Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore

Natural World

Natural Features & Ecosystems

California enjoys one of the most diverse assemblages of land forms, vegetation types, and ecosystems in the world. There is more climatic and topographic variation in California than in any other region of comparable size in the United States. This variation has contributed to a remarkable diversity of natural features and ecosystems found at Point Reyes National Seashore, located within California.

Point Reyes National Seashore is blanketed with subtle natural features nestled over a variety of ecosystems. The overriding natural feature is the presence of the eastern San Andreas Fault that bisects the geologic peninsula from the rest of the California mainland. The remaining sides of the peninsula are intermittently edged by beaches, sea cliffs, and intertidal zones cascading into the Pacific Ocean. Encircled by this rich assemblage is a mosaic of ecosystems arranged by factors such as geologic foundation, climate, and exposure. While there are dozens of ways to classify and name the exact type of ecosystem, the broadest and closest category places Point Reyes National Seashore into a Mediterranean Ecosystem.

Bishop Pine Forest

Bishop pine forests are unique to granitic quartz-diorite soils. Fragments of bishop pine forests exist along the coast of California where the climate, soil and fire regime are just right for their growth. Here at Point Reyes, these forests are not hard to find. They grow primarily all along the northern end of Inverness Ridge. Post-fire, you can find young pines of the same age crowded together such as along the Drakes View Trail. Dense pine patches alternate with dense stands of blue blossom and the very rare Marin manzanita. Over time, young forests self-thin, giving way to mature forests mixed with bay laurel, madrone, coast live oak, tanoak, huckleberry, salal and swordfern. The bishop pine forest bounces back quickly from a fire. Over one third of the pine forest you see today was ash in 1995 after a fire raged through the Mt. Vision area. Can you guess what other national park has bishop pines? (Channel Islands NP).


Salt Marsh

Grasses and short plants grow in the salt marsh. They tend to have stout stems, small leaves and the ability to rid their tissues of excess salt. Most of the plants you see are saltgrass, cordgrass and pickleweed. Saltgrass has special pores on its leaves where salt crystals can push out. Pickleweed also concentrates salt in its leaves. The leaves turn red as the salt concentration gets higher and eventually the plant simply drops its leaves.



As wildland habitat is lost elsewhere in California, the relevance of the Point Reyes Peninsula increases as a protected area with a notable rich biological diversity. Over 45% of North American avian species and nearly 18% of California's plant species are found in the park due to the variety of habitat and uniqueness of the geology. Thirty-eight threatened and endangered species exist within the Seashore.

Even if you can only visit here for a day, you will begin to see what we have at Point Reyes National Seashore and how it works. As you drive through windswept Bishop pines, hike up Mt. Wittenberg under towering Douglas firs or walk along Bear Valley Trail through mixed woodlands to the exposed coastal scrub near the ocean, you will begin to see patterns. You might ask yourself why certain plant communities grow in certain places.

Their placement began with ancient geologic forces that created the bedrock and soils. Particular characteristics in these soils determine which types of plants can survive in different locations. Hills, valleys and exposure provide further discrimination for plants depending on their sunlight needs and tolerance to winds. Nothing is random in what you are observing -- plants grow where they can survive forming the foundations of all other life including our own.

During your exploration you may also catch a glimpse of some of the animals that make their home here. Wildlife abounds throughout the Seashore. Along the coast you may find marine mammals such as whales, seals, and sea lions. A closer look reveals an abundance of bird life feeding near the tideline. Back in the forest, you may glimpse a bobcat, coyote, raccoon, or skunk scurrying off. We also have plenty of deer and elk to be seen.

Prairies and Grasslands

Less than one percent of California's native grassland is still intact today. The northern coastal prairie, which extends into Oregon, is the most diverse type of grassland in North America. Pristine patches of this vegetation still grow at Point Reyes on either side of the San Andreas Fault. Deschampsia coastal prairie is found on the Point Reyes peninsula and Danthonia coastal prairie is found on Bolinas Ridge. Coastal prairie is dominated by long lived perennial bunchgrasses, such as Purple needle grass (Nasella pulchra), California fescue (Festuca californica) and California oatgrass (Danthonia californica), all of which can stay green year round with the moisture provided in the fog belt.

