One of the most pleasant surprises for visitors to Tybee Island is the vast variety of marine animals that occur along its shorelines. Every beach trip is likely to reveal something new that you had not seen previously. Even after spending more than 30 years studying and conducting research along Tybee, I still find new and unexpected animals just about every time I get out exploring Tybee’s beach.
One of the reasons for Tybee’s diverse coastal marine flora and fauna is its particular location on the east coast between Cape Hatteras NC, and Cape Canaveral FL. At this location, Tybee is inhabited by northern cold-water species during cooler months, and then during warmer months we find warm-water, tropical species that extend up the coast to Tybee from the south. With this seasonal overlap of marine floras and faunas, we find an ever-changing assemblage of seaweeds and animals along our beach and in our beach water.
As you discover Tybee, you also realize that for a relatively small island, it possesses a variety of coastal features that provide a variety of habitats, and therefore many different marine communities. On its wide, sandy beaches, if you look carefully in the wet sand at low tide, you will find the holes, burrows, trails and mounds created by a variety of animals living below the sand surface. Some of these include thin, thread-like polychaete worms, ghost shrimp, sand dollars, Coquina clams, mole crabs, and many different snails and whelks. During the spring and summer, you might also come across a large horseshoe crab partially buried in the wet sand. Around and on the rock jetties and their tide pools, you can see a variety of small fish, hermit crabs, sea anemones, an invasive pink barnacle from the Pacific Ocean, many types of crabs, and our native barnacles and oysters. During the spring time, look closely and you might also find sea stars. But be very careful around the rocks because the barnacles and oyster shells are extremely sharp; and never climb on the rocks.
And don’t forget to do some beachcombing along the high tide line. Offshore of Tybee are hard-bottom reefs where sponges, corals, soft corals and other animals live. Periodically these get torn loose and wash up on Tybee’s beach. And when it comes to shell collecting, here’s something that I’ve noticed over the years. You can walk a stretch of the beach and see very few shells, but if you keep walking you are likely to come across a section with lots of shells. And tomorrow, the good shell areas may be somewhere else! So check often and along different sections of the island. I often say, “You never know what you might see on Tybee’s beach!”
Dr. Joe Richardson is a retired marine science professor who has studied, researched and taught marine biology/science along Georgia’s coast and Bahamas for more than 30 years. He continues to conduct marine research and consulting; and he conducts Tybee Beach Ecology Trips year-round for families, schools, scouts, and other groups. He regularly reports on his findings on his Tybee Beach Ecology Trips facebook page. And for more information and pictures about Tybee’s marine biogeography and seasonality, see his webpage.