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Explore biodiversity in your backyard

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Wendy Feltham retired from being an elementary school principal before moving to Port Townsend seven years ago, but the veteran educator in her shone through as she led her second summer low-tide walk for the Friends of Fort Worden July 15.

The third walk in this year's “Sundays in the Park” series of natural history walks, at Fort Worden State Park, saw Feltham, a former board president of the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, leading an intertidal exploration just north of Battery Kinzie at the same time as a -2.6 tide, to expose the intertidal life on the beach.

“By 12:10 p.m., the water level will be two and a half feet lower than average,” Feltham said at 11:10 a.m. that Sunday. “By 8 p.m., it'll be a 9.4 tide, meaning it'll have risen 12 feet in a very short amount of time.”

With such extreme changes to the intertidal environment, which can go from being submerged in cold winter water to being exposed to 80-degree temperatures in the midday summer sun with scarcely any moisture at all, Feltham asked her walkers to consider how the species that make such a variable ecosystem their home have managed to survive.

By carefully overturning a few stones, Feltham introduced her walkers to intertidal life ranging from the relatively mundane, such as seaweeds, sponges and algae, to eye-catching echinoderms, such as sea stars and sea cucumbers, to a unique mollusc known as the chiton.

As her walkers encountered a surprising number of chitons that appeared to have been upended by the tide, Feltham explained that the Giant Pacific Chiton, also known as the “gumboot” chiton for its leathery appearance, is the world's largest chiton, and is fairly common in the Pacific Northwest.

“It's a truly prehistoric creature,” Feltham said, while delicately replacing the chitons on the rocks, so their vulnerable undersides wouldn't be exposed. “It's held together by a girdle of eight protective plates, and it usually rolls up like a pillbug as a defense mechanism.”

Feltham noted that Native American and First Nation tribes did occasionally eat chitons. However, in spite of the turquoise-like appearance of the insides of their girdle-plates, she added that chitons are not related to abalones.

Just as Feltham advised her walkers against touching chitons under normal circumstances, so too did she urged them not to touch sea stars on any area other than their backs, since even exerting seemingly gentle pressure to remove them from rocks or other surfaces can damage the adhesive undersides of their limbs, which they use to cling to those surfaces.

Feltham elaborated that blood stars are the most common sea stars in this area, and can be spotted by their five limbs and their vivid red and orange colorations, while six-armed stars are the second-most common, but tend to be better at camouflaging themselves.

Another animal that can be difficult to spot, due to its self-made camouflage, is the Graceful Decorator Crab, which features orange-tipped pincers and covers its carapace with bits of seaweed. Even as Feltham and her walkers spotted a few decorator crabs, she warned them against black-tipped pincer crabs, which can remove the fingers of the unwary.

The sea anemones that Feltham pointed out tended to be closer to blood stars than to decorator crabs, in terms of standing out visually. She informed her walkers that the Christmas anemone is so named because of the alternating red and green coloration of its tentacles.

“Aggregating anemones live as groups, and can reproduce offspring genetically identical enough to be considered clones,” Feltham said, before pointing to a rock where two clusters of anemones were separated by a clear line of open space between them. “These two are separate colonies of anemones, so their poison barbs keep each other away.”

Feltham's walkers found a variety of sea cucumbers, from small ones that were bright red and no bigger than the end of one's thumb, to darker red ones whose size and shape much more closely resembled actual cucumber vegetables.

“When the tide comes in, they open up their tentacles and search for planktons,” Feltham said. “They're in the echinoderm family because they have spine extremities.”

And it wouldn't be an intertidal walk led by Feltham without a comprehensive summary of seaweed.

“Almost every person has expressed astonishment that there are so many species of seaweed, and so many extraordinary marine invertebrates, all right here,” Feltham said. “Some people aren't aware of the importance of eel grass and kelp forests to protect juvenile crabs and fish, or of plankton's essential role in the food chain.”

Feltham offered a laundry list of human consumer goods which utilize seaweed as an ingredient, from ice cream and sushi to shampoo and cosmetics, as well as paper and fabrics.

“Every single animal is fascinating, even the barnacles and limpets,” Feltham said. “Since I've started to lead walks, I've enjoyed sharing what I've learned. The Salish Sea is a precious ecosystem filled with wonders, and I hope to inspire other people to help preserve it.”

Janine Anderson, president of the Friends of Fort Worden, described Port Townsend residents as “very curious people, interested in a wide variety of subjects, and credited the intertidal explorations at the state park with getting visitors “more engaged with the natural world.”

In addition to making the walkers aware of “the treasure they have in their own backyard,” Anderson praised Feltham's work as an “ambassador” of the Friends of Fort Worden, letting them know how the  all-volunteer organization “works to enhance and protect the park, as well as improve the visitor experience.”

Anyone interested in the walks, or the Friends' organization, should visit www.fwfriends.org/news.php.

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