On this beautiful day in Kodiak, the last Sunday before Christmas, with the island covered in a pristine blanket of snow and the sun glittering in the crystals on every snowy surface, my mind is on dark chocolate truffles.
I love the snow that covers all the dirt and gives the scenery gentle shapes, hides every ugliness, every piece of trash and broken vehicle, and I also love dark chocolate. After skiing through that winter wonderland where every tree looks decorated with snow and glitter, way prettier than any of the artificial Christmas trees, it is the icing on the cake to come home to a cup of coffee and some favorite treats.
Next to the traditional cookie recipes that still carry memories of how my mother taught me to make them, I decided to make some chocolate truffles this year, just because I can.
Another thing I like about winter is the scene of a beach frozen and covered in ice crystals.
About two weeks ago on another nice morning in Kodiak, I was at Mill Bay Beach for my dog’s morning constitutional when I saw something I did not recognize. After so many years of living here and walking the beaches, it is not often that I find something that I have not seen in some shape or form before. I may not know the names of all the seaweeds and animal varieties, but I can usually categorize what I find to its class or family.
The thing I had found looked somewhat like a chocolate truffle with something spiky on the outside. It was decorated with a piece of blue nylon. While on closer inspection I could tell that the nylon was a small piece of fishing line, I was still not sure whether the spikes on the outside of the roughly walnut-sized, perfectly round thing were of seaweed or animal origin.
Intrigued and curious, I took my find home to study it more closely under the microscope.
Under the microscope, I could see that the spikes were branched, that the coil of blue nylon was intricately entangled in them and there was another coil of black nylon also tightly wound into the spikes.
There are animals that grow in colonies like coral. Several have polyps and form growth structures that are branched. I still could not decide whether these spikes were colonies of animals, parts of an animal or something from a seaweed. So I took a kitchen knife and cut the thing in half. To my surprise there was an animal inside it! The spiky exterior was a hard covering of a soft-bodied creature.
To my relief, the creature was already dead because I would have felt very bad if I had cut a living animal in half. I know this because there was no muscle contraction. Except I was still stumped as to what kind of animal it was.
Slowly, I started by eliminating all the animals it was not and making a short list of what it might be. Then I went to fetch my favorite big reference book, “Southeast Alaska’s Rocky Shores” by Rita and Charles O’Clair.
At the same time, my son, who had walked in on my investigations and also become curious, used the laptop and searched for clues on the internet.
We came up with similar guesses for the identity of the mysterious truffle animal. We both identified the animal as a sea squirt or tunicate.
While my son had found a species that fit the size of our truffle, he soon realized that it was only at home in the North Atlantic. The one I had come up with was the sea hedgehog, which is an Alaskan species, though as an adult it grows larger than the specimen in front of us.
I confirmed my identification with one of my coworkers who is much better at knowing all the interesting and odd creatures that live on the seafloor. From my description, he agreed that it was most likely a Halocynthia igaboja, which is the scientific name for the sea hedgehog.
As a biologist, I would be negligent if I did not point out that not all truffles are made of chocolate. “Real” truffles are fruiting bodies of funghi, or mushrooms that grow underground.
They are a delicacy and very expensive! Where truffles grow wild, dogs are trained to sniff them out and lead a human to the treasure. Pigs are also very good at sniffing them out, but they prefer to eat them rather than giving them to a human. I did not learn these factoids in my biology career, but I read an article about it in National Geographic magazine once.
Another interesting topic I recently heard about is that in psychology, there is something called a “hedgehog dilemma.” It describes the urge to be with people, but then being unable to allow too much closeness. Apparently, hedgehogs (or porcupines — the literature is a little vague on the actual animal) like to cuddle together against the cold, but the spikes do not allow close contact.
As a child growing up in Germany, I sometimes helped hedgehogs that were born in fall and did not get fat enough before winter came by feeding them through. When you found them, they were always full of fleas and in dire need of a good bath before you could attempt to socialize with them! These days during COVID, it seems that we are all turning into hedgehog personalities with 6-foot spikes around us.
If you are reading this, you are most likely aware of the problems caused by plastic debris in the ocean. I hope you remember some of the articles I have written in the past about marine debris, and the dangers of entanglement for marine animals.
This month was the very first time I ever encountered a sea hedgehog, and it was entangled in not one, but two strands of nylon. I don’t think that the plastic entanglement killed this little animal, but it makes me wonder how much small animals at the bottom of the sea are affected by plastic pollution.
Where was this hedgehog dislodged from the ocean bottom, and for how long was it tossed around in the currents before it was thrown up onto Mill Bay Beach? When and how did it get entangled in pieces of nylon line?
It is such an amazing ocean with so many wonders, and now I will finally go and make those chocolate truffles!
Merry Christmas to you all.