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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

July 5, 2011 at 7:00 AM

Barnacle-nibbling bears: New Salish Sea checklist links land & sea

This photo of a brown bear cub snacking on barnacles illustrates some of the surprising links between land and sea uncovered during a recent survey by scientists from the SeaDoc Society.


photo courtesy of Jim Braswell

The work yielded a new checklist of all the birds and mammals that depend on the Salish Sea – the all-encompassing name for the inland waters of Puget Sound, the Northwest Straits and the Georgia Basin. (Crosscut published a history of the name and its significance last week.)

“If you want to restore an ecosystem, it’s really important to know what is there, or what has been there historically,” said Joe Gaydos, SeaDoc’s Orcas Island-based regional director.

Gaydos teamed up with Scott Pearson from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to compile the list, which includes 172 bird species and 37 types of mammals.

They found connections between sea creatures and land-dwellers are deeper and more extensive than they realized. Snowy owls can snatch fish from marine marshes. In the San Juan Islands, red foxes forage in intertidal zones. One of the most intriguing links is between beavers and salmon, Gaydos said.

Biologists for the Skagit River System Cooperative documented the way small beaver dams in intertidal marshes create ponds where juvenile salmon thrive. “It’s very important habitat for out-migrating salmon,” Gaydos said. “The water is deeper, and maybe it allows them to be protected from great blue herons” and other predators.


Beaver dam in the Skagit delta

2009 photo by Seattle Times photographer Alan Berner

The checklist is the first for the 17,000-square-kilometer Salish Sea ecosystem, Gaydos said. Previous surveys covered the territory in piecemeal fashion, focusing on single features, like Puget Sound, or political boundaries.


Purple martins forage on both land and sea

Photo by Tom Reese

Next up for the team is a checklist of fishes, followed by invertebrates.

But back to that bear cub shot: It’s a little bit of a cheat, because it’s not within the boundaries of the Salish Sea ecosystem. Wildlife photographer Jim Braswell took the photo in 2007, at Hallo Bay Bear Camp in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. The area is a smorgasbord for coastal grizzlies, which graze on sedge grass and feast on razor clams — and barnacles — before the salmon runs start, Braswell said.

On the day the image was made, Braswell was watching a brown bear sow and her two cubs on the clam flats. One cub followed on mom’s heels, gobbling down clams she dug up and dropped. The other cub wandered over to the rocks and started gnawing off the barnacles. (Check out Braswell’s blog for more cool pictures.)

Even the most generous boundaries for the Salish Sea don’t extend that far north. But Gaydos said it’s not uncommon for both brown and black bears in British Columbia to nibble on clams, mussels and barnacles.

(If you haven’t heard of SeaDoc Society, you might want to check out some of their projects. Funded mainly with private donations, the organization is based out of The Wildlife Health Center at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. In addition to conducting its own research, SeaDoc provides grants for Salish Sea studies.)



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