Limpets and Chitons and Crabs – And More (a lot more)!

I never fail to be overwhelmed at the incredible explosion of life energy generated by our planet earth. Astrophysicists, NASA scientists, and journalists get ecstatic at the slightest hint of the merest resemblance of life on other planets while here at their very feet is a daily and astounding eruption of life. To get a feeling for the incredible abundance of life supported by our planet look no further than the seashore. Right there at your feet is an explosion of life almost difficult to grasp if you stop to give it some thought. Twice each day when the tide rolls in and out, especially in the spectacular Northwest fashion, an enormous number of animals quietly and secretly live out their lives in perfect harmony with this aquatic rhythm.

Two of these unique creatures are chitons and limpets. Both chitons and limpets are members of the gigantic mollusk family, a phylum of animals that includes species from octopuses to land snails. With over 50,000 species described so far, molluscs are the 2nd largest group of invertebrate animals on the planet, exceeded in number only by the arthropods. Although they appear somewhat similar chitons and limpets are two different classes of the mollusc phylum. Chitons are members of the class Polyplacophora. Highly adapted for life on rocky surfaces in the intertidal zone chitons are distinguished by their low profile ellipsoid shape. They cling to hard surfaces with structures called a foot and girdle and feed on algae and other tiny organisms they acquire by scraping the surface just as a snail does using radula.

Limpets on the other hand, on the other rock actually, belong to a class of molluscs called Gastropods. This is the largest group of molluscs comprising of over 30,000 species to date. There are surely others to be discovered. Limpets are identifiable by their conical, symmetrical shell and pronounced pinnacle unlike the flat shells of the chitons. If you were turn a limpet over you would see a very snail like body underneath. And like their snail relatives they cling to the surface via a large “foot.” Our Northwest species breathe through a single gill that protrudes from the left side of the limpet’s body and extends to the right side of the animal. The round shell of the limpet overhangs the animal’s hidden body thus allowing a constant flow of water over the gill.

From left to right: Mask Limpet, Dogwinkle Snail, Mossy or Hairy Chiton

Closely associated in habitat with limpets and chitons are snails. Snails seem to have decided that the best shell design is a hybrid of chiton and limpet – spherical and conical and extended. Unlike their molluscan cousins, however, snails are a bit more extroverted in habit and prefer to get out of the confines of their calcified home for extended periods, although you probably won’t see this extroverted side of their nature in marine species when exposed to low tide.

Crustaceans, however, best the chitons and limpets in number and activity on many of our beaches. Flip over a rock or piece of driftwood on our shores and you are liable to see dozens of cute little shore crabs scattering about. In my experience the purple shore crab and the little, green hairy shore crab are the most numerous of the 25 species we host. But look a little closer and that tiny snail like shell you see might be housing one of our three hermit crabs.

From left to right: Lined Crab (the most beautiful of the shore crabs), Kelp Crab, Purple Shore Crab, Red Rock Crab

For sheer numbers, however, barnacles take the prize. Coating seashore rocks like living wall paper these abundant crustaceans are exclusively marine animals. They are also the only sessile (non-moving) crustacean so don’t expect to observe a lot of activity with these animals unless you view them underwater while feather like cirri whip food into their mouth. And yes they do have a mouth. Making their home on rocks, driftwood, coral, and even living whales, barnacles easily number into the billions upon billions and are extremely successful animals.

In this article I have only mentioned the sea shore wildlife you are most likely to encounter. I have not gone into eels, worms, nudibranchs, anemones, jellyfish, isopods, amphipods, sand dollars, sponges, fish, or the variety of vegetative and microscopic life near the sea shore. My intent in this piece was not to detail every creature of the shore imaginable but simply to impart the sense of wonder at astounding life this earth supports – and just on the shore! It is miraculous indeed. For more photos of these beautiful animals go here: Northwest Seashore.

And when you’re done marveling at the abundant life of the shore line turn around and gaze at the forests behind you. Those beautiful trees are an explosion of earth life, too.

In a Toad’s Eye  /  Reptiles and Amphibians of Afghanistan

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Angry Heron

In a Toad’s Eye  /  Reptiles and Amphibians of Afghanistan

Pic of the day. This heron got a little upset with the sea gulls crowding the beach.


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Wildlife News

Bat bat news. This is happening in Washington, too:  Bat Plague

Scary Orca news: But not in Puget Sound: Killer Whale Attacks Fishing Boat

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Quick Guide to Common Western Wasps

In a Toad’s Eye  Reptiles / Amphibians of Afghanistan

Paper Wasps, Polistes aruifer, construct open to the air cellular type nests. The Bald Faced Hornet, Dolichovespula maculate, makes a round, classic looking hive that can become quite large if left undisturbed. The Western Yellow Jacket, Vespula penslyvanica, finds a home underground, normally in an old rodent burrow or something similar. Another distinguishable characteristic of the Yellow Jacket wasp is a head completely outlined in yellow.

As the weather heats up here in the Northwest you are sure to notice a sudden abundance in bees and wasps. In general bees are not nearly as aggressive as wasps and are easily recognized by their distinctly different body shapes. Bees are round bodied, hairy insects specifically designed for maximum collection of pollen. Wasps have longer, streamlined, naked bodies and tend to feed on other insects, and even carcasses of dead animals. They also display a notably more cantankerous disposition than bees. It’s this difference in attitude that makes wasps fairly unwelcome visitors while you’re out and about enjoying the summer sun.

