City at the Water's Edge: A Natural History of New York

By Betsy McCully | Go to book overview

2
The Teeming Shore

Looking southward across the water on a clear spring day, I can see the low bluffs of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and the wave-washed barrier beach of Far Rockaway, two spits of land that form the gateway to Lower New York Bay. The bay's relatively warm, shallow waters have for millennia been home to a rich abundance of wildlife.

Receding waves have deposited a shimmering tracery of dark mineral grains that remind me of a Chinese painting of mountains. Phases of the tide demarcate the beach into zones: the littoral, or intertidal zone, between the low and high tide lines; the sublittoral zone, the shallow water region extending from shoreline over the continental shelf; and the supralittoral, or splash zone, above the reach of normal high tide. The zones allow us a glimpse into how life evolved, with creatures adapted for each microhabitat. Because of its somewhat protected location and also because of the jetties (rock barriers extending from the beach into the water), the Coney Island beach harbors creatures of both rocky and sandy shores.

Low tide exposes gleaming blue-black mussels attached to the rocks by strong threads spun from their foot. Try prying one of them from the rock and you will be amazed at their tenacious hold. When exposed to air, these mollusks clamp down their shells, but when the tide sweeps over them, they open their shells and unfurl their cilia to strain the seawater for plankton. A little further up in the intertidal zone, northern rock barnacles encrust the rocks, their white calcareous shells protecting their soft crustacean bodies from the ravages of the surf. The smaller bay barnacle attaches its cone to rocks at the low-tide line and to pilings and the shells of other animals in deeper water, while the little gray barnacle forms uncrowded colonies near the high-tide line. The shells of both mussels and barnacles are designed to protect them, but they are not foolproof. Among the barnacles lurks the predatory Atlantic dogwinkle, a marine snail that envelops the barnacle's cone, forces open its valves, stuns the creature with a narcotic chemical, then dines on the succulent flesh within. Some dogwinkles prefer mussels, their choice of food reflected in their darker coloring.1

-16-

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City at the Water's Edge: A Natural History of New York
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Introduction - Coming Home ix
  • 1: Bedrock New York 1
  • 2: The Teeming Shore 16
  • 3: At the Glacier's Edge 32
  • 4: Land of the Lenapes 45
  • 5: Staking Claim 62
  • 6: Muddied Waters 76
  • 7: Footprints 96
  • 8: Forests for Trees 111
  • 9: Urban Flyway 127
  • 10: Weathering 146
  • Notes 161
  • Index 177
  • About the Author 186
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