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The first field trip of the semester for my Ecology class is always a jaunt up the coast to Rancho del Oso and Waddell Beach. It's a great place to start the practice of observing nature, because we can explore the forest in the morning, have lunch, and then wander along the beach in the afternoon. We really are lucky to have such a wide variety of habitats to study around here, which makes taking students out into the field really fun. My passion and expertise will always belong with the marine invertebrates, but it's good for me to work outside my comfort zone and immerse myself in habitats I don't already know very well. During this year's class trip to Waddell Beach I was struck by some things I had seen before but never paid much heed to. And also one very big thing that caught everybody's attention.

Depending on how much rain has fallen recently, Waddell Creek may or may not flow all the way into the ocean. Since California has a short rainy season, there are months when the creek is completely cut off from the ocean, due to both a lack of flow and the accumulation of sand on the beach. So far this rainy season, which began on 1 October 2019, we've gotten about 93% of our normal rain. However, we had a very wet December, and almost no rain since then. I wasn't sure whether or not Waddell would be flowing into the ocean. It was.

Waddell Creek where it flows across the beach into the Pacific Ocean
Waddell Creek flowing into the Pacific Ocean
© Allison J. Gong

The really big thing that we all stopped to look at was this guy lounging in the creek.

Subadult male elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) lying in the creek at Waddell Beach.
Northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) on Waddell Beach
© Allison J. Gong

The students had many questions: What was he doing there? Was he sick? Was it a male? Was he dead? Well, no, he wasn't dead. And while I guessed from this view that it was a subadult male, I was secretly relieved to be proved right when we walked down the creek (keeping the mandated distance away from him) and looked back to see his big schnozz.

The elephant seal breeding season is coming to an end, but animals will continue to haul out and rest on the beach. This subadult male clearly isn't going to be dethroning any beachmasters this year, so he has taken the safe route and chosen a beach away from the breeding ground at Año Nuevo, which is ~2 miles up the coast. What I really liked about this particular animal was that we could see the tracks he made getting himself up the beach to the creek.

So that was the big thing. Eye-catching he certainly was, but to my mind not nearly as interesting as the small things we paid more attention to on the beach. It is tempting to think of sandy beaches as relatively lifeless places, compared to something like a rocky intertidal or a redwood forest. But for some reason, this trip I became intrigued by the dune vegetation. At first glance a sand dune seems to be a very inhospitable place for plants, and it is. Sand is unstable and moves around all the time, making it difficult for roots to hang on. Sand also doesn't hold water, so dune vegetation must be able to withstand very dry conditions. It's not surprising that dune plants have some of the same adaptations as desert plants.

Let's start with the natives.

Photograph of yellow sand verbena (Abronia latifolia) at Waddell Beach.
Yellow sand verbena (Abronia latifolia)
© Allison J. Gong

I love this little sand verbena (Abronia latifolia)! It is native to the west coast of North America, from Santa Barbara County to the Canadian border. It is a sand stabilizer, decreasing the erosion that occurs. The sand verbenas also live in deserts; I saw them at Anza-Borrego and Joshua Tree last year. The beach sand verbena grows low to the ground, probably as a way to shelter from the winds that come screaming down the coast. Cute little plant, isn't it?

The other yellow beach plant we saw was the beach suncup (Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia), a member of the primrose family.

Photograph of the beach suncup (Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia) at Waddell Beach.
Beach suncup (Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia)
© Allison J. Gong

Like the yellow sand verbena, the beach suncup is a California native. It grows along the entire coast, including the Channel Islands. Also like the yellow sand verbena, the suncup grows low to the ground. Its leaves are thick and a little waxy, to help the plant resist desiccation.

And now for the non-natives. I must admit, I had given very little thought to the plant life on my local beaches. I'd seen and studied beach wrack, but to be honest most of my attention is usually directed towards the water instead of up high on the beach where the plants live. This day I decided to photograph the plants.

This plant is a little succulent called European sea rocket (Cakile maritma). As the common name implies, its native habitat is dunes in Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia.

Photograph of the succulent plant, European sea rocket (Cakile maritima) at Waddell Beach.
European sea rocket (Cakile maritima) at Waddell Beach
© Allison J. Gong

Cakile maritima has several life history traits that enable it to be carried around the world. It produces a lot of seeds, more so than the native dune plants. The seeds are dispersed by water and can be transported long distances in the ballast water of ships, which is probably how it got to California in the first place. It tolerates disturbances better than native dune vegetation, which allows it to be a superior competitor. Cakile maritima is considered to be invasive, meaning that it can survive and spread on its own in a non-native habitat, but its effects seem to be restricted to beach dunes. Despite its ability to thrive and outcompete our native beach plants, it appears to be unable to expand away from the sand.

Mushrrom, Psathyrella ammophila, growing out of the sand at Waddell Beach.
Psathyrella ammophila at Waddell Beach
© Allison J. Gong

Our surprise of the day was a beach mushroom! None of us had seen them before. This is Psathyrella ammophila, the beach brittlestem mushroom. Like sea rocket, it is also a European invasive. We were perplexed by this mushroom. Most of a fungus's body (mycelium) is underground. The mycelium spreads through soils as very thin threads called hyphae. Every once in a while the mycelium sends up a fruiting body, which is what we call a mushroom. There is no way to know, from the location of mushrooms, where and how far the mycelium spreads underground.

The presence of a mushroom on the beach means that a fungal mycelium is feeding on something in the sand. There isn't much plant matter buried on beaches, but we hypothesized that perhaps one of the logs from the forest had washed down the creek and been deposited on the beach. It would then be buried in sand, along with all the mycelium it carried, and a mushroom could have sprouted up through the sand.

