#005 The Kingdom of Clones

One night after dinner in the city, I drove Keen through the winding dark streets of Bellambi and parked on a grassy verge overlooking a narrow strip of beach. The ocean was black. The lights of freight ships could be seen far away across the water. We watched a storm roll in over the horizon. White legs of lightning stabbed between the ships. Fat drops of rain splattered on the windshield. Wynhilde’s windows shuddered in the echo of thunder. We felt very safe in our tin can, connected to the ocean as we were by the onslaught of the storm.

By day Bellambi Rock Pools sit squarely between the long strip of Bellambi Beach and the gravel shoot of the boat ramp. “Ramp” doesn’t do the structure much justice: there’s room for a hundred cars, fish cleaning bays at the seaward end, and bright orange spotlights that stand out starkly all the way from Sublime Point atop the Escarpment.

But the beach is nice. The surfers like it, and I tend to trust their taste in beaches. By the rock pools is a pool where the water sloshes in at high tide, and where you can swim without fear of waves, sharks or freak freight ship accidents. Although on this particular stunning morning in April I did spy a school of pufferfish skirting around the pool’s edges.

Maybe it’s the calmness of the bay. Maybe it’s the fish blood in the water. Whatever it is, there’s an abundance of life amongst the rock pools of Bellambi not found anywhere else in the Gong.

The hunting area is small, even at mid tide. Even so you will find Brittle Stars, Elephant Snails, Eleven-Armed Seastars, Blackspot Sergeants, Common Silversides, Cocos Frillgobies, Spengler’s Tritons, Waratah Anemones, green banks of Cunjevoi sticking out into the ocean, and even if you’re not looking for one, a Gloomy Octopus may find you.

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Tube worm colony atop cunjevoi sea squirts.

Keen and I started high on the beach and worked our way towards the lowering tide line. To our great pleasure we were joined by a photographer and her daughter, who was about 4. The little girl had accompanied her mother on a photoshoot, but her patience only lasted so long, and so the pair ended up at the beach.

I’m always impressed by the amount kids know. At Windang Island a couple of little girls had shown up Keen by naming Zebra Top Snails, limpets and mussels. If kids know that much, and take such delight in combing through the rock pools, I think there really is hope for the future of the ocean.

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Dwarf Cushion Stars feeding in an algae bed.

Chasing gobies in a pool, I noticed the irregular shape of a Dwarf Cushion Star suckered to the rock wall. These tiny seastars are so well camouflaged that Keen did not see them at all, even when he was staring right at them. What started as one on the rock turned out to be dozens of all different sizes, some resting in the sun-dappled water, others slowly twirling in search of second breakfast.

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#092 Dwarf Cushion Star (Parvulastra exigua)

Unlike many seastars, Dwarf Cushion Stars are herbivorous, scraping microalgae from the rock. What makes them interesting is not just their camouflage ability, but the way they reproduce. A Dwarf Cushion Star may mate to fertilise its eggs, which are laid in a sticky mass on the underside of boulders. However, these stars are found all the way from Australia to South Africa. Such tiny stars in such a huge territory are spread out enough that one may never find a partner. In this case, the Dwarf Cushion Star is able to go asexual reproduction – creating a clone of itself. This ensures that even without a mate, the seastars survive another generation, and have another chance to find their perfect somebody.

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Top and underside of Dwarf Cushion Star. The mouth is on the bottom. Note the small grasping hands near the mouth.

As Salty excused himself to chase crabs, Keen and I moved further towards the water, where we could peer beneath the eroded rock shelf into a honeycomb of caves.

Water dripped into pools stained emerald with sea grass. Giant Spengler’s Tritons clustered in the shallows. I peered beneath an overhang to find a colony of dangling red blobs. Each was about the size of a Lindt chocolate ball, shiny and slick and deep, lustrous crimson.

Pressing a finger to the red side, I felt firm, slick flesh, like an overdone jelly. The colony of some few dozen animals was mysterious in its silence. Only a puckered opening in the blob’s apex gave any clue to the creature’s true form. Here there were wriggling scarlet fingers. As if in reflection in the water below, another colony had blossomed into a mass of red fingers like a flower of Cthulhu.

