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I am American Beachgrass

Call me Ammophila. Long, flexible stems, like strong limbs, withstand the force of powerful winds—winds that stimulate root growth, rhizomatous—a sprawling system to stabilize dunes. My clones and I anchor windblown sand, guard against the highest full moon tides that might otherwise flood the land. Dare to tread “barefoot” over my tall blades, and my gritty green leaves become daggers, laid on their edges. We live in a foredune community, closer to the sea than our inland neighbors.


American beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata)

To them, we are pioneers. We are “ecosystem engineers.” After we have established our colony, our flowering neighbors can take root, too, in this shifting sand dune community: Beach-pea, red raspberry, bristly gooseberry, poison ivy. Sometimes, I get the sense—through my auricles, ear-like lobes that do not listen—but receive information nonetheless, that golden heather or little blue stem, or tufts of reindeer lichens have grown here before, but they’re not here now. My ramets and I dominate the dunes.

Native to Maine, I have lived here perennially for the past three summers. I am hardy, salt-tolerant and adaptable. Terns return, every year, and nest here. Sometimes, I see the rare oystercatcher, or piping plover, but there are many gulls and a few short-eared owls; they soar high above my florets. Owls swoop down over my spikelets—never close enough to study more than a silhouette against a blue sky. Right now, my spikelets have reached an impressive height of fourteen millimeters, that is, when my stems stand upright. One might think that I lack subtlety but up close, I am not so easily seen. Look closely, and note that my flowers are not so obvious. This is a trait of strength—in my community. Weirdly enough, we do have a noneventful relationship with the sea rocket, its lobed leaflets resembling “rocket ships,” and we like that it’s not very abundant. Sea rocket typically gives an aggressive root reception to strangers—anyone not in the mustard family,—and this is not community gossip—we get along just fine. But the neighbor I mind the least—poison ivy. She/he/they—the pronouns elude me, keep the two-legged kind away and minimize the chances of getting trampled.


Path through beachgrass

Rays of sun revitalize me. But I am always a little rough and sandpapery. Supporting us, somewhere deep beneath all that shifts and blows, we adapt and send runners and build our defenses; we thrive even when no one knows. Together, we repair the damage done by trampling and storms. It may appear to others that we are too shifty, or that we “take over.” I’ve been called a “bulldozer,” but I don’t know what that means; I suppose it is a compliment. Our foundation is unlike—theirs. Ours is spread out, and spreading, rhizomatous, unseen so it cannot be buried or carried away with the winds.

If I were to dream, —and I do not dream, I might have some deeply-embedded geological urge to fear replacement. (Some of my neighbors might say that I overanalyze, but we are engineers, after all.) One day, perhaps, the two-legged rangers shall come and replace me with Virginia wild rye! Morphologically speaking, she may be similar in many ways—my inflorescence is not obvious—and I am hairless; she has a hairy inflorescence!


Beachgrass along stream bank, Kettle Cove State Park

For coastal management resource information on American beachgrass in the Northeast, click here for NRCS Plant Materials Program – Coastal & Shoreline plants. For more technical information on coastal sand dune coastal management topics, click here for the Maine Natural Areas Program.  For two scholarly journal articles on Ammopila breviligulata (American beachgrass), see Cheplick’s discussion paper on “Patterns in the Distribution of American beachgrass,” in Plant Ecology and “Non-target effects of invasive species management,” (Zarnetske, Seabloom and Hacker, 2010) in Ecosphere.

Collecting Micro-Algae in the Gulf of Maine

On several cold, windy days this past winter, I did something strange. With fingers puckered bright pink from bitter cold saltwater, I maneuvered what looked like a child’s “butterfly net,” called a No. 2 plankton net, dipping it into saltwater off of the pier at the college, and over the sides of rocks at Kettle Cove with one goal:  to collect micro-algae. 29512469_10215096996719687_200223694655488735_n

I’ve been studying marine botany–the first time experiencing SMCC as a student, rather than as a member of the adjunct faculty. I collected phytoplankton (micro-algae) using No. 2 plankton nets (see below), both at Kettle Cove State Park and off the pier and docks at SMCC this past winter (January-March).


Kettle Cove State Park, Maine


No. 2 plankton net for collecting micro-algae

In addition, I accompanied Prof. Megan McCuller to learn how to scrape algae off of the side of the dock and floats in order to obtain a sample of benthic diatoms (and dinoflagellates) that were attached to the side of the dock. I learned how to use the dissecting microscope (my favorite part) in the lab, and I transferred a number of samples to a wet-mount slide to examine the tiny organisms that were drifting and even swimming through slimy green algae. When I say “benthic,” I’m referring to the life found at the bottom of the sea, or in this case,
the bottom of the littoral, or shoreline zone, and sublittoral, also known as the “spray zone,” where the waves crash on the rocks between the high and low tide.


