Beach Critters That Deserve More Respect

We beachgoers worship critters like dolphins, whales, and sea turtles. But the beach is full of a series of Rodney Dangerfields amongst us: creatures we overlook and underestimate, but they lead pretty interesting lives right among us.

The Fierce Predator: The Whelk

It may be hard to think of a snail as a fierce predator—but fierce they are. Whelks are a group of predatory snails found on coasts nearly worldwide, where mussels, clams, barnacles and any other creature with a hard shell and tasty interior try to flee in fear. At nearly 10 centimeters a minute, they move fast—for a snail—fast enough that they can easily climb above and below the high tide line to terrorize their prey. The have an acute sense of smell, and many ways of penetrating the defensive shells of their prey.

They can drill a hole in shells with their abrasive, tongue-like radula. Or they grab the prey with their foot, then use their own shell as a wedge to force the shells open, then insert their proboscis and eat the interior. Or they’ll simply lie in front of a mussel, wait for it to open its shell to feed, and jam their siphon and radula into the open shell. Once the victim is stuck with it’s shell open, it’s dinner time.

Hidden Among Us: The Mole Crab

Chances are that you’ve never seen a mole crab. But they’ve definitely seen us. They live in the sand on most beaches, where their tiny eyestalks have been watching our every move since we showed up on the beach. These one- or two-inch crabs, like their name implies, hide by burrowing quickly beneath the sand when a threat approaches, feeding on nutrients in the sand and the waves. Want to see one? Head to the wet sand a low tide, look for a tiny pair of antenna sticking up, and dig with your hands as fast as you can.

The Survivor: The Gull

It’s easy to be blasé about gulls. They try and steal your lunch, harass fishing boats, and make a ruckus while you’re taking a beach siesta. But you have to hand it to the various species of gulls the world over. They’re survivors. Like crows, ravens, and jays, they’re generalists that rely on their wits, rather than talons, speed, or diving ability to find food. In addition to making off with your bag of chips, they’ll pry shellfish from rocks and drop them to break the shells, raid the nests of other birds, and gang up on crabs to grab a big meal while staying clear of their pincers. The Grey Gulls of South America may be the ultimate survivors: commuting from nests in the Atacama Desert, free of land predators, to feeding grounds in the sea.

The Weirdo: The Sea Cucumber

Every beach town has a local eccentric. The sea cucumber is that guy. A resident of the tidepools, sea cucumbers are soft, slow, spineless, and delicious, and entirely without claws, scales, stinging cells, or camoflauge. If this sounds like an invitation to be eaten by gulls, seabirds, crabs, or fish, think again. The sea cucumber packs by far the weirdest defense in the animal kingdom. When faced with a predator (or an overzealous child exploring the tidepools) they regurgitate part of their intestinal tract, coated in filamentous goo—which distracts and entangles the predator, while the sea cucumber sneaks away and grows new organs. Don’t try this at home.

The Cleansing Agent: The Amphipod

You know them as beach hoppers, sand shrimp, or sand fleas, and most beach goers think they’re annoying. But they’re cleaning the beach for you. These beach hoppers don’t harm humans, but they do play a critical role in breaking down the various detritus that otherwise stinks up the beach, like big piles of kelp or seaweed. They also drive much of the food chain—these small creatures are food for bird and small fish.

The Resurgent: The Brown Pelican

Goofy-looking as Pelicans are, they get little respect, especially when they try to cadge food from tourists on beachside town piers. But Pelicans—which also conduct long seasonal migrations up and down the coasts between breeding areas and feeding grounds—are amidst a healthy resurgence after decimation by DDT. They incubate their eggs with their feet, and shells weakened by the pesticide threatened the pelican population. The use of DDT was banned in the US in 1972, and the pelican population has rebounded, and its been successfully removed from the Endangered Species list.

By Neil Schulman

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