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Guest Author Katie Kloos Uncovers One of Orange County’s Vanishing Coastal Treasures

May 6, 2011

It’s been a warm week, tantalizingly summer-like, with temperatures in the 90’s a few days ago. Of course thoughts turn toward the cool Orange County coast at times like this . . . so here’s a beach-related post.  Summer’s coming!

Since I usually wander in our inland hills, my writing reflects that geographic bias. But one of the students in my freshman composition class wrote such a fine essay this semester, about our local sand dollar species, that I wanted to give her words a wider audience. Her “connection” to nature made me remember my own: so many 1960s summer days spent at Corona del Mar or Newport Beach’s 17th Street beaches, picking up shells, unawares . . .

The Curious Case of the Forgotten Sand Dollar

By Katie Kloos

I remember collecting seashells on the beach with my father one summer day when I was very young. We walked for hours with the sun pressing warmth on our red faces, bending to pluck the colorful treasures from the gritty sand. We placed them in separate piles based on shape and color and size – like students of Aristotle or Darwin. I would ask incessant questions:

“What’s this one? Where did it come from? What was inside?”

Lacking thorough knowledge of the local marine life, he would simply reply, “A crab used to live in there. It was his home.”

“Where is he now?”  I would ask, sadly looking down at the empty shell.

“I guess he found a new home,” he’d reply. My father would always answer my questions as best he could, and I never doubted his knowledge.

I remember one day that my father called me over to him, and I went excitedly. He pointed down. My eyes followed the direction of his finger until they landed upon a sparkling white disk, about the size of a tennis ball, partially buried in the sand.

Upon closer examination, I saw that the top of the mysterious disk was adorned by the pattern of a faintly purple flower design. My eyes widened, but for some reason, even though I had asked about every ordinary shell we had found, I didn’t ask about this one.

My father bent down to scoop it up, and cradling it with great care in his giant, rough farmer’s hands, he placed it into my tiny, greedy paws that clutched at it with eager excitement and adoration. Its fragile body, overwhelmed by my enthusiasm, crumbled to powder instantly in my grip.

The unfortunate item I had obliterated that day is commonly called a sand dollar, and up until recently that was the extent of my knowledge about the flat ocean disk. Assuming, like most people, that it was a kind of elite seashell, I was rather surprised to learn that my conjecture was completely false. Richard Moori, a marine biologist of the California Academy of Sciences, is quoted in a Bay Nature article as saying that a sand dollar “is no more a shell than your skull is a shell.” Rather the rare, dainty disk that arrives on the shore to be pocketed by beach travelers is actually the skeleton of a creature that once was very much alive.

Blankets of the west coast native Dendraster excentricus, the common sand dollar, cover much of the sea floor along Orange County’s coast. A 1970 article published in the American Midland Naturalist calls this creature “one of the most abundant macroorganisms…along the Pacific Coast.”

Why then are sand dollars now so rare? Why aren’t they washing up onto the beaches in droves of hundreds? Where are these thousands of sand dollars that carpet the Pacific Coast? The answer is this: by the time it reaches the beach and receives society’s recognition, the life of the sand dollar has ended. And few make this journey untouched.

The life of the sand dollar surprisingly begins the same way we humans do: a fertilized egg. The New Encyclopedia of Aquatic Life: Aquatic Invertebrates and Fishes describes the process of sand dollar reproduction as “a casual affair.” Just like two strangers who meet in a bar, two wandering gametes released into the water meet and decide to form a new life. From here, some kind of biological miracle happens and Dendraster excentricus bursts into life as a simple symmetrical, hollow skeleton disk covered in “velvety” purple spines and with two small openings on the back – a mouth and an anus – according to the Smithsonian book Sea Stars, Sea Urchins, and Allies. Then the sand dollar settles on the ocean floor where it begins its life of casual survival.

But the life of the sand dollar species began much earlier than this. The New Encyclopedia of Aquatic Life details how fossils of Dendraster excentricus exist in the oldest Pre-Cambrian period of the fossil record. Being such simple creatures, they formed quickly in the warm, shallow waters of the Pacific. I imagine large populations of purple sand dollars snuggling themselves in the soft prehistoric sand of ancient sea beds that are now the sites of today’s modern streets and industrial areas of Orange County. Or perhaps they dwelt on the tips of the Santa Ana Mountains, once covered in deep ocean water, or on the land under my dorm room at Concordia University.

These ancient ancestors passed on a trait unique to today’s West Coast Dendraster excentricus: all other species of sand dollars lie flat, partially buried in the sand, feeding off of sediment moved to the mouth by spines, but Dendraster excentricus refuses to live this bottom-feeder lifestyle.

Instead he uses his spines – called “tube feet” – to push himself off the ocean floor – standing upright, fearlessly facing the current, proud. Here, vertically protruding from the sand, is where he snares his microorganism prey in his spines for transport to the mouth. He stands against the current like a tiny sail against the wind, cloaked in his royal purple and in constant battle with his environment.

The sand dollar’s courageous lifestyle is not only essential for its own survival, but it is also vital to the entire Orange County marine ecosystem. Researchers have documented that  among the vast fields of vertical-feeding sand dollars is where many tiny sea creatures take refuge from predators such as crabs, starfish, and larger fish. The sand dollars are so numerous that they lean against and pile on top of each other, forming comfortable havens for small fishes and other organisms. In the harsh, predator-dominated ocean, sand dollars act as the guardians of the weak and defenseless.

However, this guardianship comes with great sacrifice for sand dollars. With the food supply safe underneath their protective covering, sand dollars are forced to face the hungry predators searching the ocean floor for nourishment. Sinister crabs and lobsters nibble the edges of sand dollars for a source of needed calcium, and large starfish have been known to swallow entire live sand dollars. Barnacles attach to sand dollars, “fouling” them by making them very ill and eventually killing them, according to research documented in the American Midland Naturalist.

But the sand dollars face a worse enemy in Orange County: humans. The March 2009 Draft Environmental Impact Report for Newport Beach reports that although intertidal populations of sand dollars are becoming more rare in Newport Bay, the Department of Fish and Game does not consider them to be a “sensitive” species and therefore does not protect them.

Upon hearing this, I requested an interview with a representative from the Department of Fish and Game but was denied. Furthermore, according to the 2010 Huntington Beach Draft Subsequent Environmental Impact Report, sea floor creatures like sand dollars are in danger of the severe environmental changes caused by the surprisingly legal dumping of industrial discharge into the ocean from the Huntington Beach Generating Station.

In the face of all these dangers and challenges, the tiny creature eventually loosens his grip on the sandy ocean floor – on existence – and his life is over. As the current moves his lifeless body closer to the shore, hungry creatures strip him of his powerful spines, the sun fades his purple glory, and he arrives on the warm beach as a skeleton. And a child, like me, will come and scoop him up – like a bizarre grave robbery – and crush his remains in a flurry of enthusiasm.

A life unnoticed. Only seen and appreciated after death, like the beauty and genius of Emily Dickenson and Vincent Van Gogh. Gone before we know they’ve lived. Why does childish curiosity end with the sand dollar? Why didn’t I ask my father about the sparkling ocean treasure he gave to me? Why does it have to die before people will recognize it—this unlikely hero who saves others by defying gravity. This ancient creature with prehistoric secrets. This beautiful life.

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