Dissecting algae scraped off the side of the dock, looking for benthic diatoms and dinoflagellates

The benthic scrape method yielded the most results (mostly pennate diatoms and one dinoflagellate) while my final plankton tow at the floats on March 20th yielded more results (centric, pennate diatoms and two dinoflagellates) than my previous plankton tows at Kettle Cove or off the pier January-March. My observation was that collecting phytoplankton during the weeks of nor’easters yielded fewer diatoms, or I only collected very tiny diatoms (mostly Navicula sp.). My hypothesis was that ephemeral run-off from storms, high winds and choppy conditions had an impact on those plankton tows.

Is your head spinning? Mine did.

First, it’s important to know that phytoplankton are the “plant” variety of plankton, whereas zooplankton are the “animals,” such as copopods. Here’s a copepod (below), swimming through some Phaeocystis pouchetti, which is not a diatom, but in the genus of algae belonging to the division of Haptophyta. It blooms in March and April, so it dominated several of my samples from plankton tows off of the SMCC pier in early to mid-March. A copepod, however, is an example of zooplankton, a microscopic crustacean found in both marine and freshwater habitats. As an aside, COPEPOD is the Coastal and Oceanic Plankton Ecology database with an interactive atlas on plankton. Pretty cool! Copapod by Pouchetti


For the basics of plankton, see “Plankton 101: the Basics on Gulf of Maine Plankton and Why You Should Thank Them,” by Sally Mack, UNH Sea Grant.

Below are a few images captured using the Leica microscope at 100x and 400x magnification, calibrated to microns for measurements. I identified fifteen diatoms and three dinoflagellates, some of which I’ll show in a series of posts yet to come. (Side note: I got a 100 on the micro-algae project, which made the cold, challenging plankton tows certainly worth the effort, besides the pure joy of learning.) Phytoplankton are microscopic, photosynthetic organisms. There are two main groups of diatoms and these are pennate (Pennales) and centric (Centrales). For identification purposes, I used a number of guides, including this one developed by my professor, Charles Gregory, at SMCC, and University of Maine Sea Grant. Once under the microscope, these diatoms (micro-algae) are quite dynamic, distinctive and fun to examine.

The golden “bracelet” pattern below is a pennate diatom called Licmophora lyngbyei.  I collected several Licmophora during the benthic scrape from the side of the SMCC dock/float on March 20, and identified them under the microscope at 40x magnification. Since it is a colonial, epiphytic type, it is often observed attached to other plants/macro-algae such as in the image below. The cells are characteristically wedge-shaped, with fine striations separating parts of each cell. Cells are united in fan-shaped colonies. To me, it looks like a great idea for a charm bracelet for a marine scientist!

Lots of Lichmyflora from benthic scrape

Licmophora lyngbyei – a pennate diatom growing in a colony

Real Gyrosigma to Use Final

Gyrosigma sp. collected during benthic scrape off dock at SMCC, March 2018

One of my favorite of the pennate diatoms that I collected is Gyrosigma, a canoe-shaped pennate diatom, shown below. It’s very common in the Gulf of Maine. But when we look at these microscopic diatoms, it’s important to note the scale; these are measured in microns because they are so small. In the specimen below, the end of the organism had broken off, and it had begun to disintegrate. That’s why it appears to have jewel-like features, when in actuality, these are other things–including bacteria, that have gotten inside its cellular structure. Another pennate diatom I collected at Kettle Cove had a “bracelet” pattern (at least to my untrained eye); in Thalassiosira nordenskioldii  have drum-shaped cells connected by barely-visible gelatinous strands to form a chain. According to Dr. Gregory’s Field Guide to Phytoplankton in the Gulf of Maine, some species of Thalassiosira have been known to cause mechanical damage to fish gills, copopods and invertebrates. For example, this study details several examples, including the impacts of toxins found in Thalassiosira rotula on sea urchins. (Many types of diatoms are examined as part of that study by Gary Caldwell, in Marine Drugs, 2009.)


Thalassiosira nordenskioldii, a pennate diatom collected at Kettle Cove State Park, February 2018

Thalassiosira is also described as a “harmful species” on AlgaeBase, an awesome resource for those studying algae. It’s a global database with the taxonomic, distributional and other information about micro and macro algae, as observed by scientists all over the world. As a student new to the study of algae, I found it an incredibly helpful resource, even if it helped to direct me to other sources on a species that I had collected for my class project in Maine.

Finally, I will end this post with my favorite discovery–a cool pennate diatom called Chaetoceros gracilis, which looks like something between a Star Wars X-wing fighter and one of the Cylon ships from BSG, if only…in a galaxy far, far away.  In many ways, this microscopic marine world is another dimension that’s just as deserving of our fascination. I will post a few more diatoms (and dinoflagellates!) in my next post.