By 1850, dairy ranchers had arrived at Point Reyes, lured by the near-ideal conditions for raising cattle. Since then, ranchers planted many non-native grasses, many of which were invasive and began to out-compete the native grasses. The most common forage plants seeded on these lands are Italian ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum) and clover (Trifolium sp.). While these are non-native species, they fortunately are not invasive. Unfortunately, invasive non-native grasses, such as Velvet grass (Holcus lanatus), Harding grass (Phalaris aquatica), and Tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea), were planted as well. The National Park Service now prohibits the planting of these invasive species in the approximately 7300 hectares (~18,000 acres) of grazing allotments within Point Reyes National Seashore and the north district of Golden Gate National Recreation Are.

Since 2000, the National Park Service has been attempting to increase native seed use in these pastoral zones. Some species of native grass seed are commercially available, but it is expensive, and would not reflect the local genetic variations. The ideal conservation strategy is to collect seed from local grasses, send it to a nursery, and have it grown out on a landscape scale to create a supply for restoration projects. This has been done with California brome (Bromus carinatus) seed collected in the park which, by April 2007, had been multiplied to over 40 kilograms (900 pounds). This supply is enough to seed approximately 30 hectares (75 acres).

One site at which the National Park Service is attempting to restore native grassland is the 485-hectare (1200-acre) historic D-ranch. Italian ryegrass, a non-native annual planted for forage, dominates the original homestead area today. Monitoring in this area determined that less than 5% of the vegetation was native before treatment. Two prescribed burns and native grass seeding on half of a 24-hectare (60-acre) burn unit had been completed by April 2007; but so far, not much has changed. The seed that was planted, California brome, is the most abundant native grass on the site. It has persisted throughout California, even in areas with a long history of grazing. In addition to burning the non-native ryegrass and seeding the native brome, ecologists think that mechanical treatment will also be needed to tilt the scales between ryegrass and brome. If the area is mowed after ryegrass undergoes new growth, but before it goes to seed, it will reduce competition for brome. Because the brome is a perennial, it will resprout after mowing, but the ryegrass will not. Repeated mowing in combination with burning is likely to help increase the proportion of native grass on the site.

Volunteers can help the park work toward the goal of restoring native grasslands. To get involved, contact Beth Eisenberg by email or at 415-464-5216.



Mushrooms and Other Fungi

Mushrooms are short-lived, spore-producing structures (akin to apples on a tree); they are designed to release spores, and then decay. Picking a mushroom does not harm the long-lived fungal organism. The "body" of a mushroom is hidden from our eyes, and is composed of a vast, branching network of tiny, elongate cells called hyphae. These hyphal threads grow through and break down dead wood, providing a vital recycling service to our forests. Fungal hyphae also live in the ground, and connect up with the rootlets of trees, shrubs and almost all other green plants, forming a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship. This mycorrhizal (fungus-root) partnership greatly increases the ability of trees and plants to take up water, and absorb essential minerals. In return, the fungus is provided with photosynthetic nutrients. Neither organism is able to function fully without the other.

Mushrooms at Point Reyes National Seashore

Mushrooms are a vitally important aspect of the diverse, natural world of Point Reyes National Seashore. They are found in all types of park habitat, from Bishop pine forests to coast live oak woodlands, meadows to sand dunes. Mushrooms are not only vital to the health of the Pt. Reyes eco-system, but they also add charm and magic to the landscape. Appearing seemingly overnight in response to rain, they come in a vast array of fantastic colors and shapes, from brilliant red, to purple, to golden orange, with caps ranging from the size of a pinhead, to as large as a dinner plate. A slow walk through almost any landscape during the mushroom season can produce a world of wonder at your feet.

The best time to see mushrooms at Point Reyes National Seashore is starting from two weeks after the first, soaking fall rain, and on into the winter and spring. Fruiting is affected by the amount and frequency of rain (too much can be as bad as too little) as well as the temperature. Many variables affect whether mushrooms are produced, and even experienced collectors can't always predict when and where they will appear.

