Beaches are a place for recreational swimming and relaxation for humans, but they are also a remarkable observatory for special adaptations by creatures living in a strenuous habitat that is alternately wet and dry.
During a family visit to our winter Florida home near Gasparilla Island, I observed some of the characteristic fauna of the summer beach and, as always, was greatly rewarded.
One of the unusual tracks you will see on the summer beach is the crawl mark of the female loggerhead sea turtle as she comes up from the surf to nest.
A few nests laid previous to Tropical Storm Debby yielded hatchings.
Tropical Storm Debby destroyed many nests, yet others are still being laid on beaches on Gasparilla Island and Manasota Key. A few nests yielded hatchings from those laid previously and the turtle patrol showed me a few hatchlings salvaged from a nest in which only a few hatched.
The Coastal Wildlife Club works to save the lives of hatchlings unlikely to reach the surface without the combined frenzied digging of their nest mates.
An unusual feature of the beach this trip was a lot of drift algae, primarily sargassum weed. This is likely a natural consequence of TS Debby although the abundance of such algae (especially red algae) may also be enhanced by the runoff of nutrients from human activities.
William Dunson, Ph.d., professor emeritus of biology at Penn State University, splits time between Southwest Florida and his farm in Galax, Va. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Humans consider red algae a nuisance but birds search it for small critters. It soon dries enough to become part of the upper beach debris and poses no health threat as does red tide.
A surprising numbers of shorebirds, presumably bred in the far north, have now returned (sanderlings, black-bellied plovers and turnstones) plus some Gasparilla Island residents such as a snowy plover. The snowy plover's ability to blend into protective beach colors is remarkable and a prime example of camouflage.
Beach invertebrates are also well camouflaged.
Few notice the ferocious but tiny tiger beetles with huge jaws for capturing small insects on the dry sand.
An equally rapacious flying predator is the marl pennant dragonfly, which I have seen only at Palm Island beach. It breeds in brackish water pools.
In shallow water several juvenile speckled swimming crabs blend in well with the sand - they were unusually light in color.
So double your pleasure and when you go to the beach by watching out for the natural wonders while you enjoy beach fun.