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!