Now that I have a waterproof camera, I thought it might be interesting to photograph Stylantheca under water. During a very low tide in February, I found a patch that was submerged, plunged my camera under water, held the camera in front of the patch and took some pictures. (Note that I couldn't really see what I was photographing at the time.)
This was one of my first pictures. (Each pore is ~1 mm across.)
Interesting! And can you see those very slender thread-like things in front of the colony (especially in the lower right corner)?
I thought there might be something drifting in the water, so I moved the camera and tried again, this time a little closer:
With this view I could tell that those "threads" probably weren't random debris. They looked like they could be tentacles associated with the colony. At this point I realized how little I knew about this species. Were those really tentacles? They're so long!
I took more pictures, then the tide came in and I had to leave. Here's another example of what I captured:
I was really puzzled about these tentacle-like structures and decided to do some reading about Stylantheca to learn what they were. Well, it turned out this was not an easy question to answer! I had trouble finding good descriptions of Stylantheca anatomy. Eventually I found a couple of older papers from 1879 and 1938 that helped.
Hydrocorals (a type of hydrozoan) are colonial animals made up of different units with specialized functions, e.g., defense or feeding. These long tentacle-like units are involved in protecting the colony and are called dactylozooids. Note that their tips are slightly but noticeably swollen:
Since they have a defensive function, you would expect the dactylozooids to have a high concentration of stinging cells (like jellyfish or sea anemones). To confirm this, we clipped one of the dactylozooids and looked at the tip under a high-powered microscope.
Check it out (below)! The entire surface is packed with stinging cells (oval shapes). At the lower right are three stinging cells dislodged from the surface. When triggered, the cells rapidly fire tiny coiled harpoons called nematocysts, which appear as the long dark threads emanating from the battery of stinging cells.
Note that the dactylozooids are not always expanded. Often they're retracted and look like short tentacles tucked inside the pores:
While learning about the dactylozooids, I read that the hydrocorals have feeding units (called gastrozooids) in the center of their pores. So I went back and took more pictures, hoping I could capture an image of a gastrozooid:
And there they were! In the center of the pores, can you see the little rounded polyp with tiny tentacles (nubs) around the perimeter? The gastrozooids can withdraw to the bottom of the cavity, but they can also extend upward to the rim. The gastrozooids have little mouths — they'll open up to ingest food (either caught by their own tentacles, or possibly passed to them from the dactylozooids).
It took me a while to sort out all of this. In the process, I decided to try to sketch what I was seeing and learning. In case it's helpful, here's an example from my notebook to summarize:
For such a striking species, I was surprised how hard it was to find out more about it. I hope this makes information about Stylantheca papillosa a little more accessible!
P.S. I first wrote about Stylantheca in 2012 — see "The hydrocoral and the worm" on 22 May 2012.
P.P.S. We have more stories to tell about Stylantheca and its associates, so stay tuned.