Treasured Abalone

The creature looked like a simple gnarled stone - until it danced.

On a recent spring day in a Mukilteo marine laboratory, a single pinto abalone rose up on its milky foot, the shell resembling a mushroom cap, and swiveled to and fro like a child surveying a room. Then it pushed across a table toward the edge.

"Whoa there," said Josh Bouma, a shellfish biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He pried the animal loose with a spatula and dumped it in a basin bubbling with saltwater piped from Puget Sound.

Bouma and a University of Washington graduate student, Nathan Wight, plucked abalone from tanks, checked their sex, and pasted numbered tags on their shells in preparation for mating. AstroTurf rimmed the tanks so the animals wouldn't escape - a lesson scientists learned the hard way. "We've had males crawl out and into tanks with females," Wight said.

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