Why Elephant Seals Should Get Your Seal of Approval

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Here at the Coastal Institute, we are fortunate enough to have some pretty incredible neighbors: Northern elephant seals!  These majestic marine mammals are a pretty common site in central California as a handful of established rookeries are found along our beautiful coast.

Elephant seal rookeries serve a number of purposes.  These are where elephant seals mate, give birth, and even learn how to swim!  Throughout the year the number of seals found at these rookeries varies but there are three peak times where the numbers are above average: late January, early May, and late October.  Late January is when the majority of elephant seal births occur, the first of May is when juvenile and female seals molt, while late October is when juvenile seal haul-out begins.

For us humans, our year begins on January 1st.  This isn't the case for elephant seals!  Instead, their year, or cycle, begins in November when the first of the juvenile and younger males begin their haul-out of the ocean.  The younger males always arrive first to have a little rest and relaxation before the larger and more dominant males arrive towards the end of the month.  More mature males continue to arrive as November ends and starting in December, these bulls begin to fight for space on the beach. As December progresses, females begin to arrive and give birth towards the middle of the month.  Once these females give birth they begin to breed with the most dominate males on the beach to ensure that they will have the strongest of offspring.

Females continue to arrive and give birth in January as well wean their newborn pups.  After weaning her pup for only 28 days, each mother will leave the beach. By February, the majority have given birth.

Once March rolls around, the majority of adults have left the beach and all that remain are the weaned pups.  Now that no adults rule the beaches, they are able to explore the beach as well as the shallow waters. Starting in April these, weaned pups begin to leave the beaches and head out to explore a whole new world…the open ocean!

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As these pups are leaving, the older juveniles as well the females return to molt their fur.  Since the waters are warmer in the summer they no longer need as thick of a layer of fur to keep them nice and toasty.  The first of May signifies the peak of this molting season and if you are lucky enough to visit the rookery during this time you may even see some fur flying around in the breeze!  By the end of May all juveniles and females have finished their molt and return to the ocean.

As we enter June, juvenile and adult males arrive to begin the molting process; this continues throughout July as well.  By August all molting has finished and this is when we experience the fewest number of seals on the beach. Once September and October roll around, the beach population sky rockets as a significant amount of juveniles return to the rookery for the fall haul out.

Sources:

Moritsch, Marc. “Elephant Seals.” National Geographic, 10 May 2011, www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/group/elephant-seals/.

Piedras Blancas Friends of the Elephant Seal | San Simeon, Cambria California, www.elephantseal.org/index.htm.

Life Under a Log

Did you know that "FBI" stands for more than just a top-secret governmental agency?  "The FBI" is also a key component in the decomposition that takes place within a forest.  Without nature’s department of decomposition, organic material would never break down resulting in a significantly less healthy and nutritious environment.  The FBI, or fungus, bacteria, and invertebrates, are what make our forests healthy - one mission at a time!

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Fungi, like mold and mushrooms, produce powerful enzymes that break down and dissolve the dead plant and animal material all around them.  Bacteria help while making compost by releasing important nutrients into the environment.  Invertebrates play their part by feeding directly on organic material, chomping and grinding it up, which breaks it down.

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Pillbugs are the only crustacean that spends its entire life on land!  They require a cool, damp environment in order to survive or else they would dry up and die.  They crunch down on rotting plant material, breaking it down into smaller and smaller pieces.  Fallen trees are ideal habitats for these guys because not only do they provide a cool place to live, they also provide a food source for the pillbugs - a pretty awesome win win situation.

Termites sometimes get a pretty bad rep but they are vital to the health of our forests.  They easily break down tough plant fibers and, in the process, recycle them into new soil.  Termites are especially efficient at recycling dead and decaying trees.  Once this new soil is created, termites continue to maintain soil health by aerating the soil with the tunnels that they create.

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Members of nature’s FBI are not the only life found under fallen and decaying trees.  Amphibious creatures love living under logs as well!  Due to their sensitive skin, amphibians like frogs and salamanders require a specialized habitat for survival.  Too much sun or wind will dry out their skin, resulting in their demise.  Fallen trees provide a cool, damp habitat rich in food sources that is ideal for amphibians.