There are specific legal guidelines for mushroom collecting. Please visit the mushrooms section on the park regulations webpage. No mushroom should be eaten unless it can first be positively identified as edible. Learning to identify mushrooms in their many guises takes time, and reliable resources. The best way to learn about mushrooms is through local field guides and mushroom societies.

To learn more about mushrooms in the San Francisco Bay area visit the Bay Area Mycological Society website.


Coastal Grassland

The grasslands you see driving to the lighthouse and up to the Tule Elk Preserve are made up of remnant patches of coastal prairie and agricultural ranchlands. Cattle have grazed these areas since the 1830's. Rolling pasturelands are made up of non-native annual grasses and clovers. Today, remnant coastal prairie patches are made up of perennial bunchgrasses like purple needle grass, California fescue and California oatgrass. Elk and antelope used to roam these grasslands, grazing as they wandered. Summers fogs maintain perennial coastal prairie species year-round. Learn more about how the park plans to restore the native coast prairie.

Springtime in the Seashore's grasslands brings an abundance of common and rare wildflowers. Early in the spring Douglas iris and another much smaller iris, blue-eyed grass, start blooming. Yellow California poppies are everywhere.


Coastal Scrub

One of the most common plant communities at the Seashore, coastal scrub stretches over much of the gentle hills above the ocean. These plants tolerate abrasive conditions - high winds, little rain, blowing salt spray and poor soils - but still they persist. They make do with the resources they have, keeping short and shrubby, putting extra support into stiff leaves, and growing a long taproot for stability and to reach deep water. Vast tracts of coyote bush indicate that you are in the coastal scrub. The scrub is made up of other shrubs like yellow bush lupine, poison oak, and blackberry and lone stunted conifers. In the southern parts of the park, California sagebrush and California buckwheat replace coytote bush. Springtime finds this community alive with color. A common flower is the sticky monkey-flower, whose flower is orange and resembles a monkey's face. Bright red Indian paintbrush steals nutrients and water from other plants' roots. California poppies and Douglas irises also grow in the coastal scrub.



Less than one percent of California's native grassland is still intact today. The northern coastal prairie, which extends into Oregon, is the most diverse type of grassland in North America. Pristine patches of this vegetation still grow at Point Reyes on either side of the San Andreas Fault. Deschampsia coastal prairie is found on the Point Reyes peninsula and Danthonia coastal prairie is found on Bolinas Ridge. Coastal prairie is dominated by long lived perennial bunchgrasses, such as Purple needle grass, California fescue and California oatgrass, all of which can stay green year round with the moisture provided in the fog belt.

Purple needle grass (Nasella pulchra) is the most widespread native perennial bunchgrass found in California. It was an important food source to Native Americans, and is valuable to wildlife and livestock. Purple needle grass is used in many restoration projects at Point Reyes. Its life span can last for hundreds of years; and its deep root systems can support the survival of young oak trees through root fungal associations.

California fescue (Festuca californica) is a native perennial bunchgrass that lives in both shaded and open areas. It is found in coastal forests, chaparral and grasslands. At Point Reyes, it is found at the D-ranch, as well as in the wilderness, growing on west to southwest facing slopes.

California oatgrass (Danthonia californica) is a densely tufted perennial grass. It is found in moist soils, and is moderately drought-tolerant. It is dominant in the coastal prairie along Bolinas ridge where it grows with purple needle grass. Danthonia has adapted to grazing pressure by producing fertile seed enclosed within the stem.

Grass-like sedges and rushes may also be found at Point Reyes. "Sedges have edges and rushes are round," is an often used phrase to help people know what they are looking at. Like grasses, sedges and rushes have linear plant forms, and inconspicuous flowers which lack color. However, these are three distinct plant families. Sedges and rushes are wetland plants with fewer species than the highly diverse grass family.

Volunteers can help the park work toward the goal of restoring native grasslands. To get involved, contact Beth Eisenberg by email or at 415-464-5216.


