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic, along with many other interesting types. Next time you head to a beach, maybe you can have your very own beach treasure hunt and see how many different cool things you can find!

beach appreciation

(Above: Seashells, Sea glass, and rocks that have all been found on our beach)

Written By: Brooke Fox

Meiophenomenal: Diversity of organisms within the Sand Sediment

Sand particles can range in size from 0.0625 mm (or ​116 mm) to 2 mm. Despite not being very large there is a whole diversity of an ecosystem within the sediment. Infauna are animals that can be found within these sand grains this differs from animals that live on the benthos or bottom ocean floor in that the infauna actually live within the sediment itself. There are several macrofauna that live within the sediment like the bobbit worms, worms eels, sting rays or take shelter in the sand or even camouflage in the sand. The sand acts as a perfect place to hide from predators or even ambush your prey. Bobbit worms live within the sand sediment and actively hunt fish hiding it’s 3 foot long body under the sand sediment and awaiting for a fish to trigger it. Most specimens of bobbit worms have been up to 3 feet long but some have been found to be even 10 feet! The sand can act as a pretty convenient habitat for a lot of organisms, but too see some of these organisms you have to look even closer.


When you look at the sand even closer, it is revealed that there are even smaller animals that fit inside those small .0625mm to 2mm spaces. These animals consist of the meiofauna which can pass through a 0.5 to a 1mm mesh unharmed. Most of these animals consist of small invertebrates like polychaate worms, nemotodes, arthropods, platyhelminthes, other annelids, and more. The meiofauna are unique in that they have one of the highest species richness and abundance indices. Meiofauna serve as important food resource for deposit feeding animals. A lot of animals such as the sand bubbler crabs or sea cucumbers actively filter out meiofauna living with the sand sediment.

sand 2

Meiofauna also serve an important role for breaking down detritus and excrete nutrients that are used by phytobionts and bacteria making them very key for nutrient cycling in the marine ecosystem, determiners of ocean health and ecosystem functioning, and indicators of carbon cycling in the seabed. Because meiofauna are so highly diverse, they can also be key indicators for the effects of global warming on diversity. Studies in Antarctica, a place where rising temperatures show a major affect and change to the habitat, have shown a drop in diversity due to rising ocean temperatures.

sand 3

Despite being one of the most diverse, species rich, and abundant ecocsytems on the planet, the meiofauna are actually highly understudied. There is still so much more to know about them and so many more species to potentially discover. With rising ocean temperatures, meiofauna need to be studied before all of that diversity goes away and we must continue to do our part to take care of the ocean and be aware of how pollution from human can affect even the smallest of ecosystems.


Sting ray

Carbon Cycle

Meiofauna diversity image

Meiofauna- life between grains

BBCs Blue planet sand bubbler crab

The Chordettes Mr. Sandman


Smithsoian channel – bobbit worm

Bobbit worm image

Sensitive Sharks! Everything You Want to Know!

According some experts estimations, sharks have been around planet Earth for somewhere between 425 and 450 million years making them just as old or even older than trees themselves! As such, sharks have had time to evolve numerous methods of sensing their environment, making them expert hunters. In order to understand shark senses, one must first understand where the perception of these different sensations occur in the shark brain.

The shark brain is a Y shaped organ located in the chondrocranium of the shark. The shark brain can be split up between the forebrain, midbrain and hindbrain, each of which will specialize in a different sense. The forebrains specializes in olfactory, midbrain in visual, and the hindbrain specializes in hearing, touch, and electroreception.


Depending on the species sharks can smell up to 1km or more away, hear about 100m away, see about 10m away depending on water clarity. Depending on the sharks environment/habitat there will be corresponding enlargements in the brain. If the shark lives in deeper water where not much light exist or live mostly in the open ocean where food availability tends to be low, they might have enlargements in their forebrains because they have to rely on olfaction to find their food. With over 400 different species of sharks, not all sharks are necessarily the “swimming noses” that we think they are. With such diversity, sharks will specialize in different senses based on the environment of which they live. Even with one sensory specialization, it is the combination of all the shark’s senses that make them such great predator.

sharks 1

As sharks draw in closer to their prey they use electroreception. Imagine the brain as a biological computer, sending electrical impulses down a highway of motor neurons in order to move the muscles of the body. Sharks are able to detect those electrical impulses from up to 1 meter away. Some sharks, such as the scalloped hammerhead, can sense as low as half a billionth of a volt of electricity. They use special gel filled pores called the Ampullae of Lorenzini in order to sense these weak electrical impulses.

sharks 3

Sharks will continue to dazzle and amaze us with their sensory capabilities. New research indicates that sharks can even use electroreception to navigate the earth by sensing the magnetic poles. Such extraordinary evolutionary advantages are what will continue to make sharks a dominant predator for a very long time.