Sources:

“Amphibians.” National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/amphibians/

Society, National Geographic. “Food Chain.” National Geographic Society, 9 Oct. 2012, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/food-chain/

Pillbugs, https://www3.northern.edu/natsource/INVERT1/Pillbu1.htm

“School of Life Sciences | Ask A Biologist.” Termite Role in the Environment | ASU - Ask A Biologist, 22 July 2015, https://askabiologist.asu.edu/explore/tales-termites

Sea Stars: The Ocean's True Celebrities

There are about 2,000 species of sea stars all over our oceans, found living anywhere from tropical coral reefs to the arctic seafloor.  Here in central California, two of our most common species of sea stars are the bat star, Patriria miniata, and the ochre star, Pisaster ochraceus.

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A key identifier when it comes to bat stars is the webbing that is found between each arm.  In fact, this webbing between arms is actually how bat stars got their name – scientists found it similar to the webbed wings of bats!  Bat stars are the scavengers of the ocean floor, feeding upon dead plant and animal material.  This scavenging can get pretty messy, so bat stars have formed a symbiotic (aka mutually beneficial) relationship with certain segmented worms, or annelids.  In this win win situation, the worms are able to get a full meal by grazing on the food scraps or even parasites found on the bat stars, while the bat stars benefit by getting cleaned.  In some cases, upwards of almost 20 worms have been found living on one bat star.  While bat stars are scavenging for food, they sometimes bump into each other.  This sometimes turns into a "fight" where two bat stars have an arm wrestling competition!

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Ochre stars are extremely important along the California coast because they serve as keystone species.  Keystone species are those that maintain the balance within an ecosystem, especially in regards to its food chain.  Kelp forests are the quintessential marine ecosystem along the central California coast.  Because kelp is found on the bottom of the food chain, many invertebrates, such as mussels and sea urchins, love grazing on it.  Ochre stars keep the balance within our kelp forests by regularly feeding upon mussels - that way the mussel population does not get out of control.

Sea stars have a number of crazy features that allows them to be the true stars of the ocean.  These marine creatures fall under the invertebrate phylum echinodermata, which translates to “spiny skin.”  All echinoderms posses a number of common characteristics including a water vascular system, pentaradial symmetry, and some form of regeneration.  What are these confusingly named characteristics and how do they help a sea star?

A water vascular system consists of a network of channels that extend through each arm of a sea star.  Each of these channels subsequently leads to a tube foot.  These tube feet allow sea stars to harness their inner spider man, allowing them to crawl and stick themselves on almost any surface.  Pentaradial symmetry means that sea stars will follows a pattern in which they branch out into five (or multiples of five) distinct arms from a central point (the central disc of a sea star).  Sea stars are able to regenerate, or regrow, their arms by hosting most of their vital organism in their arms.  Could you imagine if we could do this with our arms?!?

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Sea stars also have eyespots at the end of each arm!  These eyespots are not very advanced, as they are unable to see much (or any) detail or color.  Instead they use these eyespots to determine the amount, or lack, or light in an area.

Another unique characteristic of sea stars is that they also possess small pincer like structures called pedicellaria on their skin.  Each pedicellariae has its own set of muscles and sensory receptors, which allows them to respond to stimulus.  If unwanted particles, like sand, were to land on the sea star, they would be able to use their pedicellaria to push the sand off.  Also, if they were to ever get any food scraps stuck on their arms they could use the pedicellaria to transport food towards their mouth.

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Check out this video to see some pedicellaria in action!

Sources:

“Bat Star.” Bat Star, Kelp Forest, Invertebrates, Patiria Miniata at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, https://www.montereybayaquarium.org/animal-guide/invertebrates/bat-star

Ochre Sea Star  ·  University of Puget Sound, https://www.pugetsound.edu/academics/academic-resources/slater-museum/exhibits/marine-panel/ochre-sea-star/

“Sea Stars.” National Aquarium, https://aqua.org/explore/animals/sea-stars

Sea Star: Predators & Defenses: Pedicellariae, http://www.asnailsodyssey.com/LEARNABOUT/SEASTAR/seasPedi.php

Society, National Geographic. “Keystone Species.” National Geographic Society, 9 Oct. 2012, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/keystone-species/

“Starfish (Sea Stars) | National Geographic.” (Sea Stars) | National Geographic, 15 June 2017, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/group/starfish/

Images:

Bat Star - http://sanctuarymonitoring.org/species/patiria/miniata/bat-star

Ochre Star - https://www.flickr.com/photos/francoisboucher/6757488237

Pedicellaria – Christopher Mah https://www.wired.com/2015/07/absurd-creature-week-two-foot-wide-sea-star-covered-teeth-like-bear-traps/#slide-4

How Monterey Pines Have Adapted to Fires

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In Central and Southern California, we live in a chaparral environment.  This means that the majority of the year is hot and dry with rain really only occurring during the winter.  As a result, fires are pretty common.  Over the years, our local plant species have developed some pretty unique adaptations to deal with this fiery environment.  