Point Reyes National Seashore is a jewel in the California Floristic Province - one of 25 regions of the world where biological diversity is most concentrated and the threat of loss most severe. Unique geology, soils, and climate conditions make for a highly variable landscape within a relatively small land base. The Seashore encompasses over 70,000 acres of dunes, sandy and rocky beaches, coastal grasslands, Douglas fir and Bishop Pine forests, wetlands, chaparral, and wilderness lakes. The broad range of plant communities supports over 900 species of vascular plants - pretty amazing! This number represents about 15% of the California flora. Sixty-one species found in Marin County are known only from Point Reyes

As native systems have been altered in other areas of California, many native plants have been pushed to the brink of extinction. Point Reyes National Seashore serves as a refuge for an astonishing number of these rare plants. Over 50 plants at Point Reyes are currently listed by the Federal government, State government, or the California Native Plant Society as being rare, threatened, or endangered. These threatened, rare, and endangered plants are actively monitored and managed by park scientists.

Unfortunately, 292 of the plants within the park are not native. These include a wide variety of grasses in the pastoral zone, South African capeweed, scotch broom, pampas grass, and trees such as eucalyptus, cypress, and Monterey Pine. Invasive non-native species tend to spread very rapidly and out-compete native plants for scarce space and resources. To curb the tide of many of the Seashore's non-native invasive plants, volunteers are recruited to remove the most threatening species.

Note: Links in this "Plants" category such as lichens, marine plants, and algae are placed here for convenience, but they are not truly plants. Real plants include multi-cellular organisms that produce food through photosynthesis. The plant kingdom includes vascular plants (seedless and seed plants) and the bryophytes (liverworts, hornworts, and mosses).

Trees and Shrubs

Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

This is, by far, the largest tree in the park. Old Douglas-firs can rival redwoods in size, reaching up to six feet in diameter. It is not a true fir, but it can look like one, and its scientific name translates to “false hemlock.” At one time, people called it “Douglas spruce”; the Spruce Tree House at Mesa Verde National Park was actually named for a Douglas-fir. Mature Douglas-fir forms a large canopy that shades the ground below. Hunt around the ground and you may be able to find a Douglas-fir cone. No other conifer has such obvious three-pronged bracts that stick out of the scales. Each cone holds 20 to 50 seeds. In early fall, the cones release the winged seeds to drift to the ground. The dark forest that you see on surrounding ridges driving up Highway 1 through Olema Valley is made up of Douglas- firs. Your best views of Douglas-firs are on any trail or road on the south end of Inverness Ridge.
Presence: Very common.
Tree: Grows 70 to 250 ft. tall, bark is thick with heavy furrows.
Leaf: Short, single needles.
Fruit: Pine nuts produced in cones.

Bishop Pine (Pinus muricata)

This is the only pine tree native to the park, but you can find it most everywhere on the north end of Inverness Ridge. Bishop pine takes on different looks depending on the toughness of the conditions. Near the ocean, lone bishop pines contort along the ground. Above the blowing salt spray, bishop pines can grow into trees with spreading branches that form a flattened crown. Straight and tall bishop pines crowd together into dense stands in patches burned by the 1995 Vision Fire. Hiking a trail through them is like traversing a tunnel. The branches point upwards and bushy clusters of needles whorl from the branches. In May, the trees look like candlesticks packed together – the ends of the branches hold candles of male cones that shed tons of yellow pollen grains to the air. The female seed-bearing cones attach to the trunk of the tree. Pitch seals these cones shut. Heat releases them, freeing the seeds protected inside. On a hot day you can hear the crackling as the pitch disintegrates, but a fire is the best way to release a crop of seeds. Bishop pines favor granitic bedrock and dry ridges. Your best views of dense bishop pine groves are along Mt. Vision Road, near the top of Limantour Road, Bayview Trail and Drakes View Trail.
Presence: Common.
Tree: Evergreen, up to 80 feet in height, bark is dark brown.
Needles: in pairs.
Fruit: Pine nuts produced in cones.

California Bay (Umbellularia californica)

The spicy leaves are the name-sake for this tree (also known as Oregon myrtle). Rip off a piece and smell one – if it smells like seasoning, the tree is a California bay. In fact, the bay is in the same plant family as other delicious edibles like bay leaves, avocados, and cinnamon. The sparse leaves point this way and that off the branches, and the trunk bends gracefully to one side. Because they prefer moist soil, California bay can be found on trails on the east side of Inverness Ridge – Mt. Wittenberg Trail, Meadow Trail and Bear Valley Trail.
Presence: Somewhat common.
Tree: Grows 40-80 ft. tall, thin brown bark.
Leaf: Thin, smooth-edged and leathery.
Flower: Pale yellow.
Fruit: Round drupe the size of an olive.

Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia)

This oak thrives near the coast. It is a “live” oak because the leaves live on the tree year round, unlike deciduous oaks like black oak and blue oak. The leaves are dark green on top and white and hairy underneath. They can dry out to a brown color and fall to the ground eventually. No other oak in California has leaves that curve backwards at the edges like a spaghetti rake. Like all oaks, coast live oaks drop acorns in the fall. The Coast Miwok collected these to thoroughly boil and then pound into meal. Scrub jays and California ground squirrels help the acorns out by burying them in their winter caches, essentially planting the acorns in the ground. Coast live oak grows most everywhere in the forested areas of the park.
Presence: Somewhat common.
Tree: Grows to 20-80 feet, bark is thick and furrowed.
Leaves: Evergreen with pointy edges.
Fruit: Acorn. 

California Buckeye (Aesculus californica)

This native buckeye has distinctive flowers and leaves. It produces bunches of white to pale pink flowers May through June. The flowers smell sweet, but eating any part of this plant destroys your red blood cells and can kill you. The flowers even poison bees that have not co-evolved with this plant. The leaves have five to seven leaflets that splay outward like a hand. Buckeyes are deciduous: they drop their leaves in late summer to early fall and new leaves emerge each spring. Seeds droop off the branches in summer and fall. You can see it along the Laguna trailhead near Clem Miller Environmental Center, the bottom of Bayview Trail and at the end of the Bear Valley Trail.
Presence: Common.
Tree: Grows to 30 feet, bark is smooth and gray.
Leaf: Fan compound, each leaflet with a fine saw-toothed edge.
Flower: White to light pink in dense narrow clusters.
Fruit: Dark brown rounded capsule. 

Bush Lupine (Lupinus spp)

This is one of the most common shrubs in the park. Its leaves are silvery-green and they whorl around the branches. In the spring, long stems of flowers curve towards the sky. Later the flowers will turn into fuzzy peapods. The fruits look like peapods because lupines are, like pea plants, legumes. Legumes naturally fertilize the soil. Bacteria that live in their roots can convert nitrogen in the air to a form that plants can use. People used to think that lupines did just the opposite, that they robbed the soil of its fertility. That’s why lupines were named for the wolf, which in Latin is lupus. Eight species of lupine grow in the park – the most common are yellow bush lupine (Lupinus arboreus) and dune lupine (Lupinus chamissonis). The best places to see them are Tomales Point Trail and Coast Trail out of Palomarin.
Presence: Common. 
Leaves: Arranged in whorls.
Flowers: Yellow or purple.
Fruit: Fuzzy legume pod.

Coyote Bush (Baccharis pilularis)

Coyote Bush does not have many distinctive features, except that if you’re in a shrubby area near the coast, you are probably looking at coyote bush. It is a large shrub with stiff bright green leaves. Come fall, the fruits ripen to cover the branches with white tufts of hair. Presence: Common.
Shrub: Large and branching.
Leaf: Small, bright green, smooth edges.
Flower: Small and white.
Fruit: Achenes with a long hair-like bristles.

Blue Blossom (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus)

Blue Blossom resembles a lilac. Spring finds clusters of blue flowers sticking out from the branches. Unlike a lilac, blue blossom’s dark green leaves stay on the branches year-round. Each leaf has three prominent veins that connect the base to the tip. The best places to view blue blossom are off Limantour Road, Bayview Trail, Drakes View Trail and Muddy Hollow Road.
Presence: Common.
Shrub: Grows as small as a prostrate shrub and as tall as a small tree. 
Leaf: Dark green and evergreen.
Flower: Light or deep blue in an upright panicle.
Fruit: Three-lobed capsule – green to black.


Exotic/Invasive Plants

The introduction of harmful exotic species is an emerging global problem. A recent Cornell University study estimated that invasive plants and animals cost the US economy $137 billion annually. The Ecological Society of America noted that invasive species contribute to the listing of 35 to 46 percent of all threatened and endangered species. Today, exotic plants infest some 2.6 million acres in the national parks.

