Archive for ‘Nature Notes’

Sad Snack

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Diamond-shaped Bite Marks by Juvenile Sea Turtles, Mustang Island State Park, Corpus Christi, Texas June 2019

After the hatchling release last weekend, Lindy and I strolled down the Padre Island National Seashore (PINS). We enjoyed the cloud cover and cooler weather but we weren’t purposeless, instead we gathered trash along the beach. By the end of our three mile jaunt, we filled two twenty gallon bags and hauled off armloads of larger debris. It should come as no surprise that the majority of the items we picked up were plastic.

A survey published in 2018 found that Texas beaches have ten times the plastic trash of other gulf coast states (primarily due to the flow of currents in the Gulf of Mexico). It went on to state that Texas leads the nation in marine debris (and that’s saying something considering the waves of trash that washed ashore in the Pacific Northwest after the 2011 Tōhoku tsunami). Note: the study began with NOAA’s hands-on assessments in 2010 and ran through 2015, but it also utilized over 30 years of data accumulated by the Ocean Conservancy.

We felt good about our effort that morning, even though we knew the next high tide would deposit yet another load of trash. When I get disheartened I remind myself that every little bit helps…

Flotation Device

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Violet Sea Snail, Padres Island National Seashore, Texas June 2019

A couple weeks ago I found my first few Violet Sea Snails (Janthina janthina) on the shores of Mustang Island. Just this past week I came across some that still had their bubble rafts attached. They spend their entire lives bobbing upside down on the ocean’s surface, suspended by their floats.

FYI – they can really stink up your car if you forget to remove your bag of them overnight during a humid summer in south Texas. Just sayin’…

Antithesis

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At a distance, they may look similar. Up close the two couldn’t be more opposite. The top item is a bit of yellow plastic twine that is often found on the beaches of Mustang Island. It is immediately scooped up and placed in my trash bag.

While it looks like electrical wiring, the tangled mess at the bottom of the photo is a bundle of Colorful Sea Whip (Leptogorgia virgulata). Though there are several different hues of soft coral (including purple, red, and white), yellow is the one I most commonly see washed ashore. I leave the sea whip in place so it can cycle nutrients back to the sand.

Hatchling Release

 

I was fortunate to attend the first hatchling release of the summer on Friday morning. My friend, Lindy, and I drove down before dawn to Padre Island National Seashore. Shortly after sunrise, the team released 58 adorable Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles (Lepidochelys kempii). They came from a nest that was laid on April 27th. In an effort to help this critically endangered species recover, all the eggs are removed from nests as soon as they are found and relocated to a protected hatchery.

It took about an hour for all of the babies to make it into the water. There is a reason the hatchlings aren’t just tossed into the sea. It is important that the turtles crawl their way across the sand towards the sun as part of their imprinting. Breeding females will later return to their home beach to lay their eggs. The small creatures slipped into the waves while weighing less than an ounce. The ranger affectionately referred to the tiny turtles as Oreos with flippers. It is estimated that only 1 in 1,000 will reach maturity. Best of luck little ones!

 

Beautiful Swimmers

Sadly, the swimming days of these Blue Crabs (Callinectes sapidus) that I found on Mustang Island yesterday are long over. Even in death the colors are so very striking which works well with the first part of their scientific name, as callinectes is a Greek combo meaning beautiful swimmer. The second part, sapidus, is Latin for savory.

I have yet to try them but I do know they are a favorite food of the Whooping Cranes which winter down here. Based on the blue with orange tips coloration of the claw, the lone body part was from a male. While the full crab was a female, sporting orange claws with purple (fuchsia) tips.

Violet Sea Snail

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The wild waves over the past weekend brought in loads of sargassum to the beaches of Mustang Island. All kinds of hitchhikers washed ashore with the detritus. As I sorted through the debris I spotted a flash of purple. I grabbed it, fully expecting it to be yet another ubiquitous piece of plastic.

I was ecstatic to discover it was a delicate, vibrant, tiny shell. Janitha janitha, is pelagic, meaning it completes its entire life cycle while floating out in the sea. They prey on Velella velella and Portugese Man o’ War (Physalia physalis). I find it interesting that they feed on similarly colored creatures, does that mean they acquire their color from their food?

Looks Can Be Deceiving…

 

I was intrigued by these small, colorful blobs while walking along the beach on Mustang Island this weekend. Despite their similarities, Blue Buttons (Porpita porpita), are not sea jellies, but instead are colonial creatures made up of hydrozaon polyps, related to Velella velellas and Portugese Man o’ Wars (Physalia physalis). Cyan Buttons would be a more appropriate name, in my humble opinion, but it would lack that cool alliteration factor.

Star Thrower

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This afternoon on Mustang Island I found my first Gray Sea Star (Luidia clathrata). Since the tube feet were still wiggling I waded out aways before tossing it back into the surf. You’ve probably heard a version of this story, which is based on Loren Eiseley’s essay, The Star Thrower:

“While wandering a deserted beach at dawn, stagnant in my work, I saw a man in the distance bending and throwing as he walked the endless stretch toward me. As he came near, I could see that he was throwing starfish, abandoned on the sand by the tide, back into the sea. When he was close enough I asked him why he was working so hard at this strange task. He said that the sun would dry the starfish and they would die. I said to him that I thought he was foolish; there were thousands of starfish on miles and miles of beach. One man alone could never make a difference. He smiled as he picked up the next starfish and hurled it into the sea, “It makes a difference to that one.”

Live long little one!