I noticed recently that someone used the search terms “value of piping plover” and stumbled upon my blog. I often wish I could ask people what they were really looking for, since four words don’t often convey the reason they are searching for something. Were they wondering the natural value? The monetary value? Something to justify one of their beliefs or to undermine a different value? Of course, there is no Kelly Blue Book for all the animals in the world [THANKFULLY!], but perhaps this analogy will help think about how to place a ‘value’ on individual animals.

Do you have a wristwatch on? Barring that it’s not a digital watch, if you’ve ever opened it up, or perhaps you have one of the see-through ones, you’ve probably seen all the cogs, gears, and wheels, not to mention the screws made of quartz, ruby, or sapphire.  All these tiny little pieces work together in mechanical harmony to keep precise time and keep you punctual.

Now keeping in mind the watch with all the cogs, think of an ecosystem, any group of living and non-living components that function together, such as a beach, deciduous forest, or an alpine lake and all the living and non-living things there. Which ever ecosystem you choose, it functions a lot like the watch.  The animals have certain niches, or jobs,–some are decomposers, some are consumers, and some are top predators–and the non-living components provide the terrain, habitat, air, etc. Every animal has developed to function as well as it can with all the other components of its ecosystem, so it is essentially the perfect fit. Conversely, the ecosystem functions on some level better with the animal species present.  And just as a watch would have [back in the day] taken time to craft and construct, the ecosystems of this world have developed over long periods of time [much longer than humans have been here].  As complicated as a watch looks to those who aren’t familiar with its intricate movement, an ecosystem can seem overwhelmingly complex–or even deceptively simple, just like a watch if you don’t open it up!

Now say, for some odd reason, your watch brakes–or specifically, one cog in your watch fails. It won’t work without it, so you hunt for a replacement. To your frustration, they’ve stopped making that type of watch and have no exact replacement, so you hunt around for some suitable substitution. You find a cog that works, but it just a little too small, so every now and then, your watch misses a beat, leading to your watch losing its accuracy over time.  This happens in an ecosystem as well. A species for one reason or another disappears from an area. Used to be, before fences, vast tracts of urban development, and multi-lane highways, animals could freely move from place to place, so eventually those animals that disappeared would be replaced by other populations. Seems like today is a bit more difficult, since virtually no land is left untouched, although in the case of invasives like the Woolly Adelgid, modern technology made it easier to move around the globe. We have tried to replace species we’ve lost, such as eastern elk populations in the Smokies, but it’s a cog that doesn’t fully fit, and so these replacements don’t fully function in their new ecosystem.  We’ve also tried to introduce more cogs into the system and the results are still up in the air [See: How Risky is Biological Control?].

Now unlike a watch where it’s understandable how the cogs interact–in fact it’s all calculable, the interactions between ‘cogs’ in an ecosystem aren’t always as clear-cut.  We understand the top predators and their impacts, but to understand the influence a piping plover has on invertebrate populations under the sand requires a few more academic degrees than most of us have.  IF the natural world were as easy to understand as a watch, we’d be in luck, but unfortunately it’s not so simple. No one has all the answers and no one fully understands how our actions and habits impact the natural world.  The best we can do for now is tread lightly, be smart, and speak softly!


The Value of One

This month has been the month of decisions and news. I was accepted into grad school and am preparing for the busyness that will be by trying to finish projects, line up jobs, and plan out volunteer work.  On top of that, I’ve been spotting a lot of neat and new [to me] creatures on the beach. Of course, it often happens that I spot them without camera in hand, but I was lucky one day in that the Channeled Whelk I found cameraless, I again found the next day when I brought my camera! First one I’ve seen, which I am a little confounded about since I comb the beaches at least twice a week. In the photo above, you can see its operculum is open and half under the sand. There is also a covering of perhaps algae on the top of the shell, making a soft, velvety carpeted shell.

I was surprised to find this fellow as well! Both of these mollusks’ shell fragments can be found littering the wrack line, but the inhabitants are often nowhere to be found.  This Banded Tulip was also the first live specimen I found this year. Attached to it were two small sea cucumbers.  There are still a large amount of tourists wandering the beach, plastic bags in hand, picking up any fragment and any creature that happens to be in a shell. Most of the mollusks I find poke above the sand as it dries and as the tide receives. It doesn’t take long for a tourist to figure this out, so as I find them I re-bury them closer in the swash with the siphonal canal [the ‘bottom’ or opening end] pointing up so that they may be covered by the incoming tide faster.  Of course, it always attracts attention when you dig something out of the sand, so you have to be prepared to explain why you’re allowing such a pretty shell to ‘go to waste’ [nevermind the creature that rather not get boiled out of its exoskeleton!]. These beaches are heavily visited, and there are ‘rolling’ laws saying the collection of ‘x’ species is illegal until numbers rebound [e.g. Sand dollars on Hilton Head Island].

The Sea Star below disappeared. We once got the question, while gathering specimens to show our school group, how would be the best way to dry out a Sea Star…hmm, asking the people about to give a beach ecology class how to kill something they are trying to conserve. That was an awkward conversation!

I am happy to see this fellow, I would like to fancy that it’s the same Piping Plover I spotted last year [solely based on the fact that it’s in the same spot, not that I can match the bands].  My guess, since it turned out to be true for the previous Plover, this fellow hatched from the Great Lakes breeding facility since the Atlantic breeding population has to compete with our tires…

I believe the fellow below is an unbanded Piping Plover. A slight glimmer of hope that we can all share the beach, mollusks, barrier island-breeding birds, and shell happy tourists alike!

It sometimes is hard to remember, as you walk the beaches and see hoards of people lounging in beach chairs, fishing, playing frisbee and building sand castles, that we’re apart of the beach ecosystem, or whatever ecosystem we decide to recreate or live in.  In fact, it’s hard to imagine that perhaps a whelk, just a predatory snail, or a Piping Plover, a tiny shorebird that can’t hold still, could be equally important to the ecosystem as humans are.  The value of one species over another is nearly impossible to decide [I’m not sure it’s possible to function in a world of just keystone species], but yet, we as humans decide on a daily basis that our recreational activities trump a bird nest, our decorative needs require calcium encasements from sea creatures, and our housing needs require an ocean view, dunes be darned!

To bad not all wildlife/human conflicts don’t have someone working so hard to find a compromise. Monarchs are lucky in the sense that someone is trying to save their wintering grounds. The trees that the monarchs roost in, the oyamel, are used by surrounding communities as a predominate source of firewood.  [For a great article, read this uplifting piece:] The monarch’s struggle to survive is intertwined with the locals’ need to be able to prepare food, essentially survive. Luckily, as mentioned in the article above, there are dedicated individuals working to find the middle ground for the butterflies and local families.

Unfortunately, the endangered Piping Plover doesn’t seem to have such a solution [read here for a brief summary on the conservation and conflict]. What is fought for isn’t the right to heat your home and cook your food, it’s the ‘right’ to drive over one of the most fragile and dynamic ecosystems in the world, the barrier island.  I’m pretty sure if if could be asked of the Plover, or Whelk, for that matter, they think they are the coolest ones on the beach and would agree that we need to find a balance between our recreational pursuits and their livelihood.