Sandy Beach Wetland Worms
Between Pacific Tides
Edward F. Ricketts

on the


Compiled and Edited
With an Afterword
Robert Jan "Roy" van de Hoek
Marine Biologist and Conservation Biologist
Ballona Institute
322 Culver Boulevard, #317
Playa del Rey, CA 90293
(310) 821-9045


156. So deep down as to be chiefly a subtidal form, especially where the sand is firm, with an admixture of detritus, but sometimes to be seen from the shore, is a lugworm that belongs more properly in the mud flats of protected bays (Arenicola, 310). It is a burrowing animal that breathes by keeping two entrances open to the surface. About one of them characteristic castings of sand will be noticed. On these barren beaches it occurs, so far as we have observed, only where rocky outcrops divert the surf in such a way as to induce the deposition of some silt - the situation to be expected, since the worm feeds by eating the substratum and extracting therefrom the contained organic matter."

191.Although we ourselves have never taken them, E. and C. Berkeley report (1932) from Long Bay, an exposed beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island (in addition to abundant specimens of a nephtys, N. caeca, similar to those treated in 265), an annelid worm which merits consideration. It is Ophelia mucronata, previously known only from southern California, and is said to occur "in vast numbers . . . . , whole stretches of sand being tunnelled by countless millions. Judging by the complex system of furrows on the sand beds they inhabit, they seem to emerge from their burrows and crawl on the surface of the sand, but none were found exposed. Large flocks of sandpipers are frequently seen at low tide, extracting these worms and feeding on them." This was described as a slender ophellid, 35 X 1 to 25 X 2 mm., with triangular head, and bearing gills on the lower middle two-thirds of the body.

In certain exposed sand beaches at and below the lowest-tide level, bait-gatherers frequently dig out the nereis-like Nainereis laevigata, which may be had sometimes by the shovelful. Except for its smaller size, this so nearly resembles Nereis vexillosa (163) that bait-collectors confuse them, swearing up and down that it is the height of folly to dig under mussels when the desired worms occur so availably in easily dug sand.

Robert Jan "Roy" van de Hoek
Marine Biologist and Conservation Biologist
Ballona Institute

Edward Ricketts can be called the first conservation biologist of the California coast, but also the first marine ecologist of California, but better yet perhaps, he can be called California's first wetland ecologist, naturalist, and scientist. And he had no PhD, nor even a university degree, although he did receive training at the University of Chicago in the early 1920s.

Ed can be called California's first conservation biologist, not only because of his extensive field work and dynamic ecological book, but because he admonished the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) for allowing marine life of our pacific coast wetlands to slide toward extinction and become so rare on the California coast without doing anything effective for its well being and management. The fault genuinely lies with our elected political representatives in Sacramento, which rather than listening to warnings from citizen scientists and some of its government scientists, chose to paralyze the CDFG. The fishermen lobby and its violent, threatening, and angry tendencies mentally and physically, crippled politicians and CDFG commissioners, in turn paralyzing CDFG scientists from managing wisely for conservation certain wetland animals. We can piece this story together from the writings of Ed Ricketts as he was not afraid to challenge our government in Sacramento and the CDFG. You can see glimpses of his admonishment in his classic early ecological and conservation book entitled Between Pacific Tides.

The CDFG "fooled" and "dinked" around with various management strategies for various intertidal wetland invertebrate animals, with passage of legal codes and restrictions, yet various wetland marine invertebrates still became more and more rare, as clearly pointed out by Edward Ricketts 67 years ago, in his 1939 book, Between Pacific Tides (BPT).

From Ed Ricketts book (BPT), we learn that the sandy beach of California, Oregon, and Washington, Canada, and Alaska, is a very delicate habitat and needs careful management if it is not to be impacted negatively by human greed. I believe that the CDFG needs to delineate more ESHA (Environmental Sensitive Habitat Area) in the California Coastal Zone, including many sandy beaches, but not limited to only these habitats. Ed Ricketts gave us the early warning signs in his classic book (BPT) 67 years ago, in 1939, and we had better heed his warnings of too many people and too much collecting and fishing on our beautiful California coast.

The sandy beaches may appear barren of life and biodiversity, in terms of numbers of species that live there, but no person can doubt that the beach is barren, when it is shown to them, the vast number of birds seen searching out the vast numbers of sand crabs, so eloquently written about by Ed Ricketts in his book. To see the gorgeous sandpipers, particularly Willets, Whimbrels, and Godwits, feeding on the hordes of sand crabs, is a sight to be remembered. And then to walk near the surf, with shoes and socks off, and to feel the crabs wriggling around your toes and feet is splendid in connecting to nature for a human, especially for children with their parents.

