Standing on the beach the other night, I gazed up at the ink-black sky pierced with stars and found myself thinking about infinity — endless space going on and up and out forever, full of countless galaxies with no end. But it occurred to me, there in the dark, that infinity moves in both directions. Rarely do we consider that there is no limit to the smallest dimension either; it is virtually impossible for us to grasp the molecule, the atom, the subatomic particle — and beyond, and beyond.
Perhaps I had this thought because earlier in the day I was volunteering at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown. What had I been doing? “Picking.” How to describe it? Hunched over a white enamel tray on a counter under a magnifying lamp in a basement lab, sorting through a clump of mud and sand, carefully picking out tiny organisms with forceps and placing them in separate little labeled petri dishes of alcohol.
Admittedly, this is not the subatomic world, but grains of sand do look like cinder blocks, and these creatures, while not microscopic, are very small, sometimes difficult to see, and devilishly hard to pick up. The organisms included minuscule mussels and clams — some just specks — and various kinds of worms, “side-swimmer” amphipods, tiny crabs, and sometimes an exquisite baby sea-star (or “starfish”).
The sample I was working on was one of probably thousands that had been collected in recent years at Nauset Marsh and other important places on the Cape: Barnstable Harbor, Pleasant Bay, Wellfleet Harbor, East Harbor (“Pilgrim Lake”), and Herring Cove. Agnes Mittermayr, a marine ecologist at the center, oversees this study and has employed dozens of volunteers, including colleagues, interns, and old gaffers like me.
She reports that over 474,000 little invertebrates have been tallied, representing an astounding 415 different species. Who knew there was so much life in what we casually stomp on during a low-tide stroll?
This is descriptive science. It provides baseline data about what life occurs at what season in a given location. It is absolutely essential knowledge and woefully absent in many parts of the world. “Nobody had ever looked before,” says Agnes.
Knowing what we have can tell us what is being lost, or changing, over the years. It is critical to assess the effects of cataclysmic events like Hurricane Sandy or the BP oil spill and of incremental threats like climate change. It is akin to taking your temperature or having blood work done to monitor your health. Thoreau’s methodical accounts of plants and animals in the mid-19th century are now being compared to those in Concord currently, with surprising results. And this work happens, like much science, pick by pick by pick.
As an ecologist, Agnes is keen to look into relationships between these organisms: who eats whom, along the chain. She investigates the intricate food webs of the sediment. These are the creatures that all the shorebirds are pecking out of the mud as they stop on their migrations north and south. Some of these tiny birds actually double their weight to achieve journeys that cross hemispheres. These little invertebrates at the water’s edge fuel the miracle of migration. And they feed fish — which feed us.
Christy Hudak, Agnes’s colleague at Coastal Studies, conducts similar research on the food sources of the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale: tiny oil-rich copepods the size of grains of rice — the only things these whales eat. Her research takes place in the water column, while Agnes focuses on the sediment.
There is beauty in this Lilliputian arena under the microscope. A Zen-like state comes over me as I enter this miniature world. I am so indebted to Agnes and the center for giving me this opportunity to see the world with fresh eyes. (Opportunities for volunteers on the Outer Cape are many; anyone who says he is bored is crazy.) “This is where the magic happens,” says Agnes. She is being partly facetious, standing in the drab lab. But it is true. Magic exists if we work to uncover it.
We rightly celebrate the artists of Cape Cod, but let’s not overlook the scientists in our midst.