Well, it was a good hypothesis.

I posted my photo to a mushroom ID page, and it was identified as Psathyrella ammophila. My submission to iNaturalist came back with the same result. A little research led me to another non-native invasive species, Ammophila arenaria, the European marram grass. Notice that the species epithet of the mushroom is the same as the genus name of the plant? That was my first clue. Marram grass is one of the most noxious weed species on the California coast. It was intentionally introduced to the beaches in the mid-1800s, to provide stability to the dunes. It is very good at that, but also spreads very rapidly, usually growing upwards away from the ocean. That said, marram grass also breaks off chunks that can survive in the ocean and float off to colonize new beaches.

The fungus Psathyrella ammophila grows as a saprobe on the decaying roots of Ammophila arenaria. No doubt the fungus was introduced along with the marram grass as an inadvertent hitchhiker. Since there is so much marram grass on our beaches, it's safe to assume that there is a lot of Psathyrella, too. That means it's time to start looking for mushrooms on the beach!

A while back now I went out on a low tide even though the actual low was after sunset. I figured that it was low enough that I'd have plenty of time to poke around as the tide was receding. And given that there were promising clouds in the sky, I took my good camera along just in case the sunset proved to be photo-worthy. Having had enough of crowds in the intertidal at Natural Bridges the previous day, I decided to venture up to Pistachio Beach, which isn't as heavily visited.

I ended up spending only 45 minutes in the intertidal, all the while watching the sun sink lower in the sky. It was already too dark to take many photos in the tidepools, but there were some interesting things on the beach.

The majority of shells that wash up on any beach are going to be molluscs, usually either gastropods or bivalves. I've often seen living red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) hidden in nooks and crannies at this site, so it's not surprising to find their shells on the sand. Usually, though, the shells are a little beat up. This one was intact, with a lovely layer of nacre inside.

This butterfly-shaped object is one of the shell plates of Cryptochiton stelleri, also known as the gumboot chiton. Cryptochiton is the largest of all chiton species; the largest one I've ever seen is the length of my forearm from elbow to fingertip. Like all chitons, C. stelleri has a row of eight shell plates running down the dorsal side of the body. Unlike other chitons, however, in Cryptochiton the plates are covered by a layer of tissue called the girdle and not visible from the outside. If you run your finger down the back you can feel the plates under the girdle. I never thought about it before now, but it seems that the name Cryptochiton refers to the hidden chiton-ness of the animal.

Anyway, Cryptochiton lives mostly in the subtidal, although you can occasionally see them in the very low intertidal. As subtidal creatures they have neither the ability nor the need to cling tightly to rocks, as their intertidal cousins do. This means that when big swells come through at low tide, they can get dislodged and wash ashore. I know from personal experience that the tissue of Cryptochiton is really tough. Once a pal and I were trudging back after working on a low tide and came across several dead Crytochiton scattered over the beach. We decided to do an impromptu dissection and try to salvage the plates, hacking away with her pocket knife. The smell was horrendous, and after several minutes we made practically zero progress, so we gave up. I've seen gulls pecking at dead Cryptochiton, too, and they didn't seem to have any success either. However, their bodies do eventually disintegrate, or something manages to eat them, and their naked plates can often be found on beaches.

Shell plate of Cryptochiton stelleri
© Allison J. Gong

One of the coolest pattern I've ever seen in the intertidal was this:

Leaf barnacle (Pollicipes polymerus), mussels (Mytilus californianus), and limpets (Lottia sp.)
© Allison J. Gong

I've never seen anything like this before. It's hard to tell from the photo, but these two rock faces converge into the crevice, sort of like the adjacent pages in an open book. This side of the rock surface faces away from the ocean and will never be subject to the main force of pounding waves. The barnacle in the middle is attached pretty much in the deepest part of the crevice, and is surrounded by mussels, which are then surrounded by limpets.

Now, all of these animals recruited to this location after spending some period of time, from a few days to a few weeks, in the plankton. The barnacle certainly can't move once it has settled and metamorphosed. Newly settled mussels have a limited ability to scoot around a bit but are generally stationary once they've extruded their byssal threads and fastened them to something hard. The limpets, on the other hand, are quite mobile. The barnacle and mussels gave up their ability to move around after they became benthic, but limpets can and do locomote quite a bit--in fact, they have to, in order to feed. So in a sense, these limpets "chose" to aggregate together long after settlement.

What are the ecological implications of this pattern?

Well, for one thing, that barnacle is a genetic dead end. I've written before about the bizarre sex lives of barnacles. This one lone barnacle, far from any others of its species, is not able to reproduce. It has nobody to copulate with. It is possible that other barnacles will recruit to the mussels (Pollicipes is often associated with Mytilus), but until then there will be no sexy times for this individual.

Another ecological consequence concerns the limpets. If these are owl limpets (Lottia gigantea), then some of them will grow up to be the big females that maintain farms on the rocks where they manage and harvest the crop of algal film that grows. These big females are territorial, and will bump or scrape off any creature found to be trespassing on their farms. Clearly, none of the limpets in the photo above are demonstrating any type of territorial behavior! So they are either some other species of Lottia, or are younger individuals of L. gigantea that haven't yet made the change from male to female.

In any case, I do think the pattern is very interesting, even though I don't understand it. Or maybe because I don't understand it. I'm always intrigued by something that I can't explain, which is a good thing because it means I don't get bored very often. If anyone reading this has an explanation for this pattern, let me know about it!

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