National Geographic News
A clamber along a rocky tidepool may seem like a harmless way to while away the hours during these dog days of summer. But some marine scientists urge caution on behalf of the organisms that live there.
The organisms that live in the intertidal regionthe zone where the ocean meets the landappear a hardy lot at first glance: They're pounded by the surf, live in and out of water, endure extreme temperature changes, and are blasted by sunlight.
A few human footprints are the least of their worries, right?
That's a common misconception, said Fiorenza Micheli, a marine ecologist at Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California. Her ongoing research shows that intertidal organisms are under constant strain, and the strain is only worsened by the intrusion of humans.
"They are already stressed by a harsh natural environment," she said. "So instead of being pre-adapted to the stress and more resistant, they are basically already at the edge and are pushed over the edge by additional stresses they haven't evolved with."
Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, said human disturbance is more than what many intertidal plants and animals can cope with. The evidence is as simple as a side-by-side comparison.
"If you go to sites where it's difficult to get to or where people have been actively excluded for one reason or another, say a military base, there is a night-and-day difference between those areas and areas just up and down the coast," she said.
According to Micheli, people tend to be unaware of the variety and abundance of life in the intertidal region.
"Many intertidal organisms are attached to the rocks so they won't be swept off by waves," Micheli said. "If their attachment is weakened and then a waves come in, they will be dislodged and that's it. They're washed off."
Given the hard-fought battle these organisms endure to survive in rocky shores, they may not return for several years once removed. And their absence can change the entire structure of an intertidal community.
Lubchenco noted that factors as varied as temperature, wave conditions, predation, and competition all shape the structure of intertidal regions.
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