Sarah and I were sent to the International Beachcomber Conference last weekend. Our goal was to see if this type of event would be a good match for outreach and education efforts of the Marine Debris Program at NOAA. I think the thought process was that these are people who are regularly walking the beach, who could possibly assist us in tracking or monitoring debris. We’re not certain how or if that will all work out in the long run, but I figured I’d share a little about what we learned at the conference.
The agenda was designed to teach about paleontology, anthropology, ethics and climate change during conference lectures and panel discussions. Most of the attendants were your average citizens. A few folks schooled in biology, or fossils, or paleontology, but mostly folks who enjoy getting out on the beach after work.
The conference was held at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Phillip Merrill Environmental Center. The Merrill Center, which opened in 2001, is one of the world’s most energy-efficient buildings, incorporating natural elements into a fully functional workplace which has minimal impact on its Bay- and creek-front surroundings. The center and its sophisticated systems have won international acclaim as a model for energy efficiency, high performance, and water conservation. It is built with recycled and renewable materials, has composting toilets, uses rainwater for handwashing and such, takes advantage of solar power, natural light and ventilation, geothermal wells, etc. Seriously, it’s a cool place. We learned all about the green building. How the rainwater was filtered. And then the statement, “so basically, you’re drinking pterodactyl pee”. Huh? Excuse me? What she meant was that there is a limited supply of water on the planet. It gets recycled over and over through the aquifers and ecosystems and oceans and such. It may be in the ocean then evaporates into the atmosphere, then falls in the form of rain onto land and percolates down into the aquifer again. But basically, it’s the same water as when the pterodactyls were on the planet.
Dr. Steve Godfrey (Curator of Paleontology, Calvert Marine Museum) gave a presentation about Miocene Marine Fossils of the Mid-Atlantic. He passed around some fossils for us to look at and then told us what they were. Yup, we were holding fossilized dinosaur poo, otherwise known as coprolites*. While this doesn’t qualify as marine debris (not man made, but certainly persistent seeing as how it was from the Miocene epoch, some 10 to 20 million years ago), it is something that beachcombers could possible find on various beaches worldwide. More interesting was that the coprolite had teeth marks in it. The theory is that a large predator chomped down on whatever critter was producing the poo and left teeth marks deep into the body. Paleontologists get really excited about stuff like this. In fact, a paper about it is about to be published – cool stuff.
We also learned about where to find what type of shells, and how to identify sea glass. Did you know that you can identify how old some glasses are by the location they are found and their color? Folks also discussed challenges they face when combing, like beaches being closed because people leave so much trash. Next time you’re out beachcombing be sure to also pick up some trash and get it off the beach. Every little bit helps.
*Coprolite: fossilized excrement.