Thursday, May 31, 2012

Beach Exploration: Sea Stars

There is nothing very 'normal' about nature.”
Loren Eiseley

Not everyone knows what a sea star is, although everyone knows about starfish. Today's biologists and naturalists prefer the name sea star because these creatures are definitely not fish. Whatever you choose to call them, they are truly incredible beings.

These echinoderms ("spiny-skins") are finely adapted and perfectly structured to live where they do. Like snails and many other marine invertebrates, all sea stars begin life as tiny bits of free-swimming zooplankton which in no way resemble the adults. As they grow and mature, their bodies eventually take on the shape of their species and they migrate to the ocean floor where they spend the rest of their days.

Occurring in a variety of sizes and colors, they are all built similarly; instead of bones, their internal skeleton is made up of hundreds of thousands to millions of small calcium carbonate bits infused with tissue that are made into a living 3-dimensional box which forms the body of the sea star. These hard bone-like pieces (ossicles) often project through their skin forming the "spiny" part of their bodies. Because of this stiff internal structure, most are not terribly flexible, although they can slooowly bend and move enough to change position and get around as much as they usually need to. They definitely operate on "sea star time".

With their arms or rays extending out from a central disc, most have a body plan based on the number 5. We usually picture sea stars as having 5 arms, but some have 6, 10, or more.

Having an amazing ability to regenerate, if any of their arms are lost, they are able to grow them back - as long as at least a part of the central disc is intact. Because of this ability, they are of great interest to researchers within the medical community. Wouldn't it be wonderful if a human could grow back a missing limb?

On the underside of a sea star, long rows of tube feet extend down the length of each arm. They have literally thousands of these small suction cups and are able to control each and every one of them!

Basically, they use a rather sophisticated water hydraulic system which enables them to pump water into and out of each of these "feet" to extend and retract them as they wish.

This system serves them well, as they are able to open clams and other prey much easier than we could using only our bare hands. They don't need much of an opening for lunch, either. A gap of a few millimeters is all that's needed for them to extend their soft, bag-like stomach into the succulent clam and digest it.

The largest - and fastest-moving - species in the world occurs here in the Pacific Northwest. The Sunflower sea star can eventually reach 39 inches across and have 24 or so arms!

First, it develops five arms, adds one more directly opposite those, and then continues to add arms in sets of two, one on either side of the sixth arm, until they've reached their final number.

Because their ossicles are further apart, their bodies are relatively soft and flexible. Voracious carnivores, Sunflower sea stars devour clams, snails, abalone, sea cucumbers and even other sea stars. They are so very vicious, in fact, that other sea life scatters in all directions at their approach.

During one of our beach explorations, we tried an experiment by putting a cockle near a Sunflower star in shallow water. Nothing happened while we watched, but usually the cockle will "pole vault" away quickly, using its long, flexible foot to propel it.

Most of us only see sea stars in marine aquaria or on rocky shores during low tides.

It has recently been discovered that these remarkable creatures are able to withstand the heat and drying effects of  low tides by "bulking up" with cold water when the tides are high. Then, if they are left high and dry during a low tide, they are fairly well-prepared. It appears this only works when the water is colder than the air, however, so how well this strategy will continue to work in our ever-warming world is anyone's guess. It is more important than ever to remember that everything is connected...

"Tug on anything at all and you'll find it connected
to everything else in the universe."

Saturday, May 26, 2012


Give sorrow words;
the grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’er-fraught heart
and bids it break.
William Shakespeare

The first time I noticed was probably the first year it was done, although I can't be sure about that. We had already walked most of the route when we stopped at a fenced observation point to view a lovely waterfall surging rapidly through a narrow, sheer-walled chasm. We stood there for some time, as we always do, soaking in the breath-taking beauty. Turning to head back up the few rock steps to the trail, something caught my eye. There, at the base of a rocky outcrop at the very back of this narrow viewing spot, were some wilted flowers and several votive candles. These had been placed there recently; we wondered and talked about it briefly on our way back to the car.