Chaetoceros gracilis Star Wars Fighter

This pennate diatom has an oval-shaped cell in valve view, with distinctive spines that diverge at oblique angles to form an “X” shape. I collected this specimen at Kettle Cove in February 2018. 

Strange Wetlands: Preventing a Lesser Known Tick-Borne Illness, Anaplasmosis

My trusty dog, Sophie-Bea, a dachshund-pointer, and I frequently walk through wetlands. First, my land is rich in wetlands: a black ash seep, which I call “Fern Gully,” a vernal pool with wood frogs and sallies, and a perennial stream that flows into Raymond Pond. We like to walk along a pine-needled path from my woods down to the pond and back. Lately, a thick mustard yellow froth of pollen coats the surface of the pond. If I had let the dog wade in the water, she would have come out looking more like a yellow lab, albeit a weirdly shaped one. (She’s black and white.) At the edge of the pond, she sniffed the water and it turned her pointy black nose into a clownish canary blotch.  IMG_0295

This time of year, we’re more mindful of ticks. In addition to treating her with Frontline, I pat her down with a natural bug repellant called Skeeter Skedaddle™ – the kind that’s dog-friendly. I love how it smells. I wear it, too, and slathered it on that day, like any other day. I made the mistake of wearing sandals though and by the time I got home, I unstrapped the sandals to find a fat tick stuck to the top of my foot. It glowed red in its belly. I pulled it off and noticed two bite marks. After disposing of the tick, which is unwise to flush into the toilet I’ve learned, but to burn the tick with a match (carefully in the sink), I applied witch hazel and hydrogen peroxide onto the bites, along with a dab of antibacterial ointment. It doesn’t itch. It did worry me.

A year ago this month, I came down with a terrible flu-like illness called Anaplasmosis. It’s a tick-borne illness caused by a tick bite from a tick infected with the germ called Anaplasma phagocytophilum. Last summer, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention sent out an alert about Anaplasmosis. The alert explained that cases of Anaplasmosis are on the rise in Maine. Previously, it was rare for someone to contract this illness from a tick bite in the Pine Tree State. Even in summer 2012, hospitals misdiagnosed people with “the flu,” when in some cases, it was actually this Anaplasmosis. In my case, it was most likely Anaplasmosis, since I walk through the woods often and come into contact with areas known to inhabit ticks. I occasionally find ticks in my home.

Symptoms of Anaplasmosis include fever, headache, malaise, severe body aches, cough, joint pain, stiff neck and confusion.  In June 2012, I thought I’d eaten a bad avocado, or been exposed to the bad kind of an algae bloom while swimming in the lake. (I wrote about the algae bloom in my Adventures of Fen Fatale series.) At the time, I was working for ASWM and I started to feel sick on a Monday–sweaty, coming down with a fever, nausea. Images of globs of algae clung to me as I suffered through a fever of 102 degrees for two days. On Tuesday night, I called 911 and the EMTs came to my house, since I was convinced I was dying of some kind of poison,  tetanus or some other ill fate. It felt like my organs had seized up and everything hurt.  Chills all over. The body aches were so severe that I had to crawl down the stairs to let the EMTs into my house (rather than let them bust in the door). The EMTs found me delirious from the fever. Even after the fever came down on Wednesday, I couldn’t walk for a few days; my relatives came to take care of me, since I was bedridden. (This is highly unusual for me, since I have an almost superhuman immune system.) It was frightening, too.

See fact sheets, prevention info and notices to Maine residents from the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention here. 

Since then, I’ve done some research on how to prevent this from happening again. The reality is that Anaplasmosis is treated differently than that of Lyme Disease. When a person suspects that a tick bite has left that tell-tale sign, a bull’s eye shaped bite, that person has an option of getting an anti-biotic to prevent the onset of Lyme Disease. The same is not true for those who might have contracted Anaplasmosis. The main “prevention” is to reduce exposure to ticks by wearing appropriate clothing and checking clothes and skin for ticks. Apparently, in cases of people contracting Anaplasmosis, they often don’t remember getting a tick bite, and there is no tell-tale bull’s eye mark. For specific prevention and treatment information, visit . If you do get a tick bite, pay attention to symptoms if they occur. If you get a fever, and think you might have come into contact with a tick, contact your doctor or a health professional. Treatment is important. Anaplasmosis can be serious, or fatal, in babies, toddlers, elderly people and those with a compromised immune system. For others, it can mean a week of severe body aches, fever, malaise, etc. It certainly knocked the wind out of my sails.