These are Waratah Anemones, prolific and beautiful. When immersed in water they open to reveal tendrils tipped in stinging cells to paralyse small prey. When the water level drops, they envelop themselves in a tight bundle, conserving water and protecting their soft inner parts from damage.

You would never guess from the sight of them, but these strange red flowers are animals.

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#012 Waratah Anemone (Actinia tenebrosa)

Yet their appearance is not the strangest thing about them. That colony beneath the overhang at Bellambi Rock Pools? They are most likely clones of one another. An individual settling on a rocky beach will give birth to live young, well-developed miniatures of the adult form. These babies settle close to the parent, establishing a colony. Clones are able to identify one another, via chemoreception or some mysterious superpower known only to clones. If a genetically diverse anemone attempts to settle near the colony, the clones will attack it, ensuring the Kingdom of Clones.

While clones are highly adapted to their strip of beach, not all Waratah Anemones are genetically similar. An anemone may release its gametes (eggs or sperm) into the ocean’s plankton, where it will be external fertilised by another drifting gamete. The resulting embryo washes up on a distant beach, where with any luck, it will being a new colony.

And it is a long-lived colony. On average, Waratah Anemones live 50 years, but they can live as long as 210 years. This really is a Kingdom of Clones.

 

I was measuring urchins in a deep tunnel near the low tide, when to my shock a black tentacle wrapped around my ruler. Instinctively I tried to yank the ruler from the water. A second tentacle joined the first, pulling my hand into a shadowy crevice in the tunnel.

Laughing now, and maybe not trying as hard as I should have, I pulled back against the octopus hidden in the corner of the tunnel. It delicately reached out and gripped the ruler in a third tentacle, and plucked it cleanly from my hand.

I put my cheek against the water, hoping to catch a glimpse of the cheeky cephalopod. It had disappeared completely into the shadow of the ledge.

Amused, I stuck my head out of the tunnel. The young girl and her mother were still looking for interesting things amongst the rocks. “Did you want to meet an octopus?”

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Do you want to meet an octopus?

The young girl charged over without hesitation. I called Keen over, and asked him sweetly if he could free the urchin from the rocks in the bottom of the pool. Keen obligingly stuck his hand into the water. A moment later, he squealed. The octopus was fishing for humans!

The octopus was a Gloomy, probably a young adult, identified by the rusty orange blush on the underside of its tentacles. Octopuses (or octopodes, but never octopi) are members of the mollusc order, the same as periwinkles, oysters and limpets. Like most molluscs, they have a siphon and a tough tongue called a radula, in octopuses modified into a beak.

That is almost where the similarities end. Octopuses are as intelligent as they are alien. An octopus is a master of camouflage and imitation, a puzzle solver, an ingenious hunter and escape artist. Each of their eight arms is partly capable of autonomous action, reducing the brain work an octopus has to do to co-ordinate.

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#067 Gloomy Octopus (Octopus tetricus)

Keen had pitted himself in a battle of strength against the octopus. The Gloomy was holding fast to the side of the tunnel, three of its tentacles squeezing Keen’s wrist. As the octopus surged forward to gain ground, its elongated head and bright orange eyes peered around the tunnel mouth. Its pupil was the shape of a bowtie, set in a streak of golden orange. Strange but beautiful eyes, fixed upon these giants of the air.

My ruler dropped down into the water. It must have slipped from the octopus’s grip. The Gloomy let go of Keen. I reached into the water to retrieve the ruler and had just a glimpse of the Gloomy retreating into the darkness of the tunnel.

I sat by the water a while, and twice more the octopus returned. I made sure the rocks I’d moved were back in place, in case they had been part of the Gloomy’s home. I imagine it must have though the ruler would make a charming addition to its living room.

While it may have been defending its home, or simply getting a taste for humans, I couldn’t help but feel the octopus was playing with us. It was happy to test its strength against ours, but never went all out, just as Keen and I restrained ourselves. There was intelligence in its gaze and the purposeful way it moved, returning the second time along the roof of the tunnel, in a place we would not expect to find it.

 

Out of a seastar, an anemone and an octopus, did you know the animal most closely related to us is the seastar? Yet all of these creatures are mysterious and strange. One looks like a cookie, another is an alien intelligence, and the last, longest-lived of them all, conquers the beach with its very own Kingdom of Clones.

 

Find out more about Waratah Anemones: University of Queensland’s Fact sheet

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