On Vancouver Island, British Columbia, this short hike, around the Little Qualicum River and Falls is one of our favorites. Because we are there off-season, there are very few others on the trail and we are able to experience the peace and quiet of the place mostly by ourselves. The following year, in that very same spot, we again found a candle and some dead flowers. Again, I wondered about this and thought it must be a small memorial of some sort.

Another year, the memorial had shifted and changed. Instead of candles and flowers in an out-of-the-way place, a lovely pot full of spring flowers had been set on a large, moss-covered rock - just outside the fence - on the very edge of the gorge. This time it could not be missed as the brilliant purple crocus, primrose, hyacinth, and bright yellow daffodils stood out against the dark forest background. The pot sported a bright yellow wrap and with tulip buds not yet open, was bound to last for some time yet. The sight of it touched my heart and caused me, once more, to think of loss and what a deceased person means to those left behind.

Several more years passed and we either did not take that hike, or I forgot to look, and the memory of that spot faded. This year, with the death of my sister still fresh on my mind, I did look. At first I saw no sign, but then, on the same moss-covered rock where the pot had been were some carnation stems with blooms long dead and faded. More lay strewn on the ground below. I have no idea what the story behind this particular yearly ritual is, but it is obvious that someone was much cared for, is still missed and remembered.

Memorial days, when the graves of heroes were decorated with flowers and garlands, are ancient customs originating in Greece 2,500 years ago. During our Civil War, both the United States and the Confederate States of America had Memorial days. By the late 1800s, many communities celebrated this day and, after World War I, observances began to honor those who had died in all of America's wars. Originally known as Decoration Day, it became an official federal holiday in 1971 and now falls on the last Monday of May. Officially, this day honors men and women who died while serving in the American military. Many Americans still observe the day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings, and participating in parades.

Memorials, however, as that special little spot in the forest shows, go beyond those in the military. Many of us have lost dear friends and/or family members this year. Death, as we know, is a part of living. That knowledge, and the ache inside, does not make it any easier for those of us left behind. But we also know that life does go on; hope springs eternal. REMEMBER - for it is cleansing and healing to do so.

 What we have once enjoyed we can never lose.
All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.
~ Helen Keller

...took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." 1 Corinthians 11:23-25

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Beach Exploration: Snails

“In the end we will conserve only what we love.
We will love only what we understand.
We will understand only what we are taught.”
Baba Dioum

It was one of those days that we, in the Pacific Northwest, spend our winters dreaming of - a bright, clear, sunny day. Overhead, brilliant blue sky with a few white wispy clouds whispered that spring had finally arrived. In the distance, the still snow-covered peaks of the Olympic Mountains formed a spectacular backdrop for heavily-treed lower hills on the far side of the mighty Hood Canal. Before us stretched the shoreline - and the reason we had come.

Growing up and spending my young adult years inland, I never imagined living near, or spending much time on, an ocean beach. Yet here I was, not far from home on one of many excursions along the myriad shorelines of the Puget Sound area. On this day, our group of volunteer beach naturalists had come to Scenic Beach State Park to refresh our knowledge and sharpen our skills for the summer ahead. Much of our time and effort is spent on local beaches helping others to learn about and appreciate the near shore habitats and their plants and animals.

It's difficult to explain how much joy and satisfaction can come from spending time with others who love the natural world, enjoy continually learning, and relish mucking about in rocks, mud, and water seeking creatures to observe and identify. Our goal, ultimately, is to inspire others to become more knowledgeable and thus respect and help to preserve these precious resources.

There is a part of me that has never grown up which I hold on to with all that's in me. Children mostly view the world through fresh, unsullied eyes. For them it is a vast place, full of interesting things - many of which they as yet know nothing about. Turn them loose on a beach of any kind and I can just about guarantee what they will do; I do many of those same things myself.

