From zoo to shining sea

If the zoo is doing its job, its visitors and volunteers don’t think about it only when we’re there.  Ideally, we go out into the world looking for more examples of what we find at the zoo. I did this last month on a trip to the northern Oregon coast, home to tidepools with the same two primary inhabitants as the Discovery Bay tidepool back home in Minnesota.

Haystack RockThis is Haystack Rock, a 235-foot-tall sea stack near the tourist village of Cannon Beach, Ore. (And that’s my husband in the yellow shirt, for perspective.) At low tide, beachwalkers head out to the base of the rock and inspect the sea life exposed by the retreating waves.

tidepool rock, Oregon mountainsSubmerged at high tide just a few hours earlier, sea stars and anemones clung to these barnacled rocks.

sea anemones on Oregon coast tidepool rock close-upSome differences from the Discovery Bay pool: All the Haystack Rock anemones had grass-green tentacles (one of the few tentacle hues I hadn’t seen at the zoo), and some were partly submerged in sand. These Oregon tidepools also contained tiny crabs, which fled the shadow of my husband’s arm each time he pointed one out to me. The other occupants can move, too, if they’re so inclined, but much more slowly: A crawling sea star averages six inches per minute.

Discovery Bay tidepoolsea star replicaThe D-Bay tidepool mimics a similar Pacific coastal environment (northern California instead of northern Oregon), but one shared feature of sea stars and anemones is that they’re found at all depths in most of the world’s oceans (although anemones favor the warmer ones). Both species are invertebrates whose bodies radiate symmetrically from a central mouth — the reason we sticklers don’t say “starfish,” since fish have a backbone.  Both species anchor themselves against the pounding waves with sticky feet: Sea stars have a series of tube feet along each arm, which they also use to pull apart clamshells, while a sea anemone stands upon a single “pedal disc.” Both animals are carnivores; anemones capture tiny fish and shrimp in their tentacles. For zoo volunteers, the sea star replica above is a handy tool for describing this hardy animal’s eating habits and other features. Our travels are a less visual tool, but having seen our animals in their natural habitat adds texture to our descriptions, too.