On some beaches in Los Angeles County, such as Zuma Beach, not only can one experience these crabs, but you can also see masses of Bean Clams, 10,000 maybe more. And lastly, when a thousand or more Grunion come up on the beach, we would certainly not refer to our sandy beaches as barren and devoid of life. Yet, had you visited the beach an hour earlier before the Grunion arrived on the beach, you might think there is no animal life on the beach.

To know that birds such as several kinds of herons arrive at the beach just prior to when the grunion arrive, only to take a few of these nutritious fish, is additional proof that the sandy beach is not barren. I have seen Black-crowned Night Heron, perhaps a dozen or more, anxiously awaiting to catch the grunion at San Pedro, while a hundred or more children and public, through a public education program of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, watch in amazement. Among the Night Herons and people, were several Great Blue Heron also, looking like humans in dim light of the night at a distance, on their two long legs, and stately erect posture, also awaiting an opportunity of a nutritous meal.

I conclude my complementery essay on Ed Ricketts's essay of sandy beaches with a narrative passage for you about the relationship of two people and some time spent by Ed Ricketts, together with a fellow marine biologist, George MacGinitie, where Ed has a verbal communication with George about a marine invertebrate animal found on sandy beaches at Humboldt Bay in northwestern California. In their mutual discussion, Ed writes that MacGinitie found an interesting clam on the sandy beaches, 189, and so we learn that George MacGinitie had done field studies at Humboldt Bay. We know that George did his field visit prior to 1939, when the BTW book was publihed, but no more specific on the date of George's visit is provided. Recently however, I was able to confirm that the field study by George MacGinitie to the sandy beach of Humboldt Bay took place on January 17, 1931. It was a bit of serendipity, an accidental discovery, if you will that I learned of the date of the visit from reading some current scientific literature. In this article, it was revealed to me by the science writing of John Clamp, in his research on ectosymbionts on marine isopods, that MacGinitie collected one of these isopods in 1931, fully 75 years ago. John Clamp's research was published in The Journal of Eukaryotic Microbiology, volume 53, January 2006.

Finally, we can state simply that a continuation of marine biology research from the 1930s to 2006, involving Ed Ricketts, George MacGinitie, and John Clamp is linked together by connecting the dots and then, this writer sharing this story with you. We really do have a unique episode of California environmental history, serendipity, and California natural history bound together in the "life and times" of "sandy beaches" with its marine biology and "life history" of a marine clam and an isopod, put into an eclectic nature story, full of magic, mystery, and awe. We can see that Ed Ricketts also told these "natural history" stories with worms by reading Ed's passages above. I will close this essay with a direct quote from his classic book as follows:

"Whereas the animals living on surf-swept rocky shores have solved the problem of wave shock by developing powerful attachment devices, the inhabitants of surf-swept sandy beaches achieve the same end by burying themselves in the sand. Some, like the mole crab and the razor clam, are able to burrow with extraordinary rapidity. Others (Pismo clam) burrow more slowly, depending on the pressure-distributing strength of their hard, rounded shell. These have achieved the necessary great strenth and resistance to crushing, not through the development of such obvious structural reinforcements as ribbing, with the consequent economy of material, but by means of shells which are thick and heavy throughout. Ribbing would provide footholds for the surf-created currents which could whisk the animal out of its securely buried position in a hurry. Natural selection presumably has "bred out" a race of thick- and smooth-shelled clams over which the streaming and crushing surf can pour without effect. In addition the actively burrowing forms particularly, such as Emerita (186), must be provided with a sense of orientation not dependent on sight."

"That the problems faced by sand dwellers on an exposd coast are reasonably baffling is indicated by the fact that few animals are to hold their own under such conditions. While these beaches are not the barren wastes we found the smaller sandy beaches of the protected outer coast to be, they are still sparsely populated in comparison with similar rocky shores. Actually we know of only six or seven common forms that occur in any abundance on heavily surf-swept sand beaches, and two of them are already well along toward extinction as a result of human activities. This reflects a situation quite different from that assumed by most amateur collectors, who would have one but turn over a spadeful of beach sand to reveal a wealth of hidden life." [BPT, 1939, page 135].