It’s been a busy few weeks helping a close friend move out of state, then traveling with the kids for a quick trip to a family event in historic St. Augustine, Florida. Finding time to write about our day to day observations means staying up a little later than a good mother can handle. But burning the midnight oil for this little natural beach community which hosts two critically endangered species (Florida grasshopper sparrow with less than 80 birds left in the wild, and the Anastasia Island beach mouse) is worth the effort.
*Side-note: Although we did not personally witness the above two critters, they are most definitely worth mentioning!
Although the country’s oldest city (est. 1565) has so much to offer, the brevity of our excursion and location of our sleeping quarters led us to spend the majority of our time exploring the sparkling tidal sands and waters of the Atlantic. From a 3, 6, and 7 year old’s perspective that means either throwing one’s body into the surf or toting a pail, examining the tiniest forms of life one can find. I tried my best to point out the diving terns, pelicans, skittering sanderlings, and other birds – but perhaps due to their own size, the smallest critters engaged them most. Let us not forget how they vitally support the food web of the larger species running about.
On our daily walk to the beach they encountered this showboat of a grasshopper slowly working its way to the top of a fence post, to the seeming purpose of looking them straight in the eye. And there it sat within inches of their noses, occasionally rocking to and fro.
It made no attempt to spring away like most of the hoppers I’ve known in my time. And for this reason it is aptly named the “Eastern Lubber” – lubber being a reference to its slow or clumsy nature.
“Lubber” is derived from an old English word “lobre” which means lazy or clumsy. This term has come to mean a big, clumsy, and stupid person, also known as a lout or lummox. In modern times, it is normally used only by seafarers, who term novices “landlubbers”.-Featured Creatures – Entomology Department, University of Florida
Aside from this legendary clumsiness, I couldn’t help but praise its form to the kids, talking about how it almost appears proud of its size after surviving its succulent nymph days. We discussed the bitter juices it produces, and how it must be broadcasting how yucky it tastes. According to the University of Florida Entomology Department, this species of grasshopper prefers broadleaf vegetation over grasses and accumulates and synthesizes an assortment of toxins from its diet which it disperses from its trachea to ward off predators (http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/orn/lubber.htm).
Once in the sand I spent hours helping dig for tiny coquina clams (Donax variabilis)…
…a key habitat indicator species for those studying the health of our beach ecosystems (Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, https://myfwc.com/research/saltwater/mollusc/other-molluscs/coquina-clams/).
Filter feeders of phytoplankton, bacteria, unicellular algae and detritus, these tiny shells clean the water our children play in, and provide a critical food source to a variety of fish, birds and other creatures that depend on the ebb and flow of the coastal tidal waters (http://www.dnr.sc.gov/cwcs/pdf/Coquinaclam.pdf).
The majority of the coquinas we discovered during our few days of digging seemed so sluggish that we thought they were empty shells at first, and only after holding them in our hands for a period of time did we notice them begin to burrow back into the lumps of sand in our palms. My husband and I were both a bit surprised at how sluggish they were compared to coquinas we had seen at past Florida beaches and were left to wonder at the difference. Was this an environmental indicator purely based on location or temperature, or could it be something deeper or man-made? These guys are supposedly more active during summer months and it is most definitely that.
On the subject of man-made factors, we risk destroying them with frequent beach renourishment projects that bury them too deep for survival. So that is certainly a discussion to be brought up by our beach communities as they plan their development processes with today’s increasing coastal erosion.
…An indicator species can at times also spur environmental clean-up or conservation efforts. Take the colorful Coquina Clam, which scientists spotted scattered across the azure shores of Pensacola, Florida after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. The clams, they discovered, retained the toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) at higher concentrations and levels than the surrounding sand particles did…
..As a result, the small seashore clams can help monitor pollution along shorelines, the researchers concluded.-“Change in the Environment? Ask an Indicator Species” – Deutsche Welle https://www.dw.com/en/change-in-the-environment-ask-an-indicator-species/a-18009616
And then there were the ‘sand crabs’ as my kids called them or more commonly referred to as ‘Atlantic mole crabs’ (Emerita talpoida), varying in size from the smallest grain of sand to creatures as large as my thumbnail. We dug small craters at our knees right at the surf and watched as they darted along the surface and, like tiny phantoms, quickly burrowed their way into obscurity.
We learned fast to gently sift the heavy sediment with open fingers as to not crack their delicate carapaces. And upon release from our small pails, we’d gently lower them into the water to let them sort their way out so as to not be crushed by the shifting weight of sand falling out.
These crustaceans are also filter feeders and important indicators of the coastline’s welfare. In my basic internet research on these critters, I was not able to find much peer-reviewed info and feel there is much more to be learned about them and their habits, including their relationship to other species along various coastlines and ones that dwell in deeper sands and surf. I’d love to examine these guys up close with the kids – it was so difficult under the blaring sun and with their translucent shells. Their anatomy is a fascinating subject in and of itself. I can thank Carl Oleskewicz’s article for most of the mole crab info referenced in today’s writing (Sand Crabs on Florida Beaches by Carl Oleskewicz for USA Today).
There is, of course, so much more life to speak of. I didn’t even get to the fish. Let me leave you with this wondrous observation. My 6 year old and I noticed the tiny minnows we did capture in our pails somehow knew to swim in the direction of the ocean. And always the direction of the ocean. They never dwelled on the land side of the pail. How do they know? Is it electromagnetic sense like other sea creatures or is it something else? Let us always be curious and in awe.