Saturday, October 09, 2010

Damn This World Is Complicated Part III: Kelp Flies and Gulls

So, we have the endangered Pacific Snowy Plovers (Part I) that live above the wrack line feeding on beach hoppers (Part II) and kelp flies that live in the kelp on the wrack line.  This is a whole world that most people miss completely.  The snowy plovers camouflage nicely on the sand, so nicely, that when they freeze thinking they can't be seen, they are right.  And people going to enjoy the beach can step on them.

People generally see the kelp as smelly garbage left by the surf.  And if they get closer, they see bugs and keep their distance.  But this is all a neat ecosystem and if you look closely at the 'bugs' there are a number of different kind.  And biologists have discovered the lives are pretty complex.

And we learned that humans' love for the beach has caused snowy plovers to find other places to lay their eggs - like the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

So Part III doesn't have that much to add, but here we'll look at the kelp flies that are also part of the plover diet. 

From a Hopkins Marine Science student paper by Joel D. Hyatt in 1972
The beach wrack flies Fucellia rufitibia, Coelopa vanduzeei, and Leptocera johnsoni occupy successive vertical levels inside banks of mixed wrack found low on California beaches. When the wrack is washed away, Coelopa are then found at the sand-wrack flake interface with Leptocera; Fucellia in a black band of flies above the highest waterline. Fucellia range widely up and down the beach. Movement to higher beach positions at night seems to be associated with temperature, but some Fucellia remain in the warmer surface layers of the lower wrack banks at night. Coelopa are usually only found at lower beach positions where they inhabit the moist intertior of wrack banks. Moisture and tide level are the important factors in Coelopa behavior. Mark and release experiments show that F. rufitibia do not disperse widely but constitute more or less fixed communities on the beach. C. vanduzeei are gregarious. In wrack preference experiments in the field, Fucellia and Coelopa exhibit strong preference for the surf grass Phykllospadix, probably as a source of shelter. Brown algae and mixed wrack are preferred to the same degree; red algae very little.
So, now there are three different kinds of kelp fly.  See, it always gets more complicated.  But that's true about learning anything.  Some people recognize classical music as "boring."  Others recognize it as "classical."  Some can recognize the period it was composed, and others the composers.  And some the specific title of the piece.

The same with rock music, or birds.  And now we're looking at kelp flies.   So are the ones I caught in the camera 
  • Coelopa vanduzeei  
  • Fucellia rufitibia or
  • Leptocera Johnsoni?
What do these names mean and where do they come from?
If the spelling of genus and species terms sounds like Greek to you . . . then you’re on track in many cases. Every species can be unambiguously identified with just two words. The genus name and species name may come from any source whatsoever. Often they are Latin words, but they may also come from Ancient Greek, from a place, from a person, a name from a local language, etc. In fact, taxonomists come up with specific descriptors from a variety of sources, including inside-jokes and puns.
Scientific names sometimes bear the names of people who were instrumental in discovering or describing the species. Finally, some scientific names often reflect the common names given by people living in the region.  (from a Texas AMU website)
I found this on an Audubon Magazine website:
". . . the Coelopidae, a family of flies found on seaweed-strewn coasts around the world. Larvae develop in piles of rotting seaweed, or wrack.”
What is vanduzeei?  I'm not sure.  I remember talking to my friend about names for monitor lizards and sometimes they would Latinize the discoverer's name.  I did find this reference:
New synonyms are indicated under Squamodera vanduzeei (Van Dyke) as follows: S. fisheri (Cazier), S. fisheri vermiculata (Knull), and S. nanbrownae (Figg-Hoblyn).
It's possible that vanduzeei is taken from Van Dyke.   I don't think it really matters.  What I'm trying to show here is that everything, absolutely everything, has a surface, and as you look under the surface, there's another and another.  So many things to know.

And my point in the first of this series of posts was that in something like the ecology of the snowy plover, which is relatively tangible and finite, it is easy to see this complication and dive into it.

As we do that, we can recognize that this same level of complication lies in all the issues we face in life - from how what we eat affects our health to the effects of plastic bottles on the environment.  And while it is complicated, it isn't that difficult to go beyond the simplistic synopses given by mass media and politicians, at least to the point of having a reasonable feel for the issue.

 So, which of the the three kelp flies is my picture?

Livingworldphotography has a photo of Coelopa vanduzeei and says their hairy legs are a way to identify them.  Mine doesn't have hairy legs.  has a note with his excellent picture of Fucillia Rufitibia:
Note reddish tibia after which the species is named
And mine isn't reddish. 

And I couldn't find any pictures of Leptocera johnsoni.  And if you are asking, if these are all kelp flies, why don't they have the same genus name, then you are asking the right sort of questions.  I don't know the answer and I've got lots to do.

But along with the kelp, the wrack line, the snowy plovers, and the kelp flies, there were also lots of gulls on the beach.  Gulls are another very familiar part of the landscape that most people can identify as gulls.  But beyond that, it gets hairy.  For adults, it's relatively easy.  The color of their beaks and feet get you a long way.  But gulls are complicated because they look different at each stage of their lives and the bird books show three to five different stages for each type of gull. Just pointing out more complication that I won't go into now.  In any case, here are some gulls that were also out on the beach where the plovers were. 

The Santa Cruz Bird Club has some useful flow charts for identifying gulls.

This is a Heerman Gull at a easy to recognize stage

If anyone is still with me, this isn't to make people give up because everything is so complicated.

Step 1 is to recognize one's ignorance.  There is so much to know, we can only know a little bit of it.

Step 2 is to realize that we can gain some expertise in different areas without all that much work.  We just have to focus and drill down a bit.  Ideally, finding a book which does a good job of giving an overview of the topic, the different main lines of thought, and the key vocabulary.

Step 3 is to stop being caught up by all the trash information out there in the world - junk tv shows, junk news, etc.  Like junk food, it takes the place of serious information and makes our brains fat and lazy with useless data.


  1. Complicated and interconnected. Well done. Next time you might want to go up past Malibu to the Ormond Wetlands and Beach area to see that area which people are trying to protect because of its importance in the Pacific Flyway. Even with the signs to keep dogs off the beach there, people still do it, unfortunately.

  2. Thanks nswfm - at least someone got it. I thought I was wandering off in too many directions there, but that is the point. Yes on interconnected!


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