Observing the surroundings, they look for something to DO. Depending on the type of beach, time of year, weather, age and personality of the child, and whether or not they've been there before, they - each in their own individual way - begin to explore and become acquainted with this particular place and time.

Pointing, poking, prying, digging, chasing, grabbing, wading, splashing, and kicking, they wander their way through the maze of the known and unknown, often losing track of time. I totally understand...

To nurture the child within all of us, I find it interesting to approach a beach exploration aimed at the most basic levels of observation, curiosity and discovery. It is best to use all of one's senses: hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, and sometimes even tasting.

RESPECT is paramount. Usually, we humans are the noisiest and it's hard to listen when you're making noise. But does that really matter; can any of the animals on the beach hear us?

Well, ears or not, they can feel the vibrations of our noise.

When we are quiet, talking in hushed tones or not at all, we hear and see better.

If we close our eyes and listen, it's surprising what can be heard - the waves lap the shore, the seagulls squawk, and the clams squirt. If you turn over a rock, you can often hear the critters that are hiding under it as they splash and skittle for cover.

Can you hear that teeny tiny crab -

or the splash of that Gunnel?

Learning about nature requires excellent observation skills. Here are two shells we found. Obviously, they were both made by a snail, but what lives in them now?

Only one way to find out...

A Hermit Crab has moved into the shell on the right; a snail still occupies the other one, as its "trap-door" (operculum) is clearly visible. This flat piece of shell, which the snail can pull shut, serves to both protect its soft body and hold in moisture if it is left high and dry with the ebbing tide.

Animals that live in the tide zone need some way to withstand the drying effects of being uncovered during low tides. To survive, they need to be able hide under rocks and seaweed, burrow down into the wet sand, or be equipped in some way to retain water.

Snails are among the best-equipped.

They begin life, as many ocean invertebrates do, as tiny creatures that swim and bear no resemblance whatsoever to the adults of their species. As they mature, they are able to take calcium out of the water to form a shell, adding on to it as they grow larger to accommodate their soft bodies.

The Moon Snail, with its huge, fleshy foot and shell up to four or five inches across, is the largest in our area. By taking in sea water, it can enlarge its foot up to 4 times the size of its shell! It lives in sandy or muddy areas and if it dies or is killed, the large, white, round shell is easy to spot.

The living snail is not easily seen; it half-buries itself and plows through the sand "undercover". The egg cases are easy to spot, once you know what they are. The snail produces a glue-like mucus which it uses, along with grains of sand, to form a thin, tube-like structure around its entire body (foot and shell). Laying its eggs inside of this sand collar, it digs down into the sand and ducks under, leaving the collar with its precious cargo to the tides.

When conditions are right, the tiny snails hatch and take their place among the plankton until they are large enough to begin their shells. Millions hatch, but few survive to become adults.

Those that do, have a unique way to dine. As they plow through the sand, they search for clams. Finding one, they use their extremely rough tongue (radula) to literally lick their way through the shell to reach the succulent meal inside. The beach becomes strewn with the evidence of their prowess.

The beach is a magical place - when we learn the what, how, and why of the incredible things that live there, we gain a much greater understanding of just what this world would be missing if they were not here.

And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures... So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm... And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas..."

Genesis 1: 20-23

For more posts about Incredible Sealife, click below:

Sunday, May 6, 2012

ArtTrail #7 - Cody Country, Wild West

As William F. Cody neared the end of his life, the things that he loved doing most were the same things he had enjoyed during youth - camping, horseback-riding, hunting, guiding, tending cattle, and spending time outdoors.

In northwest Wyoming, near Yellowstone National Park, he helped found the town that stills bears his name, and thus helped achieve his vision of creating a gateway for visitors worldwide to come and experience the still-wild West. Today, the man of the West continues to bring the world to the West, even as he did in his time.

In Cody, Wyoming, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center certainly helps one to learn much about this now-famous man. But it also has quality, in-depth exhibits on other western subjects - the plains tribes, arts, culture, firearms, and natural history.

