Old Man's Beard

Several years ago I saw a pictorial essay in a Sunday paper. The article described a drive down beautiful Highway 1 from San Francisco to Monterey. The first photo showed numerous wildflowers and was captioned “Queen Anne’s Lace Graces the Highway.” The flowers in question were actually Cow Parsnips. The second photo said “Sea Lions Rest Peacefully on the Rocks.” They were Harbor Seals. The final photo was entitled, “Spanish Moss Hangs from Windswept Trees.” It was not Spanish moss but a lichen called Old Man’s Beard. They were batting 0 for 3 in the photo department. I didn’t read the article.

Real Spanish Moss is found only in the southern United States – along the Gulf Coast, in Georgia and in Florida. It is not moss, and it sure isn’t Spanish. It is a bromeliad, a member of the pineapple family. Evolutionarily-speaking it is a highly evolved plant with true roots, stems and flowers. Spanish Moss is an epiphyte (meaning on plant) not a parasite; it receives all of its nutrients from rainwater.

Old Man’s Beard on the other hand is a lichen, and lichens are found all over the world. They can tolerate extremely harsh conditions. Some have been found in Antarctica living inside rocks! Considered pioneer plants, lichens are often the first living things to colonize new surfaces. By secreting acids, lichens break down rocks and help convert them to soil. And like Spanish Moss, they receive all of their nutrients from rainwater or fog.

A lichen is not a plant. It actually consists of two primitive plants. One is a fungus and the other an algae. The mnemonic device is “Alice Algae took a Lichen to Freddie Fungus and now they live together in a natural relationship.” Cute.
In cross-section, a lichen consists of an outer
protective layer, a photosynthetic layer (individual cells of algae surrounded by fungus), a storage area (for minerals and water), and a lower cortex (that provides attachment).

Botanists used to believe that the relationship was a mutual one – both partners benefited equally. The algae contributed sugars, nitrogen and other nutrients to the fungus. The fungus in return provided the algae a swell place to live with abundant water, minerals and protection.
Now many scientists believe that the fungus is actually parasitizing the algae. The algae can five just fine without the fungus, but the fungus needs the algae in order to survive. Not quite the idyllic relationship once postulated.

Most lichens reproduce by soredia, microscopic bodies consisting of tiny algae cells surrounded by fungus. These are formed in special fruiting bodies and then released. Wind, water or even animals transport these miniature lichens to new locations.

Scraping lichens off the walls is one job the maintenance workers at the Transamerica Building do not have. In urban areas, lichens usually do not grow because of their sensitivity to air pollution. They are especially susceptible to sulfur dioxide and nitric oxide, two common byproducts of internal combustion, engines. If you have lichens growing near your house, consider yourself fortunate; you breathe clean air.

After the Chernobyl nuclear accident large areas of northern Europe were exposed to radioactive malarial. Reindeer moss, which is actually lichen not moss, incorporated this fallout into its tissues. The reindeer feed almost exclusively on these lichens. Their flesh has become contaminated; it can not be eaten or sold. The Laplanders who had depended upon the reindeer for centuries suddenly found themselves out of a lifestyle. Because lichens are so slow growing, it may be another 50 years before the reindeer meat can be eaten again. Let’s not have any more nuclear accidents.

The Pacific Sea Star


by Michael J. Ellis

Imagine sitting down to a fine repast at your favorite French restaurant. Your entree of roast duck and pommes de terre francais is steaming hot. Suddenly your stomach comes rising out of your mouth and plops down right on the plate. Blobs of white flesh ooze digestive enzymes and gradually the food dissolves into a slimy paste, which is then absorbed by the lining of your stomach. After an hour or so you suck your stomach back in. Hmmm, not quite satisfied you ask the waiter for chocolate mousse.