Brian Skerry, from






William E. Bemis 2016


Hammerhead video

Salps: Attack of the Clones

Have you ever been walking along the beach or kayaking through the ocean and spotted what appeared to some weird plastic bag looking jellyfish-like thing? Have you ever thought, “What on earth is that?” Well that is a salp and it is not a jellyfish (Figure 1). It is a tunicate, which is in the phylum Chordata. The very same phylum that you and I are in. That means that that strange transparent gelatinous sack has more in common, evolutionarily speaking, with us than it does with its jellyfish doppelgängers.Salp

As members of the phylum Chordata, most tunicates have a  tail, notochord, nerve cord, gills, simplified eyes, and even a brain. But only during their larval stage. As adults, they lose most of the features that make them like other vertebrates. Tunicates, named so because of their tunic-like outer layer, include sessile sea squirts and sea porks as well as free swimming and planktonic salps, doliolids and pyrosomes.

These seemingly simple jello sacks actually do a lot. Salps are one of the most energy efficient organisms out there. Not only do they eat at the same time as they swim, their waste has also been linked to the carbon cycle and may even impact climate change. They move by jet propulsion, sucking in water through their inhalant siphon and pushing it out their exhaling siphon by squeezing the tunic. As the water travels through their gelatinous bodies, it passes through their pharynx, where a mucus net and beating cilia filter out plankton and organic matter of all sizes. In fact, they consume particles spanning four magnitudes in size. That’s the equivalent of us eating everything from a mouse to a horse, according to  research conducted bu the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. This allows them to survive in the open ocean, where food is often scarce. Their ability to eat nearly everything that passes through them also  gives them an important role in the carbon cycle.         

Salp 2Salps are found in every ocean but are often concentrated near the Antarctic where there favorite snack, phytoplankton, blooms (Figure 2). Salps can devour entire blooms by rapidly cloning themselves and forming huge chains. Salps, with can live for weeks or months,  start off as an individual that reproduces asexually, making multiple genetic clones that then form long chains, wheels and other structures. Individuals within the chains then reproduce sexually with other chains through external fertilization processes. Salps can produce thousands, millions of other salps at these phytoplankton blooms. Imagine the scene: a slow motion feeding frenzy with salps popping into existence like Imperial Star Destroyers coming out of hyperspace. You can almost hear the haunting music of the “Imperial March” in the background as these  salp clones attack, wrecking havoc on the defenseless phytoplankton.

As they consume the phytoplankton, they produce dense fecal pellets that rain carbon down on the deep sea. This acts as an effective carbon sink that removes carbon from the ocean surface and traps it a depth for hundreds of years. Thus allowing the upper ocean to accumulate more carbon from the atmosphere, mitigating the anthropogenic rise in carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere.



The Spineless Gutless Sea Cucumber

Sea cucumbers: those cute log-like animals munching their way along the sea floor. These cylindric invertebrates are part of the phylum Echinodermata which translates to “spiny skin”.

Echinodermata is a completely marine based phylum that includes sea stars, sea urchins and of course, the lovable sea cucumbers. Most days you can find innocent sea cucumbers minding their own business and sucking up sand and mud like a vacuum. The sea cucumber sifts through and feeds on the organic pieces hidden in the sediment. If you have visited CIMI, you may have had the pleasure of holding a sea cucumber that can be found in our cove, Parasichopus californicus, or the warty sea cucumber. A muddy orange-brown color, these guys are named after the wart like bumps that cover their body.

Spineless Sea Cucumber

Sea cucumbers, like the warty sea cucumber, are eaten by a number of different organisms. Predators include types of crabs, fish, sea stars and sometimes sea turtles. How do these spineless logs defend themselves against predators? They can not move very fast, so a quick escape is rarely an option. Sea Cucumbers have evolved a very interesting and gross way to escape possible death by crab or fish. Evisceration!

