Features

The Turks and Caicos Islands

homepicBeautiful by Nature

By Julia; Phil Davies

Editor’s note: Do you ever experience that feeling of “goosebumps” running up and down your body when something deeply moves you? That’s how I felt when Julia & Phil Davies showed me a preview copy of their new book, The Turks and Caicos Islands. Beautiful by Nature. The book is an awesome compilation of facts and information about the natural history and heritage of these Islands. The combination of well-researched text, Phil’s spectacular photography and Julia’s meticulous drawings is tremendously impressive.

The 176 page, over-sized hardcover book includes 182 color photographs from all around the Islands and 60 hand-drawn illustrations. The lively chapters lead readers from the land and reef’s formation through detailed descriptions of marine, bird, animal and plant life on to Islanders’ sea-based heritage and how recent development has affected Turks & Caicos culture.

Julia and Phil spent two years in the Turks & Caicos researching the book and shooting the photos and another two years writing the text, completing the drawings and designing the layout.

macmOn island, the book can be purchased at Unicorn Bookstore. For online ordering, visit their website at www.beautifulbynature.co.uk. For information about other books published by MacMillan Caribbean, visit www.macmillan-caribbean.com

Following is an excerpt of Chapter 1.4: Littorally Living

The tidal habitat that forms the interface between the land and sea is known as the littoral zone. The organisms that live within this coastal region have had to adapt to a twice-daily immersion in saltwater, coupled with the exposure to the air that results from the tide’s vacillations. Even the land plants that occur high up on the beach, beyond the range of the greatest spring tides, have to cope with the constant sea spray that can block their fine pores and result in brown scorch marks on their otherwise green foliage.

crabMarine animals, abandoned by the retreating waters, must either absorb oxygen from the air or trap enough water close to their gills to sustain respiratory demands until the return of their fluid environment. Their problems are made worse by the damaging potential of the baking sun, which can desiccate not only their soft tissues, but also evaporate their precious water supply, suffocating any affected individuals.

A further predicament posed by this transitory habitat is the alternation between two sets of predators. At low tide, the land-based hunters steal into previously inaccessible areas, snatching up the unwary sea creatures, while at high tide their marine counterparts move in for the kill.

However, the most influential factor experienced within this zone must be the water motion itself. Often whipped up by distant winds, the waves that roll in with the tides smash against the shores, scouring and literally sandblasting the resident life. Although somewhat dissipated by the fringing reefs, it is these forces that have shaped the coastlines and accumulated the sands into wondrous beaches.

As if in the hands of an artist, the rocky shores are moulded and sculpted by the sea and the creatures that live within this dynamic environment must cling to their existence with a tenacious grip. Undoubtedly, the masters of this niche are the shelled molluscs, which use their muscular pad, or “foot,” to secure them to the rocks. During low tide, large congregations of snail-like Nerites can be found taking refuge in the hollows carved out by the wave action. Another common resident of the Turks & Caicos is the Fuzzy Chiton, a primitive relative of the more familiar limpet. These strange, lozenge-shaped animals are characterised by eight armoured plates that protect their vulnerable bodies in an arrangement somewhat resembling the bands of an armadillo. Perhaps as an adaptation to avoid being dislodged, they move at an incredibly slow rate, grazing on the turf algae that coats the sea-drenched rocks.

While watching the breakers march in from the Atlantic Ocean and crash into the cliffs on the windward edge of the Turks & Caicos, it may be perplexing to consider the origin of the land. If the islands were formed by the activities of marine organisms, how can they have created rocky structures that rise, in some areas, fifty feet out of the sea? The answer is that over geological time the level of the oceans has fluctuated as a response to the amount of water held within the polar ice caps. During warmer eras, more pack ice melted than froze and the sea level rose accordingly. As this increase was so gradual, occurring over a vast time scale, the growth of the coral reef organisms was able to keep in step with the slow rate of submergence. However, in colder times when the global temperature dropped and the world was plunged into an ice age, the areas that were once covered by the sea were left high and dry as the water became locked into the advancing glaciers.

When viewed from a human perspective, it can be difficult to appreciate the time scales involved in these processes, but something that may seem so permanent a feature, like the amount of water in the sea, can be a highly variable factor when measured against a few billion years of Earth history. As a result of these fluctuations, ancient reefs that were once teeming with marine life now form the craggy cliffs and raised limestone headlands of this island nation.

In addition to the weathered surfaces of these exposed reefs, the local waters wash over another from of rock that has purely inorganic origins. “Beachrock” is often revealed at low tide and is formed below the surface of the sand by the precipitation of calcium carbonate. This process is not governed by either flora or fauna as the limestone is simply produced by the percolation of both seawater and rainwater through the sediments. Complete hardening only occurs after tidal erosion has washed away the overlying sand and the atmosphere has had a chance to work on this newly revealed sedimentary rock.