Although wildfires are often described as "natural disasters", they are actually an important component of chaparral environments.  Fires help maintain a healthy balance within a forest and at times, even allow them to have a fresh start.  After a while, the forest floor can become pretty cramped – fallen trees, branches, and leaves take up space and block sunlight, preventing younger plants from getting their start.  A forest fire can help the younger generation out by clearing parts of the forest floor and opening up space and resources.

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In order to take advantage of this open space, many plants have developed pretty cool adaptations that allow them to live in areas frequented by fire.  Monterey pine trees are a great example of how life can adapt to fire.  In most species of pines, pine cones mature annually and only really open and drop their seeds in the fall.  However, our local Monterey pines produce a seratonous closed-cone – this means a cone that remains closed until exposed to a specific environmental trigger.  In the case of the Monterey pine, their cue is fire.  

So how does fire trigger their cones to open?  Lets break down the science behind it!

Monterey pine cones are covered in resin, a protective sticky substance that keeps the pine cones closed.  This resin is not soluble in water and will only melt when exposed to extreme heat.  When a fire comes through and melts the resin, the cones pop open and the seeds are able to fall out and disperse around the forest.  Below you can see the before and after effect fire has on Monterey pine cones!

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Sources:

“Learning to Live with Fire.”  http://calfire.ca.gov/communications/downloads/live_w_fire.pdf

Perry, Frank. “The Monterey Pine through Geologic Time.” The Monterey Pine through Geologic Time, Monterey Bay Paleontological Society Bulletin, https://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/montereypines_01

“Plant Guide: Monterey Pine.” USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center , https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_pira2.pdf

“Serotinous Survival Strategies.” Evergreen Arborist Consultants, 2 Mar. 2017, http://greenarborists.com/serotinous-survival-strategies/

 

What is a Tide Pool?

Isn’t it amazing to think that as the tide moves out, a whole new world is created along the rocky coastline?  These new worlds, aka tide pools, are extremely important to the dynamics of central California coastline because they provide food and shelter to a number of fish and invertebrate species.  But how are these tide pools formed?

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When it comes to our tides, the gravitational pull of our moon and sun are key players.  As their gravitational pulls acts on our planet, tidal bulges form on opposite sides of the Earth due to gravity and inertia - both a lunar and a solar tidal bulge will form.  As the moon rotates around Earth and Earth rotates around the sun, the angles of these tidal bulges change.  These changes in tidal bulge angles directly affect our tides.  The most extreme tides occur when the moon, Earth, and the sun are aligned with one another.  These extreme tides are referred to as spring tides – this is when we will have very high high tides and very low low tides.  More moderate tides occur when the moon, Earth, and sun are aligned in a 90 degree angle.  These moderate tides are referred to as neap tides.

Some may think that tide pools are simply puddles of water along the coast.  This is a huge understatement!  Just like our ocean is broken into different depth zones, the same goes with tide pools.  Three major zones are present within all tide pools – the splash zone, intertidal zone, and subtidal zone.  But what do these zones mean and what life can be found within them?

To begin our journey, let’s start at the very top, the splash zone.  This zone is by far the harshest zone to live in because only water present is from the occasional spray or mist from the ocean.  As a result, this zone is very hot due to the constant exposure to the sun as well as extremely salty due to constant evaporation.  Because these conditions are pretty rough, very little life is found in the Splash zone.  Some algae and an occasional barnacle can be found living within the splash zone but other than that, life is pretty much nonexistent in this zone.

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As we travel farther down the tide pool and enter the intertidal zone, life becomes ever more present as the conditions become more ideal.  Since the strength of tides vary day to day, three subzones have been created within the intertidal zone: the high, mid, and low intertidal zone.  The high intertidal zone is located directly under the splash zone and is only covered with water during the highest of high tides.  Although more life will be found in this zone than the splash zone, compared to the rest of the pool life is still relatively low.  Barnacles, snails, and crabs begin to appear as well as the occasional anemone.  As we descend even further into the mid and low intertidal zones, the amount of water, food, and shelter significantly increase as does the amount and diversity of the wildlife.  Anemones, crabs, snails, sea stars and more can be found in these ideal conditions.