Topping the list in aggressive behavior is the Yellow Jacket. These easily irritated insects nest in underground lairs, often in old rodent holes. So if you notice some buzzing insects that seem to pop out of the ground – watch your step. It could very well be a nest of Yellow Jackets. Under the eaves of your homestead you are likely to see two other common members of the wasp family, Bald Faced Hornets and Paper Wasps. Neither of these species have a particularly aggressive disposition but they will vigorously defend their real estate if sufficiently provoked. As noted by Arthur Evans in the National Wildlife Federation “Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America,” the names of these wasps are a bit confusing considering the nests they build. Bald Faced Hornets build large globular nests that much more resemble paper than the open faced cellular nests of Paper Wasps.

So there is your quick guide to wasp identification. Now the next time you hear somebody lump all of these insects together as Yellow Jackets you’ll be able to make an on the spot correcting (if necessary, of course).

Animal Books You Will Enjoy

In a Toad’s Eye

This one is fiction but fiction based in truth. A series of short stories each based on an actual event with an animal or animals as the inspiring muse. I like to call it the confluence of Wild Kingdom and the Twilight Zone with a generous dose of humor. Available in e-book format and hard cover.

Reptiles and Amphibians of Afghanistan

Non-fiction and loaded with high quality photographs of herp species of Afghanistan taken in country by the author. Includes species description, location, and behavioral account of the encounter when discovered. Includes some rare photos of the Afghan Skittering Frog. Available in e-book format and hard cover.

Oregon Invaded Again

This time with Sea Pickles of all things:


My Favorite Millipede

I am fascinated by these many legged arthropods. Something about their exotic, otherworldly physiology, innate harmlessness, and unique locomotive skills captivates me every time. Here in the Northwest, as in most parts of the world, we have our share of these intriguing creatures and they come in a variety of shapes. The familiar little roly poly pill bug that hides under rocks and leaf litter sits at one extreme while big five inchers prowl about bulldozing their way through deep forests. We have some unusually small species as well. The tiny Andrognathid family are often found under loose bark of our conifer trees. Seldom more than an inch long and glossy beige in color they can be mistaken for worms. We have a fast moving red millipede that could easily pass for a centipede at first glance, until you notice the telltale millipede characteristic of two legs per body segment. My favorite, however, is the Yellow Spotted millipede, Harpaphe haydeniana. Also referred to a Clown Millipede these distinctive Diplodas get to be about 2 inches long and are generally found in forest leaf litter or hiding under logs. They are well known for one very distinctive talent – it uses cyanide as a defense weapon. This kind of defense is not uncommon in millipedes but the Yellow Spotted millipede produces so much that it has a pronounced odor. Pick one up sometime and you’ll see what I mean. Don’t worry. It won’t hurt you to smell it. Just don’t try to eat the thing.


Crow Fight

Crows are extraordinarily interesting birds to observe. Large, loud, and intelligent you can always count on some kind of neat behavior from them. Many live in family groups and share habitat, food, and upbringing of young birds. Sometimes, however, this harmony is interrupted. This aggressive behavior is most likely directed at a crow from another clan but like any family arguments will erupt. I have often seen one crow furiously attacked by others but it is difficult to tell the relationship without prolonged observation. After installing a camera that overlooks a small compost heap in our garden I had the chance to film one of these encounters in my backyard recently. Photo after photo revealed mainly peaceful dining among the birds but intermittent raucous arguments regularly occurred as well. No one seemed to be injured by these confrontations and life resumed normally a short time later.

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

Every now and then, every rare now and then you have the fortune to read a book that significantly transforms the way you view the world. Such is the case with The Hidden Life of Trees. Wohlleben, a German forester, once viewed these plentiful organisms much like you and I – beautiful to look at and wonderful to behold but scarcely more complex than a giant boulder and slightly more useful. As a forester his job was to ensure the growth of trees primarily for their future use as in a lumber mill. In the course of his work, however, he added a place in the forest as an “alternative to traditional graveyards.” Such irony! Thanks to this initiative he had many conversations with people who marveled at the beauty of the forest, especially about gnarled and odd shaped trees, exactly the ones he used to dismiss due to their low commercial value. Wohlleben took notice and delved deeper into the lives of the giants that surrounded him. What he discovered made him realize that trees are infinitely more complex than ever he had realized and changed his life. Trees communicate, they assist each other in times of need, help their offspring, and even assist their deceased companions to carry on. In addition trees, aided by a mass of fungi, create an incredible tangle of complex biochemical and electric reactions that take place underground. In short – it is an astounding life hidden from us for years and years. Until now.

            One word of caution here, however. After reading Wohlleben’s amazing book you will never view trees in the same again.

A Visit to MT Rainier National Park

For those fortunate enough to live near this tremendous National Park an abundance of spectacular scenery awaits, and for those with a practiced eye, an abundance of wildlife as well. I say practiced eye because like most popular national parks the animals can be shy during the height of the tourist season. As you wander up to greater altitudes and greater views keep your head down a bit and look closely at the streams and brooks flowing alongside the trails. Caddis fly larvae are plentiful as are a large number of other insect larvae. Tailed frogs are interesting amphibians with that peculiar mating appendage very much in view and an ability to thrive in very cold water and high altitudes. I doubt there is another mammal on earth as cute as the pica, but this member of the rabbit family is a bit difficult to observe unless you find just the right rocky habitat they love. Check out the trail called Comet Falls. Up beyond Paradise Lodge is the land of marmot; hoary marmots, that is, the biggest member of the squirrel family. These “whistle pigs” are not shy by the way. Certain rocky peaks near the park entrance are sometimes great for viewing the marvelous mountain goats; always a thrill to see. No matter how many times I have visit this wonderful place I am never disappointed. Check it out!