Thank goodness this is not how humans eat. But for most sea stars it’s normal procedure. Along the outer coast of central and northern California the commonest sea star is Pisaster ochraceus. We will call it the Pacific seastar. Like human beings this species comes in several color forms including brown, purple and orange. And also like humans these varieties can interbreed. The five rigid arms and the entire top surface are covered with hundreds of tiny white spines. This seastar can tolerate exposure to air for up to eight hours. It may not move for weeks and when it does its motion is almost imperceptible. This is one tough critter; it inhabits an area that routinely gets smashed by giant waves.

Just off center on the top of the animal is a whitish plate. This is a sieve that filters ocean water. This filter is so efficient that even microscopic bacteria cannot get through it. The siphoned water is part of the hydovascular system that enables the animal to maintain its shape and to move. Thousands of tiny tube feet run out along canals in the arms, each tubefoot is capable of exerting suction against the substrate. Under nervous control the tubefeet enable the animal to slide along. This is definitely movement by committee!

Most slow moving objects in the sea are soon covered with fouling organisms such as barnacles and sponges. The Pacific seastar is slow but its surface remains free of organisms. For seastars this is very important because they breathe through their skin. On the skin are tiny pincers called pedicellariae. These snapping jaws remove any animal that attempts to homestead on the seastar’s back. The power of the pincers can be demonstrated by placing the back of a seastar on your forearm. Soon your hairs are firmly in the grasp of the pedicellariae. Ouch!

The Pacific seastar has few predators but birds will sometimes eat one. It’s a comical sight to watch a gull try to ingest a seastar. It may take hours of gulping before the bird can finally swallow it. The seastar’s stiff arms still protrude out the gull’s mouth and stretch its neck. Surely the taste cannot be worth the discomfort. Sea otters will also eat seastars but usually only bite off an arm or two. And since seastars can regenerate body parts the otters do no long-term damage to the population.

Seastars reproduce by shedding sperm and eggs into the ocean via pores in their armpits. Fertilization is external. The microscopic free-swimming larvae are bilaterally symmetrical. The larvae soon change into bottom-dwelling juveniles that grow into radially symmetrical adults. Growth is very slow and depends upon food supply and water temperature. The Pacific sea star can live for over twenty years.

Along the central coast the primary food of the Pisaster ochraceus is mussels, barnacles, limpets, and chitons – in that order. Using their powerful tube feet Pacific seastars only have to open a mussel’s shell .1 mm. Then they evert their stomach, put it into the mussel’s shell and begin eating. The overall effect on mussels is profound. This seastar is solely responsible for determining the lower limit of the mussel beds.

Like most of the other marine invertebrates, seastars are protected by law and may not be collected. What looks beautiful in a tidepool soon loses its color and shape at home and begins to stink. The seastar is then discarded in the garbage can – an ignoble end to such a tenacious survivor.


An Essay from 1989

Describing the sound of an alarmed rattlesnake is like trying to describe the Grand Canyon. Words fail, the total experience transcends language. Wind blowing through dry leaves…yea, sort of. A giant cicada buzzing….. maybe. The rapid clicking of dry castanets…..getting closer. Charles Shaw probably says it best in his book, Snakes of the American West. “It starts like the clicking of dried bones, grows in intensity and volume until the individual clicks are a strident blur, runs together up and down the scale with a sound like escaping steam, yet with that dried-bones effect still present, and finally subsides into a series of individual clicks.”

If you hear something that you “think” is a rattlesnake, then it probably isn’t. Because when a rattlesnake rattles, every cell in your body becomes totally alert. You respond on a gut level, there is no thinking is involved. You are suddenly aware of every sensation, movement and activity all around you. Danger is near. This can be very disconcerting if you cannot identify from which direction the sound came. Years after this has happened to me I can still recall in intimate detail every aspect of the moment.

Recently in the East Mojave my wife spied a beautiful desert lily in full flower. As she approached the lily to admire it, she suddenly leaped with a quick scream. In a surprisingly calm voice she announced to the group that she had just scared a Mojave Green rattlesnake. This beautiful reptile is the one I nightmare about prior to taking a group into the East Mojave. Mojave greens are one of the most dangerous animals that I routinely encounter on my nature wanderings (and this includes trips into the Amazon Basin, jungles of central America and snorkeling around sharks).

