Musings at the Beach… Including a Crab Fight!

Well, I said that this blog would not be photos and stories about my weekends, and it looks like I’m going to fail on those counts already. It is in the name of science, however.

Every bay I know of seems to have a corresponding volunteer organization whose mission is to save it. Over the weekend, a friend and I attempted to participate with one such organization. I was sort of just along for the ride on this one, but as I understand it, divers harvest this underwater grass, which is vital to the health of the bay ecosystem. Our job as volunteers was to sit on the beach organizing this grass into bundles, which would be transported to another part of the bay, that is short on grass, for transplantation. However, to our embarrassment, we showed up at the part of the bay volunteers were working at last week, and they had moved on.

Though we couldn’t do anything to save it by ourselves, the bay was desolate in the cloudy humid morning, which gave us an excellent opportunity to explore all the nature laying about. I have a tendency to turn into a question machine from time to time, soliciting those around me for all their knowledge and any theories they care to share on every matter that pops to mind, and nothing sets this off quite like nature. Stuffy scientist stereotypes in the general public seem foreign and incongruous to me, since my own behavior in the face of nature is more akin to that of a curious child. My companion and I taught each other some of the facts were knew, and came up with some new theories about the workings of all sort of natural elements. Casually observing aquatic life for a couple hours doesn’t exactly produce rigorous scientific theories, but these sort of curious observations of nature are the spark that propels people to do rigorous studies. It’s from the curiosity that we all have about the world around us and everything in it that all scientific knowledge is born.

First, we walked across rocks, shells, and a few crab and fish carcasses on land. I suppose the shells are carcasses too, in a sense, so the earth by the water was piled deep with the remains of dead creatures. Some of the shells had swaths of bright purple lining their insides. This reminded me of grade school, when I was taught that Native Americans used shells for money, and that the purple ones were worth more. I have no idea how true this is, or what the details surrounding it are, but it’s one of the many things I noted to look up later.

Most of the oyster remains consisted single shells and nothing else, but I found two shells that were still held together in the familiar clam shape, though the creature who inhabited them was long gone. It’s organic material that holds the shells together. Well, I guess the shells are organic too — creatures grow them like we grow finger nails — but we supposed that clams must be able to open and close the shells with some sort of muscle tissue connecting them. My friend pointed out a shell with a funny shaped hole in the middle, and told me the creature who resided inside of it was probably eaten by the creature who drilled that hole. What a terrifying experience that would be if it happened to us — like jumping into a coffin to hide from danger, only to find danger drilling through our claustrophobic encasement to suck us out and devour us.

I preferred not to think too hard about it, and moved on toward the water.

At first the water looked devoid of life, but then we saw a snail, and then another, and another, and a fish, and a crab, and before long we realized the cool shallow water was teeming with life. If you pick up a snail it will invariably hide in its shell. But if you hold the shell up to your face and hum near it, the snail thinks it’s hearing the sound of the sea and will slowly pull it’s globby face and jelly eye stalks out into the world. Some snails had fuzz growing on them which disguised them as bits of debris. We caught various creatures with our hands and shells, careful to grab the crabs from behind, where their pincers couldn’t reach, and all the while the scurrying blips of life were moving over the remains of their dead compatriots. Imagine spending your life walking around on the bones and teeth and finger nails of the dead; even if they were animal remains rather then human, that would be creepy as hell.

Snails are not the only creatures inhabiting snail shells. The little guy my friend is holding in the picture doesn’t make a shell of his own, but rounds up discarded shells to inhabit. It reminded me of that episode of The Simpsons where they go to the beach and Lisa talks about the creatures getting bigger and trading up for a bigger shell, and at the end a creature takes up residence in an empty beer can.

The crowning glory of the outing was observing a crab fight. I saw one crab poised between two rocks while another crab came upon it and started a scrap. I thought maybe it was a territory fight, though I have no idea if crabs are territorial or not, until I saw a another small crab underneath the first large crab, between the rocks. I thought maybe it was a baby they were fighting over, but do crabs attack each other’s babies? What for? They don’t eat them, do they? My friend suggested that perhaps the small crab was a female and large ones were males fighting over her. This seemed to make more sense, and it’s the hypothesis we went with.

The fight was vicious, and both males were drawn away from the female. They split apart to size each other up and catch their breath from time to time, and at one point while they were doing this, the female scurried under one of the males again. The plot thickens though: she ran to the shelter of the male who had been the attacker, not the male she was with initially! She stayed underneath him as the bout continued. The claws flew fast and furiously though, and eventually the three were split apart again. After a few further skirmishes, the original protecting male reclaimed his prize, and the pursuer slowly moved on, under the wary eye of the defender.

Pictured here are the two male crabs in the heat of battle:

I wondered if perhaps the female had been kidnapped by the male who I originally had pegged as her mate before I started observing, and thus had a preference for the other male. More likely, however, she did not have any say in the matter, and her mate was chosen entirely by the results of the fight. Nature is full of brutal realities and limited choices for many individuals. Though I suppose there are, in fact, many human cultures in which a person’s gender, ethnicity, or what have you can designate them as a more property-like being than an independent decision-making entity.

After this wild battle concluded, we wandered to the other side of the small peninsula of land, listening to a mocking bird imitating a seagull. I picked up every rock that caught my eye along the way and examined it, noting the colors and the wear patterns. I looked at the rocks and the sand and the slow motion of the water and thought, and I frequently do in such settings, about how the patterns in these materials could’ve been created. The tide moves in and out, and waves beat down on sand and rocks, and it leaves distinct wear patterns; regular ridges or dunes in sand and rock. The water molecules are moving around pretty randomly at the smallest level, I think. I can’t picture the waves and wind moving such that these regular patterns appear. There’s all sorts of flow that’s not obvious though. There’s the undertow my mother always warned me about when I was a wee one at the beach, and wind changes directions and blows in all sorts of seemingly random ways. I suppose once a portion of sand is randomly pushed just a bit past the equilibrium point, and form the slightest lump, it is then easier for sand to get knocked down and join the lump when it’s blown about in the water or wind, and peaks and valleys form. I still wonder why these formations look the way they do though. For all I know it’s a simple matter to look it up on the internet, but I never have the internet available when I’m thinking about it on the beach. Knowing the deeper mechanisms at work can only add to enjoyment and appreciation of nature, but sometimes the fun of wondering is its own reward.

For good measure, I’ll leave you with this picture from the follow day at the beach, when seagulls tore into a five dollar container of beach french fries before anyone could stop them, and fought each other viciously for the the ketchupy goodness.

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