Spineless Sea Cucumber 2

Evisceration basically means exploding guts. The root word in eviseration, “visera” means “intestines”. When a sea cucumber feels threatened it can spew its intestines and other internal organs at a predator. The predator is distracted by the free snack, allowing the sea cucumber to inch away. Evisceration begins when the attatchment tissues that hold the internal organs, like the intestines or respratory gills, soften. If you’ve ever touched a sea cucumber you’ll have noticed that its body toughens and becomes rigid. Left alone it will losen up and soften again. Like many echinoderms, sea cucumbers can toughen or soften their body texture at will. Once the attachment tissue softens and becomes almost liquidfied, spots on the body where the organs will soon spew out begin to soften too. Depending on the species, the evisteration point can be on the anterior (front) or the posterior (back) end of the sea cucumber. Softening takes between one to three minutes. The sea cucumber muscles contract and expell the internal organs! It can take between 20 minutes to 12 hours to complete the process of eviseration. Now that the sea cuumber has rid itself of most its organs and escaped being eaten, it must begin to regenerate. Regenerating its interal organs can take as long as 145 days and as short as 7 days. It depends on the species, age of the organism and the time of year.

Although evisceration is often associated with defense and escape, this is not always the case. It depends on the species of sea cucumber. Some sepecies, like the warty sea cucumber, eviserate seasonally to get rid of excess waste. In addition, during food shortages, sea cucumbers have been know to eviserate. It is actually a larger metabolic load or energy drain on the sea cucumber to hold onto excess waste than to eviserate and regenerate.

Sea cucumbers are pretty amazing! They can live without their internal organs for weeks and spew their guts at predators. They might be gutless at times, and spineless, but they got a lot of spunk for an animal named after a cucumber.



Leopard sea Cucumber –

Invertebrate Locomotion in the Ocean

At the Catalina Island Marine Institute, we are all about being active and on the move.  The same goes for the invertebrates in our labs! But how do they move? Magic? Super powers? Thinking happy thoughts? Actually, we can explain with…!

Some of the animals in our lab move by using their little tube feet.  These are animals like the sea stars, sea cucumbers, and urchins, which are all members of the phylum Echinodermata.  Echinodermata translates to “spiny skin”.  Not only do the members of this phylum have spines, they also have sticky little feet! In fact, if you look underneath any of these animals, you will see what looks like little tubes with suction cups on the ends.  The animal will extend these tube  feet in the direction it wants to go, suction on, and then pull itself along.  Sometimes the tube feet can also be used as levers and for food capture. The tube feet can also be used to help the animal stay in place, if say, kids—I mean… “seagulls”—..were trying to grab at them! So cool.

Some of the friends in our Mollusk tank, such as the California Sea Hare, Aplysia californica, and the Spanish Shawl nudibranch, Flabellina iodinea, move in a different way.  These animals have a soft slug-like body, the length of which is called a “foot”.  Weird, I know, imagine if your whole body was called a foot! So the foot produces slime and when the animal contracts its muscles and moves tiny hairs on its body through the slime it manages to scoot, scoot, scoot! 

As if this wasn’t enough, many of the slugs can also swim (Fig.2)  The Spanish Shawl and the Lion’s Mane, Melibe leonina, can swim by whipping their head back and forth towards the end of  their foot. It can be an effective way to respond to predators, and kind of looks like they are throwing down for a dance off.

The take away here is that there are many ways to move through life, and invertebrates are great role models for showing us how it’s done! There’s no right or wrong way, whether you have many sticky feet, a whole body called a foot to scoot around on slime with, or maybe you just whip back and forth—- no kind of motion is too “loco” to be in the ocean!


We would like to thank you for visiting our blog. Catalina Island Marine Institute is a hands-on marine science program with an emphasis on ocean exploration. Our classes and activities are designed to inspire students toward future success in their academic and personal pursuits. This blog is intended to provide you with up-to-date news and information about our camp programs, as well as current science and ocean happenings. This blog has been created by our staff who have at least a Bachelors Degree usually in marine science or related subjects. We encourage you to also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, and Vine to see even more of our interesting science and ocean information. Feel free to leave comments, questions, or share our blog with others. Please visit for additional information. Happy Reading!