In this week’s episode of “Who’s in That There Hole?” we travel to a beach on Outer Banks of North Carolina….
While walking on the beach and not paying attention to my three-year-old to make sure he didn’t swim off to Spain, I spotted a quarter-sized hole. The beach had several quarter- to baby-fist-sized holes in the sand, but no obvious occupants. I started digging in the sand, using my hand as a steam shovel. Each scoop of the cool sand got me closer to the treasure I was hunting for. When I was elbow deep in the sand, I found the treasure. Then it pinched me and skimmed across the sand like shuffleboard puck. I chased it into the water and slapped my hand down on it. It was a ghost crab, Ocypode quadrata.
The name Ocypode means ‘fast-footed’ (Ocy=fast, pod=foot, as in podiatrist). And they are fast as a lizard on a hot skillet. These cryptic crabs are found from at least Rhode Island to Brazil and are most active at night. Once, while camping in Perdido Key, Florida, a friend felt something thumping him from underneath his sleeping bag. He lifted up his bag and a large ghost crab angrily shook his claw and ran off into the night. The ghostly carapaces of these crabs perfectly camouflaged them against the sand so that when they run it looks like a patch of the beach grew legs and ran away.
Ghost crabs live in single burrows above the high-tide line that are 1.5-3 foot deep (so elbow to shoulder deep for me). They are semi-terrestrial, meaning they live on relatively dry land but need to run to the water to wet their gills occasionally. A ghost crab will drown if constantly underwater. So if you find yourself on a beach between Rhode Island and Brazil and see quarter- to baby-fist-sized holes above the high-tide line, it might just be a fast-footed ghost crab.*
*There are other animals that burrow on the beach including rats and fiddler crabs (e.g., Uca pugilator, the sand fiddler). Fiddler crab burrows often occur in colonies with many quarter-sized holes clustered together, not in single burrows far apart from each other like ghost crabs. And fiddlers, unlike the shy ghost crabs, are showboats, the males constantly waving their oversized claws.
Into Chesapeake Snowzilla came a-stomping. In DC, the snow is up to his knees. Here in the lower Chesapeake, it might cover his toes with our of 3-4 inches. Enough to put a cap on the bald cypresses and to introduce a new, cooler member to the fouling community. Stay warm my friends!
I am still that little kid with the bucket at low tide looking for ocean treasures.
I spent part of yesterday on the rocky shores of Gloucester (made famous by the movie The Perfect Storm). I knelt down on the slippery rockweed that carpeted the granite stones and boulders, over-turning rocks for new finds. Yellow, blue and purple plastic pails surrounded me as little kids did the same and yelled out excitedly to their parents about their finds. But the parents were mostly laying on the beach, taking a break from the kids and letting low tide babysit them. I didn’t yell out to anyone. But I did get excited to find the little tiny baby smooth periwinkles, even though I’ve seen this snail a hundred times before.
So I share my low tide excitement with you with a few pictures.
Smooth periwinkle, note the eye below the tentacle. This picture just makes me happy.
A juvenile Smooth periwinkle
Smooth periwinkle, they come in at least two colors, dark-martini olive and sunny-side-up yellow
Sea squirts! Believe it or not, this is in the same phylum as humans – Chordata, because it has what is essentially spinal cord. So say hi to your long lost cousin!
Sea squirt, one of your closest relatives
Sea squirt, one of our closet relatives
Shore crab! A beautiful, yet invasive, crab. Introduced to Delaware Bay in the 1980’s, it is now found as far north as Maine and as far south as North Carolina.
The shore crab, a beautiful, yet invasive, species
A fouling community (those things that colonize hard surfaces – to us humans, they are ‘fouling’ our stuff. To the inverts, they’re just trying to make a home).
It’s just a piece of seaweed in February. Too cold to pick it up.
But you do pick it up despite your gloveless hands. You look at the rubbery leaf-like structures (which you later learn are called ‘blades’). You notice the root-like structures (which you later learn are called holdfasts) are holding something. It’s a shell. You hold it against the sky. Look at how those holdfasts hold fast onto the shell. How they curl and melt around the contours of the shell and of each other. How it looks like a soft claw clutching a stone.
You learn later that this is kelp, a large brown algae. And that algae are plant like, but not plants. They sit low on the Tree of Life and plants should really be called alga-like because algae were here first. But we don’t give bouquets of kelp for Valentine’s Day, so we are plant biased. But it was from algae that plants learned to harvest energy from the sun; holdfasts became roots and blades became leaves. But kelp found their formula for life suitable and hold fast to their primitive forms. A form that rivals that of any rose.