This rattlesnake has extra potent venom, a neurotoxin similar to that of cobras. It is the second most dangerous snake in North America, after the large and aggressive timber rattler. There are only four hospitals that stock the anti-toxin for the Mojave Green and you must be treated within 12- 16 hours of being bitten or you are history.

But of course most encounters that people have with snakes, venomous or otherwise, are similar to the one that Laurie had. Snakes want nothing to do with humans; they simply want to avoid us. The reverse is generally also true. Most people have negative feelings about all snakes. Ever since the Garden of Eden snakes have had a bad reputation.

While there are many deadly snakes in the world only one group has rattles. The commonly accepted explanation for this is that the rattle evolved on the Great Plains of North America as a warning to large, hoofed animals such as bison to not step on and accidentally kill rattlesnakes. This way both the rattlesnake and the bison can continue to live another day. Of course this survival mechanism has backfired for the rattlesnake in the case of humans, because now rattlesnakes can be more easily found and killed.

The venom of rattlesnakes is actually highly modified saliva that the snakes use to kill their prey, primarily rodents. Rattlesnakes find their quarry with specialized infrared receptors that allow them to actually “see” the heat from the warm-blooded mammals. They strike and inject just the right amount of poison and then they wait for the animal to die before they swallow them.

About 25% of rattlesnake bites on humans have no venom injected. Last week a fellow near Tomales was struck by our local species, the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake. He required little treatment, the bite may have been dry. In fact most healthy adults bitten by rattlesnakes can survive with no medical attention. For the elderly and children the survival rate is somewhat lower.

In over 15 years of tramping all over Marin County I have only seen four or five rattlesnakes, all of these were near the Mountain Theatre on the south-facing slope of Mt. Tam. It may be a bit too cool along the coast for rattlesnakes, although occasionally some come down off the mountain into Stinson Beach. Just remember that old Colonial flag motto, “Don’t Tread on Me” and you’ll be safe hiking the trails of Marin and even the Mojave Desert.

Click here: Footloose Forays – for complete details of educational trips into the natural world personally directed and guided by Michael Ellis.

Sea Slugs

Sea Slugs – Butterflies at the edge

As most folks know intuitively, edges are the most diverse areas in nature. In a mature redwood forest it is often profoundly still; likewise in the nearby scrub. Yet where the forest meets the chaparral, there is an increase in life and in action. At this interface there exists a greater variety of habitats and niches — opportunities for plants and animals to exploit. Biologists have coined the word “ecotone” to describe this location.

The tidepool area along the coast of California is one of the richest ecotones in the entire world. It is an edge- the edge between the North American continent and the Pacific Ocean. The cornucopia of intertidal life here is due to several factors: upwelled, nutrient-rich water which fertilizes the top layer of the sea and fuels a prodigious food web; an absence of killing frost and destructive winter ice; summer fog which protects the sensitive plants and animals from desiccation; and finally, an inexplicable dearth of herbivorous fishes which allows for the prolific growth of marine plants and a subsequent increase in food and habitat.

Of all the beautiful creations seen in these tidepools, those I hold most dear are the sea slugs. Slugs!!!! What an ignoble name for such delightful creatures. I prefer to call them the “butterflies of the sea.” They come in a diverse array of forms and colors. They are iridescent blue, shocking pink, red and black-striped, orange with purple spots, or even transparent. Some are tufted with large plumes; others are warty and smooth. Because they are small and not good for human consumption they are often overlooked.

Sea slugs are mollusks (the snails, clams, squid, etc.) and belong to a sub-category called the nudibranchs. They have no shell and their gills are exposed. All are carnivorous and feed on hydroids, anemones, tunicates and sponges. We have over 50 species in the Bay area, making ours one of the richest faunas in the world.

