Beach Burrowing Bugs in Peril

James Shelton/Marine Photobank

Have you ever seen small holes on the beach and been perplexed by the mystery of what made them? They are from nocturnal bugs, called isopods, which burrow along our beaches to hide from the heat of the day and predators. They play an important role in beach ecology – breaking down decaying matter, like washed up kelp and seagrass. And, local seabirds, like sanderlings, rely on isopods for a crunchy snack while they walk along the shore.

You might be surprised to hear it, but Southern California’s isopod populations are in peril. Some beach experts fear that they are at risk of extinction, as indicated by a recent study conducted by ecologists, Jenny Dugan and David Hubbard. They examined historical changes in distribution and abundance of two intertidal isopod at SoCal beaches since 1905. The researchers found declining trends region-wide with local extinctions at about 60% of beach sites where they were reported over 100 years ago. Populations were stable at only a handful of beaches – not surprisingly, the more natural areas where beaches aren’t groomed or hardened with seawalls, like Point Dume in Malibu.

Although most people don’t have the same affection for isopods as they do dolphins and sea otters, these little critters are important indicators of change. Living in the upper zone of the beach, they are particularly vulnerable to human-induced environmental threats, like beach grooming and coastal development.

Beach, bluff, and dune protection won’t just help imperiled isopods on our beaches; these natural habitats are also important in buffering coastal communities against the threats associated with climate change.

According to a new study by scientists with the Natural Capital Project on July 14, 2013 natural coastal habitats such as dunes and reefs are vital to safeguarding millions of US residents who live in coastal communities, as well as billions of dollars in property from coastal storms and sea level rise. They found that these natural habitats provide both economic and environmental benefits to coastal communities poised to cope with climate change. Defaulting to seawalls and engineered structures is costly and may have unintended environmental and economic consequences in the long-term.

This research helps stress the importance of local climate change adaptation planning by local governments and the need to build resiliency by investing restoration and conservation of natural habitats, like beaches, dunes, and wetlands to protect coastal communities. Heal the Bay is working with partners in the Los Angeles area to help plan for climate change impacts and advance the adoption of adaptation strategies that protect public safety and the environment.

Check out this interactive map to see sea level rise and storm surge exposure projections for the U.S. over the next century -- you can even zoom in to see the risks to your community or favorite spot.

Discover how Heal the Bay is working to address climate change.