In what way can a beach be compared to a desert?

…It’s Charismatic Microfauna!

Well, yes there’s the sand, but there is also an unrecognized and perhaps even shocking biodiversity that lies not quite below the surface.

Would you believe me if I told you that in a single handful of wet sand you could be holding a community of organisms equaling, if not exceeding, the diversity found in an Amazonian rainforest?

All too often we suffer from a bias of scale, but biodiversity includes all organisms, including the mega-, the micro- and the meiofauna.

So just who are the meiofauna?meio

They are the smallest animals on earth—some no larger than a grain of sand.

They live in ultra-micro habitats within habitats and make an excellent example of the complexity of ecosystems and the interconnectedness of life.

The meiofauna aren’t a kind of animal, but rather a size-class of animals that live (mostly) in and among aquatic and marine sediments. (Fully 25 animal phyla have representatives in the meiofauna and they boast some of the most unique and strange biological adaptations in the Animal Kingdom.)

Without a microscope and a little curiosity, you’d probably never notice they were there…but you’d certainly notice if they weren’t…

Among the roles meiofaunal animals play in their environment is that of the decomposer. Beaches without a strong meiofaunal component have a distinctive, sulphuric odor of decay.

The meiofauna provide even more proof that there will always be new discoveries to be made in the marine environment—not just for us, but for all of science.

The newest animal groups described have been meiofaunal—three entirely new phyla described in the last 25 years. Exploring the meiofauna opens a whole new world discovery for even the most jaded, know-it-all, marine biologist!

But we’ve only scratched the surface here. Check back often at beachchairscientist.com for more about some of my favorite meiofauna.

By Jim Wharton, Director, Center for School and Public Programs with Mote Marine Laboratory

Photo (c) Rick Hochberg

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