Buffalo Bill - Plainsman
Bob Scriver 
At the main entrance, you are greeted by this bronze sculpture depicting Buffalo Bill as a western hero and gentleman, wearing his Wild West show attire and holding a rifle.

Born in 1846 in a little town on the Mississippi River, Bill Cody, much as others of his day, acquired invaluable practical skills. He refined these and worked in a diverse range of occupations - as a teamster, Pony Express rider, wagon master, guide, soldier and cavalryman, and as an Army scout. These experiences helped define his character and through living, working, and learning, he became - and remained - a man of the West.

Bill Cody- Hard and Fast All the Way
Peter Fillerup
This 12’ high, 2,000 pound statue pays tribute to the 150th Anniversary of the Pony Express, as well as to local legend, Bill Cody, who as boy rode for the firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell.

Although Cody's experiences were not unique, few others of his time matched him in the range and diversity of his experiences. As the Indian tribes mourned the loss of the vast herds of buffalo, it was his special prowess at hunting those very animals that earned him the now-famous nickname and vaulted him from relative obscurity to lasting fame.

In 1883, Cody and several associates introduced "Buffalo Bill's Wild West," an innovative traveling outdoor spectacle featuring cowboys and Indians, sharpshooters, wild animals, and dramatic re-creations of scenes of frontier life. Buffalo Bill became a living, breathing icon and embodiment of America's western experience—a larger-than-life figure whose exploits and stories about settling the West captivated millions, not only in North America but also through Europe and, from there, to the rest of the world. Buffalo Bill performed before royalty, was feted by heads of state, became an object of adulation, posed for countless portraits and gave innumerable interviews, and even sat for an audience with the pope in the Vatican. The man of the West had become a man of the world.

Buffalo Bill - The Scout
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

As seen from inside the Center, this monumental tribute to Buffalo Bill, dedicated in 1924, depicts the western figure as an army scout, peering down a trail signaling troops to follow.

Last of the Buffalo
Michael Coleman

The subject of much ancient lore throughout the world, and specifically in North American Indian tribes, the wolf is a symbol of the wildness of the West. Although an important part of the ecosystem for eons, today his presence causes mixed feelings. While many wildlife enthusiasts appreciate wolves, some ranchers feel at risk of losing livestock by preying packs.

Daddy Long Legs
T.D. Kelsey

This sculptor captured the animated and sometimes awkward movements of an adult moose. Here is an animal quite unlike any other - to be tittered at, respected, and admired - but always from a safe distance!

Prickly Pear
Charles Ringer

A drought-tolerant species, the nasty, yet beautiful, Prickly Pear cactus is common throughout the West. This imaginative steel sculptor found his inspiration for this sculpture in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana, not far from Cody. Originally made of shiny polished steel, the piece was exposed in the outdoors to rust into a warm red color.

Just down the street from the Center, we found the Mountain Trails Galleries with some more fabulous western sculptures:

Texas Two Step
Vic Payne

According to the sculptor: "This Texas cowpuncher has found himself in a heap of trouble and if the game warden chanced upon this scene today, it’d be a whole lot worse. A little Texas spirit was just enough to give this cowboy the idea to rope a whitetail buck that had been eluding him the past few hunting seasons. When the cowboy threw the lasso, the big Texas buck was none too happy, then those bobwhites blew up and the real rodeo began. Next time you see a cowboy, lariat at the ready, you might think about this old cowboy and his ‘Texas Two-step’."

Where Eagles Dare
Vic Payne

A mama bear is certainly nothing to fool with and if she happens to be a grizzly, all the more reason to steer clear.

These eagles are taking her on, though, and one certainly might wonder why.

The reason, of course, lies neatly tucked away in the bottom of the sculpture....

...then it becomes quite clear ...

Someone's young will eat today...

Someone's will go hungry -  that is the way of the wild.

For more information on the Buffalo Bill Historical Center:

Mountain Trails Galleries