June is spawning time for many nudibranchs. They come close to shore and mate and lay eggs. All are hermaphroditic; they possess both male and female sexual organs. Hermaphroditism is common to many invertebrates. When I ask people to explain the benefits of hermaphroditism they often reply, “You don’t need to go to singles bars,” or “it is easy to find a meaningful relationship,” or “you’re not obligated to converse afterwards.” However, most hermaphrodites cannot self-fertilize. The real advantage of hermaphroditism is that slow moving animals have a low rate of encounter but every slug you meet is always the right sex.

May, June and July are the best months for tidepooling. There are usually no storms. The tides are extremely low and often occur in the morning before the wind begins to blow and one’s coffee wears off. One should try to arrive at least two hours before the low tide in order to follow the receding water out. Be sure to dress very warmly and count on wet feet. Exercise caution at all times. The edge can be hazardous to your health. But the best way to see the intertidal zone is in the company of an experienced prober (me).

Click here: Footloose Forays – for complete details of educational trips into the natural world personally directed and guided by Michael Ellis.

Sutter Buttes

The Middle Mountain (Article from 1992)

I vividly remember seeing them for the first time. Mysterious crags of gnarled earth that rose abruptly from the surrounding flat landscape. I was driving north on Interstate 5 just past the small town of Williams and looked east. There they were. I couldn’t take me eyes away and that made it difficult to drive. What were they? Not the Sierra, not the foothills, not Mt. Lassen, not the Coast Range. I pulled over and checked the map: Aha! There they were, a perfectly round, tiny clump of mountains called the Sutter Buttes.

On that winter day I was just the most recent human to be captivated by the energy of the Buttes. They pulled me off the busy freeway world of my culture, made me stop and take a breath. Most of the time I am a spiritual skeptic, rarely indulging in feelings that can’t be explained scientifically or measured or quantified. But at that moment I recognized the Sutter Buttes as one of those special places in the world, a place of concentrated power. Maybe this power is because of the volcanic activity, maybe it’s because it is the only mountain around for miles, maybe it is because the native peoples held the area sacred. I don’t know, but the reason doesn’t really matter. The feeling is real.

In 1820 there were 55,000 people living.. around the Buttes; this was the densest concentration of humans north of the great Mayan cities of Mexico. The reason was the abundance of natural resources. Great valley oaks, tules, cattails, wildflowers, elk, grizzlies, pronghorns, beavers, mule deer and millions of waterbirds thrived in the area. This cornucopia easily supported a large number of humans.

There were three tribes that lived along the flanks of the Buttes, and they considered the mountain so sacred that no single tribe was allowed to possess it. To these people, the Buttes were the center of the Earth. They believed that the very first humans had originated in this spot; it was their Garden of Eden. But it was also a boundary, a boundary between the underworld of death and chaos and the upper world of order and reason. It was a dangerous place, and they did not travel through it lightly. There were many restrictions, rituals and taboos. The natives called the Buttes “the Middle Mountain.”

The sad history of these peaceful peoples is a common theme throughout the New World. By 1855 the flourishing population had been reduced to 2,000 ragged survivors. When the Americans and Europeans arrived in California seeking furs and gold, they took the lands from the natives. In return they gave them malaria, smallpox and death. The few remaining survivors were then enslaved by John Sutter to work on his immense land holdings. But even today there are a few remaining descendants of the Middle Mountain people that still live and work in the shadow of Eden.

In the early 1970s a commission formed by the state that identified lands which had potential for park status. They examined areas throughout Northern California, and the Sutter Buttes were number one on the list. The ranchers mobilized the community and political apparatus and successfully resisted acquisition by the state. So the entire area still remains in private hands. This is not necessarily bad: Most of the ranchers are descendants of the first homesteaders in the area, arid the natural features have been well protected, at least within the context of cattle and sheep ranching.

Right now there is a battle brewing in Sutter County over a proposed Golf course and housing project on the southern slope of the Middle Mountain. The idea of “power” lunches on this sacred power spot is repugnant. We must preserve this natural cathedral.

Post Script:

The citizens of Sutter voted overwhelmingly against the golf couse homes!

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