Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 30, 2008

Life in the Squirt Zone

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:09 pm


NOTE: This is the third entry of what I hope will be a series of entries sent from the road. I guess you could call this my “Wandering Naturalist Series.”  My punctuality will depend completely on internet access along the way and the amount of daylight.  I have no doubt that nature will provide ample material



The sun sets early here on the east coast. When clouds and rain cover the autumn sun, evening darkness arrives around 5:00 or so. By the time I wandered out onto the tidal flat just outside of Chatham, Massachusetts the premature twilight had already arrived. Observation time was short and the low tide was turning.

  An even litter of shells covered the muddy surface – ranging from freshly caught and fractured Quahogs, to spectacle case shaped razor clams, small whelks, bay scallops, and plenty of oysters. Although most of these mollusks were dead, a few of the scallops were whole and very much alive.  One small scallop was gaped open as if it were dead but it reacted immediately upon my touch by pulling its lids shut with firm determination.

  A tiny Semipalmated Plover (see here) shared this little piece of Cape Cod with me. He was also beach combing and stopped to probe the mud for invertebrates every now and then.  Following his lead, I stooped down to do the same.  I shifted a rectangular rock in the process and was greeted by a jet of water across my shoe. The jet came from just under one corner of the stone. Another deliberate hand tap on the rock surface produced the same result. Multiple taps created multiple little geysers and some small entertainment was to be had in the dim light. Apparently, the siphons of a clam protruded out from the mud at this spot. The animal below was reacting to the vibrations with a nervous shot of water. By the time you actually saw the liquid reaction it was too late to photograph it. I was finally able to capture an image of one of the arching streams by performing a “knee jerk” trigger shot – in other words by pressing the shutter just as I tapped the rock (see here). 

  The next step was to see if I could capture the “squirter” itself. Marine clams bury themselves quite deep and send up a pair of very long siphon tubes that pump in nutrient rich water and pump out the filtered water. Our native Michigan clams and mussels have much shorter siphons and can only partially bury themselves.  I pulled back the rock and dug furiously for a few moments, but the thick marl offered a lot of resistance. It became obvious that I was engaging in a lost cause (the semipalmated plover chuckled a bit at my antics).

  Although the entertaining clam was not to be had, a few other under-the-rock residents revealed themselves in the digging fuss. Two small Rock Crabs (see one here) and a tiny fish – no bigger than a minute and not much more than 32 seconds worth -that looked something like a sculpin (see here) were present and accounted for.  Both of them looked slightly steameded that I had disturbed their tidal shelter.

  It was with malice toward none that we dined on steamed clams and crab cakes that night at a local eatery. I have to admit, I spent an inordinate amount of time admiring the siphons on the very dead steamer clams that sat peacefully on the dinner plate before me.

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