The presence of this beachrock is an unwelcome obstacle for one marine animal that has to return to the land in order to reproduce. Sea turtles are perfectly adapted to their aquatic lifestyle, but the flippers that afford them such grace in the ocean are barely adequate to haul their bulky shell-encased bodies up a sandy incline. Once a suitable area has been reached, the turtle proceeds to dig a deep hole in which she lays around a hundred leathery eggs. Upon finishing, she packs the sand back onto the egg chamber and, with the completion of her maternal duties, lumbers down the beach to the freedom of the sea. After a couple of months, the offspring emerge from their sand-covered nest and the baby turtles scamper towards the water. During this stage of their life natural predation is high, as they represent bite-sized treats for many land and marine predators. For this reason, they swim straight off the reef and begin an epic journey to the Sargasso Sea, over 1,000 miles west of Florida, where they stay for many years feeding mainly on jellyfish.

Whether a hatchling will ever traverse another beach depends upon the temperature of the surrounding sand during incubation, as surprisingly this factor determines their sex. The males will never venture on land again, though the females are destined to return to the very same beach in more than twenty years time, when they will clamber up the sand to lay eggs of their own.

As on the rocky shore, there are associated hardships with eking out a livelihood within the shifting beach sands, but this unstable habitat has many advantages too. The large particle size of the coarse-grained sand, coupled with the highly oxygenated surf, ensures that these sediments are well aerated and the ceaseless tides also bring with them a plentiful supply of food. Abundant filter feeders hide within the sand, feasting on the particles of organic debris and plankton they can strain from the waters that bathe them. Once again, it is the molluscs that dominate this habitat, their often double-valved shells protecting their filters from the scouring action of the moving sand. The abounding presence of these covert creatures is usually only revealed upon their death, when the waves scatter their beautifully painted and intricately sculptured dwellings amongst the biological refuse that forms the strandline.

sndlrThis darkened line of encrusted seagrass fronds and assorted flotsam is the focus of many of the more mobile beach residents. With the dwindling waters, an army of crustaceans emerges onto the scene. They appear with either a flurry of sand as they excavate their burrows, or like an apparition, slowly solidifying above the surface, their ghost-like entrance provided by deft movements of their multiple appendages. After checking to see if the coast is clear, they scuttle over to the strandline to inspect the most recent delivery of dead and dying matter that has been washed ashore. Hermit crabs rummage through the natural litter, perhaps in search of a new mobile home. The use of shells long since vacated by the original occupants affords these soft-bodied crabs with good protection, but their continued growth requires that their adopted abodes be regularly exchanged for larger properties. Some crab species appear disinterested by the strandline, preferring to work over the sand immediately adjacent to their burrows, forming intricate radial patterns that are destroyed by the arrival of the next tide. Others seem more intent on display, like the tiny but animated Fiddler Crabs. Each male waves his oversized redundant claw like a violinist playing an unheard symphony, a performance presumably appreciated by its female counterpart.

Along with deserted mollusc shells, the strandline also holds many remains of lesser-known animals. The translucent quill of a squid, used as a support for its soft body; the floats of small jellyfish, blown to the land by unfavourable winds; sponges ripped free form their seabed moorings; and the hardened tunics of sea squirts are but a few examples of the fascinating curios yielded by the sea. Sometimes the bleached skeletons of heart urchins and sand dollars can be found, their delicate structures usually being crushed by the action of the waves. When alive, these animals roam like moles beneath the sand, their mane of tube feet and spines allowing them to tunnel through the sediments. Rather than filtering the water, they engulf the sand itself, digesting the organic content and voiding the remains as their burrows close behind them.

strfsA close relative, the starfish, can often be found combing the shallow waters of the beach, their internal hydraulic system extending and contracting tube feet on their underside, so that they gradually glide over the sands with imperceptible effort. For all their lack of animation, starfish are surprisingly one of the many marine predators that often hunt the sandy slopes at high tide. But perhaps the most successful hunters of this changeable habitat are the birds, their specialised bills, keen senses and wondrous variety being so well exhibited in the Turks & Caicos.



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What's Inside The Latest Edition?

On the Cover

Photographer Marta Morton was enjoying another spectacular sunset when she spotted this lovely scene—a picture-perfect clump of Old Man Cacti and the pastel colours of what she later learned were crepuscular rays (see page 18). For more of Marta’s images, turn the pages of this issue and visit www.harbourclubvillas.com.

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