When do eggs not look like eggs? When they are an omelet, of course! Speaking of embryos sold in cartons by the dozen, those of the marine molluscan persuasion come packaged, too, but their egg containers may resemble white watermelon seeds, corn kernels, spaghetti, honeycombs, rubber gaskets, woven baskets, contact lenses, knitted scarves, pinwheels, cigars, ribbons, or strings of pearls— and they hold a heck of a lot more than a dozen. Nevertheless, put the whisk away because these eggs are not for your consumption.
As I write, summer has sprung from spring, and ocean snails and slugs are well into the busy business of spawning and leaving behind architectural showcases of packaged orbs. The volume of spawn is, shall I say, roe-bust, with reproductive productions strewn willy-nilly in the open, sometimes across considerable acreage. At a glance, the spawn-and-run strategy seems decidedly irresponsible but the parents know their offspring are safe from predators, even those decked out in colors that holler “yoo-hoo!” Apparently, it is widely known by the underwater community that the sacs’ mucus packaging tastes bad or is toxic. Thus, instead of seeing “yum,” hungry hunters see “yuk,” and move along.
Cone snails lay corn-on-the-cob rows of transparent, oblong sacs containing what would be deemed in other situations a suspicious white powder. Upon closer inspection, they are clearly minute granules of ova. I saw an impressive field of these sacs variously attached to blades of old surfgrass, encircling worm tubes, and plastered onto big fronds of giant kelp. Some of the fronds sagged under the load, the kelp’s air bladder floats unable to counteract the excess heft. And the party continues, with snails reproducing in orgies and popping out yet more young.
Squishy slugs called nudibranchs may be the most talented spawning artists. They extrude a pastry tube of designs—delicate, intricate swirls and ribbons that could challenge the Cake Boss. And I no longer wonder who dumps white watermelon seeds at this time of year after I stumbled upon them popping out of a whelk (that looked painful). Sometimes spawn stumps me, and I can’t figure out what critter it belongs to, so I make up a name. For instance, every year at this time there are eye-catching “cloudy contact lenses” (of unknown diopters) stuck to hard substrate. Someday I’ll discover the owner of these specs.
As I said, mollusks aren’t cheapskates when it comes to how many offspring they crank out. In all, there can be hundreds or thousands of wee eggs. Why so generous when the encased embryos have no predators? Well, at some point they have to face the real world. Unlike us who reproduce only to make more of us, mollusks multiply to not only keep their own species going but keep a ton of other species going as well. In other words, once the offspring sally forth, they are mostly meals on wheels, with less than 2% surviving. So in the big scheme of the sea, mollusks are irreplaceable.
You may still be wondering what’s up with the extravagant egg shapes. Aside from variety being the spice of life, that’s a deviled egg of a question. Being a mammal of the canine persuasion, I don’t know what it’s like to lay even one egg. I do know that George Bernard Shaw was on the right track when he said, “Although I cannot lay an egg, I am a very good judge of omelets.” Brunch anyone?
Sydney the Golden Seal is a retriever-husky who has logged miles of ocean swims. She writes her column, “Sydney’s Ocean Log,” about the wonders of our watery world. When not dog paddling or opining, Sydney pursues archaeology research in her backyard. Write to Sydney using the Contact page, and put Sydney the Golden Seal in the Subject line.
— Judith Lea Garfield, naturalist and underwater photographer, has authored two natural history books about the underwater park off La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.