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Published: February 2nd 2007
After being at Pt. Lobos for only a short period of time, one quickly realizes the beauty and character of this place is found nowhere else on earth. Endemic species abound in California, and Pt. Lobos is no exception. Like a microcosm of the unique character that comprises the California Floristic Province, this biological hotspot is teeming with diversity. Speckeled Granite cliffs inhabited by Cormorants; Lichens that cover the conifer forest like icing; Harbor Seals swimming through a kelp forest. We find three keystone species here that are cherished throughout the world- The Monterey Pine, Southern Sea Otter and Monterey Cypress.
Lets start with the Monterey Pine, Pinus radiata. What could possibly make this pine stand out over all the others 115 species of Pine? After all, there is a lot of competition: The 4000 year old Bristlecone Pines of California and Nevada, aromatic Sugar Pines that make 2 foot long cones, Pinyon Pines who's delicious offspring we call Pine Nuts, Ponderosa Pines that are unmistakably part of the wild west and the enchanting bonsai growth of the Foxtail Pine which grows only at tree line in the Sierra Nevada.
Europe, Japan and Mexico all have their own unique
Pine species as well. The Monterey Pine is not even locally unique, for in our diverse state of California we have at least 20 native species of Pine trees. So why am I making such a fuss about the Monterey Pine?
Only isolated groves of the tree still remain, a situation becoming increasingly common with forests of all types. Fortunately for the Monterey Pine, civilization and the forest seem to coexist. Pebble Beach, Carmel, Pacific Grove and Monterey are all forested, and locals are proud defenders of their trees. Naturally however its range is smaller still, and Point Lobos is one of the last places the tree exists naturally. Clinging to granite cliffs, its shape is contorted by wind and rain. Away from the cliffs, the tree is coated with draping wisps of bright green lichens as the trees form dense stands. But I still don't get it- many trees grow to spectacular shapes and complexity- so what's different about this Pine?
The answer is an evolutionary success story Charles Darwin could never even dream of.
On one hand, you could say the tree is at a disadvantage because of its location on prime coastal land in
California. With 30 million people in this state and growing by 1000 people everyday, the virgin forests of the Monterey Pine were among the first devastated by human activity. From the first permanent establishment of the Spanish in 1770 up to today, human encroachment has only decreased the area of virgin Monterey Pine Forest.
On the other, its location makes this tree's adaptation unique. Life in Coastal California is predictable. The mild Mediterranean weather means cool and wet winters, summers devoid of any rainfall and frequent coastal fog. The Monterey Pine thrives in these conditions, growing faster than any other pine if the climate is right. The climate happens to be ripe in 4 other places in the world- Chile, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. All of these Mediterranean climates are perfect for the growth of the Monterey Pine, and breeders in New Zealand began to experiment in the early part of the 20th century with the tree. The result was astonishing. They bred a tree that grew straight as a telephone pole, resistant to both low and high rainfall and reached maturity in just 25 years.
Soon forestry plantations were started, seeing fantastic returns on investment.
At first thousands, then millions of acres of Pinus radiata were planted on land that had already been cleared of native forest. This business venture spread to Chile, South Africa, Australia and Argentina. Unfortunately all of these countries are diverse biological hot spots, and Pine plantations were so successful native forest was cleared just to make way for Pine Plantations.
Today, over 15 million acres of Monterey Pine are thriving in the Southern Hemisphere. At a conservative estimate of 400 trees per acre, there are approximately 6 billion Monterey Pine trees in the Southern Hemisphere- one for every person on earth.
By the standards of Evolutionary theory, the desirable traits of these trees increase their reproductive success. Could it be that the trees are actually using us to proliferate themselves on earth? And just think- it all started right here at Point Lobos.
The story of the Southern Sea Otter tells us a more tragic tale, although it is a story filled with hope and an incredible example of the human ability to destroy and protect life on earth. Southern Otters once lived along a long stretch of the Pacific Coast of North America and Asia from
the Northern Islands of Japan, across Alaska and the Aleutian Islands and all the way down to Baja California. Today have an extremely isolated range in California- a 250 mile stretch of coast from Santa Cruz to Point Conception.
The near extinction of the Otter was due to their unique adaptation to the cold waters of the Pacific Coast. One of the only mammals at sea that don't have blubber, Otters compensate for this with extremely dense fur- there are over 1 millions hairs in every square inch of Otter fur! That's 10 times more hair than is on your entire head, and that's also why their fur is so luxuriantly soft. The fur on these adorable animals backs was seen as an invaluable commodity to Russian Fur Hunters of the 18th and 19th century. I can't say I entirely blame the fur hunters any more than the men who felled Sequoia and Redwood trees in the 19th century. After all, the planet was thought to be inexhaustible of its resources and Im certain there were many family men with hungry mouths to feed. The ease at which the Otter can be hunted was their weakness. In the early
20th century long after hunting had ceased people realized the otters had gone extinct.
That is until one day in 1938, when a man from Carmel was beach combing in Big Sur near the famous Bixby Creek Bridge and spotted a small herd of Otters. It is believed that the current population of southern sea otters all descended from that single group. With research, hard work and legislation- the otters slowly but surely made a comeback. Today there is an estimated 3000 otters in the wild. Off the coast of Big Sur a 100 mile Refuge along the most beautiful part of the California Coast was created solely for the Sea Otter.
Otters are fascinating creatures. Having nothing but fur to protect themselves from the frigid North Pacific, they mostly float on their backs with their paws and feet in the air and out of the water. Like a land mammal adapted to the ocean, fur does not cover their paws. They constantly groom themselves to keep their fur coat in top condition. They are one of the few animals in the world to use tools. When Otters eat shellfish or crabs they keep a flat stone on
their chest, and with both paws holding tight they beat the shell on their chest stone using it to crack open the shells. They must eat 20-25 % of their bodyweight everyday to maintain their high metabolism which keeps them warm. Otters have also been shown to use large rocks to help them sink to the bottom of the water to find food, even having favorite stones they use again and again for this task.
Ecologically the Otters were found to have an uniquely vital function in the health and vitality of the Kelp Forest. Sea Urchins love to eat kelp, and Otters love to eat the Urchins. When otters began to repopulate Kelp beds, the kelp beds seemed to thrive as well. Quickly research showed declining urchin populations to be the cause. In fact the entire forest was the beneficiary- more kelp, like more trees, meant more habitat for the many other creatures that depend on it for survival. This was one example that led to the idea of a "Keystone Species", a species that serves a critical role in an ecosystem that improves the health of the entire community.
Last but not least, Otters are adorable!
They are like the cutest little puppy dog you have ever seen, but with huge whiskers and floating in the ocean waves. The make a funny barking noise and have different calls depending on family relationships. How can you not love Otters?
The Monterey Cypress has the distinction of having the most recognizable silhouette of any tree in California. People may not know its a Monterey Cypress, but when they see the fantastic bonsai crown and trunk that seems to defy notions of a what a trunk is for they know it instantly. A specimen known as the "Lone Cypress" which stands sentinel on some rocks along 17 mile drive in Carmel is supposedly the most photographed tree in the United States. Like the Monterey Pine this tree thrives because of the summer fog, and its original virgin groves are now all but gone. Fortunately for us, the tree is widely planted and thousands dot not only the Monterey Peninsula but the entire Central California coast.
Yes Pt. Lobos is truly magical. I didn't mention anything about the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary to the north and how 80% of the ocean species that exist from Alaska to Baja
are within the Sanctuary waters.. Or the 100 year old Anemones I saw while SCUBA diving at Pt. Lobos... ahh yes the diving was incredible!
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