Read these related blog posts:

Mosquitoes, ticks and bees are summer hazards, as are sunshine and poison ivy – Washington Post Blog – June 17, 2013

Drs. Oz and Roisen: Tick, tick, tick  – June 2013

Tick-borne disease is on the rise in Maine and Anaplasmosis in particular – May 2013

Beneficial Uses of Dredged Material – Are you Picking Up What I’m Putting Down (or vice verse)?

What is dredging? Underwater excavation is called “dredging.” Usually when people think of “dredged material,” they imagine the murky water from the sediments stirred up in the process of dredging a river, waterway or wetland. For example, the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) is beginning the work of dredging the Kennebec River in midcoast Maine to allow a 510’ warship built by Bath Iron Works to be transported safely down the river. Because this project is happening at the height of summer (and tourist season) and not in the winter, several petitions cried for a halt of the project. But the Maine Board of Environmental Protection and a federal judge rejected those petitions.

What most people don’t realize is that sometimes the Corps uses dredged material to restore coastal and wetland habitat. Depending on the type of sediment—rocky, gravel & sand, consolidated clay (hard and soft clay), silted/soft clay, or a mixture of these—there are a number of ways that dredged material can be used beneficially. Some applications include berms, shore protection, aquaculture, beach nourishment and replacement fill.

On the west coast, the Southwest Washington Littoral Drift Restoration Project, a state-federal collaborative effort, is evaluating the beneficial use of dredged material at Benson Beach (WA). In Florida, there is a potential project using Section 204 funding for beneficial uses of dredged material in the Destin area.

After the Gulf Oil spill, President Obama signed a bill in 2010 to allow for funding for the use of beneficial dredged material for coastal restoration in the Gulf.

The Coastal & Hydraulics Laboratory within the Corps is one of the lead organizations doing research on beneficial use of dredged material. One of their active projects is the SuperDustpan Beneficial Use Project in the Mississippi River. For their 2004 technical report, go to:;220

When coastal estuaries and islands erode, one option to restore the coastline is beach nourishment. This means replacing sediment. Dredged material is commonly used for “beach nourishment” projects, for example, in the Gulf shipping channel (near Texas) by South Padre Island

EPA has a number of resources to help in evaluating “beneficial use of dredged material” for the purpose of beach nourishment here: has also been involved in dredged material management projects:

The use of dredged material is a contentious issue because sometimes the sediments are contaminated, or the projects fail to serve their purpose. It is important to use clean dredged material. The links below go to more information.

Port of Portland Disposing of Contaminated Dredge Material on West Hayden Island

EPA’s Contaminated Sediments Program

Dredged material as a resource

Waste to Resource: Beneficial Use of Great Lakes Dredged Material

Around the country, other organizations (state, federal, regional coalitions and nongovernmental partners) are exploring beneficial uses of dredged material. For example, the Great Lakes Dredging Team—a partnership of state and federal agencies—are committed to assuring that dredging in channels within the Great Lakes is done in a timely manner that also meets environmental protection, restoration and enhancement goals. This team has a number of references available on its website for several applications of beneficial use of dredged material, including reclaimed mines and beach nourishment.

From a global perspective, beneficial use of dredged material is a growing area of research and technology. The international organization, PIANC, the World Association of Waterborne Transport Infrastructure, and has been involved with several research projects on this topic. For more information on understanding dredge & fill permitting programs, visit:

Why does the Turtle Cross the Road?

As I was driving home the other night after work, I had to swerve to avoid a little wood turtle that was crossing the road. I slowed down, looked for a place to pull over. There was none. I decided not to pull over, considering the high volume of traffic. Then I continued to fret over the fate of the turtle the whole way home. I hoped that the other drivers would notice him, too, or her, and hoped the turtle wasn’t attempting a roundtrip across busy Route 302. Why do turtles do that? They have the tendency to pull their heads and legs into their shell when scared by an oncoming car, then can get smashed. Some turtle species like the sandy soils along the embankments of roads and this is where they choose to make their nests. It spells disaster for some turtles whereas others choose less busy roads and survive. For a related New Jersey story, “Rising Turtle Deaths Stymie Researchers,” go to:

As one way to address the roadkill problem, wildlife biologists and engineers with state and federal agencies, such as FWS and the Corps, have developed wildlife-friendly stream-crossings. For additional resources on wildlife stream-crossing research, visit the following links:

USDA Forest Service articles

Biologically Sound Stream Crossings, by Scott Jackson (PowerPoint presentation for ASWM)

Massachusetts Stream-Crossings Handbook

US FWS -Ashland NFWCO (Midwest) – Planning and Designing Fish Friendly Stream Crossings

Stream Continuity Project (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

Wildlife-Friendly Stream and Undercrossings Research

Natural Heritage – Turtle Information and Conservation Tips (Mass Natural Heritage Program)