From a distance, the vast low-tide mudflats extending a mile from shore along Cape Cod Bay can appear deserted and serene. But a closer look reveals a multitude of tiny squiggling, slimy, slippery creatures hard at work, foraging for food, avoiding predators and searching for the best spot to keep themselves safe until the tide turns and the water flows back.
It isn’t always easy to find the crabs, jelly fish, clams and other marine creatures that flourish in the low-tide environment, and that’s one of the reasons why the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History offers Mudflat Mania, an interactive, guided exploration of the flats, sea grasses and marshes.
Twenty museum volunteers who know where and how to find marine wildlife lead group tours of the flats off Wing Island each summer.
From Quivett Creek, near the western border of the museum property, to Paines Creek on the east, the Mudflat Mania experts show explorers of all ages where the action is.
Expect to find a sand fiddler crab, named for its oversized claw that’s so big it looks like the crab is playing a fiddle. It burrows into sandy areas where sea grass grows. A finger-size hole surrounded by small sand balls reveals its hiding place.
Pools left behind by the falling tide are the preferred hangout for hermit crabs. These are the ones that, for self-protection, make their homes in the abandoned snail shells they carry on their backs.
Snails are abundant in the low-tide flats. The common periwinkle, for instance, is usually found in groups in the mud, or attached to blades of sea grass where they scrape off algae for food. They have gray and tan shells that appear purple when wet.
The mud snail might be easier to find even though its shell is dark brown – a camouflage against the mud. This snail leaves a grooved trail behind it. So look closely and follow its track.
“Mudflat Mania is a hands-on experience,” says Barbara Knoss, the museum’s education and volunteer director.
“The groups go out there with nets, pails, shovels – and their hands. And they dig in. It’s very interactive,” she says.
Bud Ferris, a retired biology and science teacher, oversees the mudflat program and trains the volunteers. He described Mudflat Mania this way: “It’s about having respect for the diversity of life out on the flats.”
The program is an important part of the museum experience, he says, because it enables people to discover and learn about the things they see on the beach. “We try to show people that nature is full of all kinds of special creatures that we just take for granted. And it’s a fun experience.”
About 100 people, often more, participate in each exploration, he added, and many of them are Cape Cod residents. “People are amazed at what they find. Even the local residents say ‘I’ve walked these flats for years and never realized what’s here.’ And that’s terrific,” says Ferris.
Deborah Leone, a volunteer naturalist who’s been guiding Mudflat Mania groups for six years, says she’s seen some extraordinary things.
“We once saw a razor clam swimming! It’s usually hard to find one alive, so to find one swimming was pretty amazing. And we’ve seen squid, too, and of course, lots of ugly worms,” recalls Leone.
Along with crabs and snails, many low-tide explorers are able to locate and identify plenty of clams, scallops, oysters and muscles on the flats. But there’s a surprising number of worms tucked just a few inches under the sandy mud, too.
Take the plumed worm. It can grow to a foot long. Typically found in tidal creeks, this worm is identified by its tube, which sticks up a few inches from the sand. It’s hard to see, since the worm manages to cover its tube with shells, rocks, seaweed and other debris. It’s all about camouflage!
There is one worm to avoid. It’s called the blood worm and is usually about six inches long. It’s bright red and has four black fangs! So be careful with that one, says Leone. It can give your fingers a painful nip. year after year often with their children and grandchildren. They come from all over.”
Since the program is limited to low-tide, daylight hours, there are only so many mudflat tours that can be held during the course of one summer. For summer 2013, 14 Mudflat Mania tours are scheduled.
During the season, to sign up for Mudflat Mania, visit www.ccmnh.org or call 508-896-3867.