The deepest and final zone within tide pools is referred to as the subtidal zone.  Water will almost always be present in the subtidal zone and as a result, many bottom dwelling invertebrates and even fish can be found within it!

So the next time you find yourself on the coast, "tide pooling" is a must because it’s easy as 1, 2, 3!  All you need is a bucket, some friends, and the ocean for a good time!

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Sources:

“Tidal Zones.”  Oregon Tide Pools, http://oregontidepools.org/tidalzones

US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Why Do We Have Spring Tides in the Fall?” NOAA's National Ocean Service, 1 Aug. 2014, https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/springtide.html

Why We Give a Hoot about Great Horned Owls

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Isn’t it a hoot to think that as we get ready for bed, owls are just starting their day?  Easily recognizable due to the feather tufts, aka plumicorns, which resemble horns on top of their heads, great horned owls are some of the most common nocturnal creatures found here at the Coastal Institute.  Because they are active at night, they have a number of adaptations that allow them to thrive and survive in the dark.  

Great horned owls' eyes are extremely large and highly adapted for nocturnal hunting.  In fact, their eyes are so large that if they were as big as us humans, their eyes would be the size of oranges!  And since their eyes take up the majority of space in their heads, that means they have pretty tiny brains.  

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Great horned owls also have the ability to turn their heads almost 270 degrees in each direction, giving them a 360 degree view.  This means they can watch their prey at all times without ever making a sound, making them the true ninjas of the night.  But their eyes are not the only tools they utilize in a nocturnal setting; their hearing is extremely reliable as well.

One crazy adaptation that helps great horned owls to hear is a particular formation of feathers on their face known as a facial disc.  This concave formation of facial feathers allows an owl to easily collect and direct sound waves straight to their ears.  Owls can even adjust the make up of these feathers, enabling them to focus on sounds from different distances!

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Great horned owls are ambush predators, which makes speed and stealth key when catching a meal.  These guys are covered head to talon in fluffy feathers that enable them to swoop down from their perch without making a sound.  Once they have a grip on their prey, it’s game over because it’s estimated a force of almost 30 pounds is needed to break the grip of their talons! They have even earned the nickname “Tiger Owl” due to the insane strength of their talons.  Compared to other North American raptors, great horned owls have one of the most diverse diets.  Their most common prey items include mice, rabbits, ground squirrels, small birds, and sometimes even a snake.

Great horned owls have a pretty incredible digestive system and at times, they even swallow prey whole.  Soon after consuming a meal, they will regurgitate pellets that are comprised of the bones, fur, and other parts of their prey they were unable to digest.  The coolest thing about these pellets is that you can dissect them in order to discover what that owl had recently eaten!

If you have visited us at camp, you have probably met Earl, our very own great horned owl who lives in our nature center and acts as one of our animal ambassadors.  Check out this video that we made starring Earl and let us know what you think!

 

Sources:

“Great Horned Owl.”  Audobon, 1 Mar. 2016,
http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/great-horned-owl

“Great Horned Owl.”  National Geographic, 11 Apr. 2010, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/g/great-horned-owl/

“Great Horned Owl.” Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Horned_Owl/id

“Journey with Nature, The Great Horned Owl” The Nature Conservancy, https://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/indiana/journeywithnature/the-great-horned-owl.xml

Get to know the Coastal Institute!

Welcome to our brand new blog!  Our Coastal Institute naturalists have been hard at work taking photos, making videos, and writing informative posts that will tell you more about our program and our local ecosystem.  First up: a post all about Earl, our resident grumpy great horned owl!

But before we jump headfirst into our new blog, we here at the Coastal Institute wanted to take a moment to say hello and give you a glimpse into what we do here.  This is a place where we seek to get people (students AND adults) into nature.  We mean that both literally (we want to get you physically outside!) and figuratively (we want to get you excited about the natural world and spark your curiosity!)  

One of the best ways that we get people into nature is through our residential science camp program.  Throughout each school year, students in grades 4-12 travel to our site in Cambria, CA to learn about science, nature, and so much more.  We explore the tide pools, kayak in an estuary, throw tomahawks, sing camp songs, and more!  It is a pretty awesome time.  But don't just take our word for it - watch our new video below to see for yourself!  After that, take a look around this website to see if one of our programs may be right for you or your students.  We hope to hear from you!