Of the over 900 species of plants in Point Reyes National Seashore, approximately 300 are non-native. Of those, at least 30 are invasive enough to threaten the diversity of native plant communities in the Seashore. The Seashore also supports 46 special status (rare) plant species, many of which are directly affected by invasive non-native species. Invasive species are second only to habitat destruction as the major cause of extinction. Population Action International and The Nature Conservancy have determined that the California Floristic Province (CFP) is a "global biodiversity hotspot" - one of 25 terrestrial regions of the world where biological diversity is most concentrated and the threat of loss most severe. Within the CFP, original extent of flora remaining is only 25%, with only 9.7% protected. National Seashore status has protected our flora from development, but not from invasive species.

Invasive species are transported both intentionally (as food, ornamentals, etc.) and unintentionally (seeds or plant fragments in feed, bedding or gravel, etc.) by humans in our highly mobile global society. An invasive species is one that displays rapid growth and spread, allowing it to establish over large areas. Free from the vast and complex array of natural controls present in their native lands, including herbivores, parasites, and diseases, exotic plants may experience rapid and unrestricted growth in new environments. Invasiveness is enhanced by features such as strong vegetative growth, abundant seed production, high seed germination rate, long-lived seeds, and rapid maturation to a sexually reproductive (seed-producing) stage. Invasive plants reproduce rapidly, either vegetatively or by seed. Their phenomenal growth allows them to overwhelm and displace existing vegetation and form dense one- to few-species stands.

With so many non-native species to manage, Seashore vegetation managers must prioritize removal efforts to maximize effectiveness. Priorities are set with the goal of minimizing the total long-term workload. Therefore, we act to prevent new infestations and assign the highest priority to existing infestations that are the fastest growing, most disruptive and affect the most highly valued habitat within the Seashore.

High-priority species include giant plumeless, yellow star, purple star, and distaff thistle, cape ivy, pampas and jubata grass, French and Scotch broom, spartina, European beachgrass and iceplant. Mapping the extent of infestations is critical to prioritization. Several invasive species are too widespread for total control to be feasible. In these cases, priority for control is given to high-value areas, such as the Abbotts Lagoon area where rare dune plants and plant communities still maintain a fragile foothold.


Douglas-fir/Mixed Evergreen Forest

A piece of the Pacific Northwest grows on the east side of Inverness Ridge. Here enough rain falls in the winter to quench the thirst of this fast-growing tree and the trees, shrubs and herbs that sprout underneath. They are buoyed in the summer by fog moisture. The plants thrive in soil derived from marine sediments. They are a diverse mix. Looking up you see the Douglas-fir trees soaring straight up to form a canopy, then you'll see California bays, tanoaks, and coast live oaks bending upwards, and right at your eye level you can see coffeeberry, huckleberry, poison oak, hazelnuts, elderberries, honeysuckles, bouquets of ferns and small woodland herbs. This vegetation type describes over 30,000 acres of the Seashore. Sudden Oak Death is a recent phenomenon to this community; expect to see dead and dying tanoaks and true oaks in the forest canopy as Sudden Oak Death continues to spread throughout this community.


Plant Communities

The different plant communities that make up the Point Reyes peninsula are as varied as the different neighborhoods one would expect to find in a bustling city. As you travel around the Seashore, you pass from luxuriant forests of Douglas-fir and bishop pine, into windswept coastal grasslands. You hike through coastal scrub, enjoying the multitude of shrubs with their different smells and textures, to arrive at a salt marsh bordering an estuary. Or perhaps you take a stroll out amongst the coastal dunes to look for rare wildflowers on a spring day. These communities are dynamic. One melds into the next, change sweeps through in dramatic and subtle ways so that what you experience during one visit may be quite different when you return. The next generation of visitors, many years from now, may hike the same trail and experience a mature forest where you walked among newly sprouted trees invading a meadow. All of these dynamic plant communities combine to form a wonderfully diverse tapestry of plant life at Point Reyes National Seashore. Enjoy your exploration!



In 1867, the Swedish lichenologist Schwendener made a revolutionary discovery: lichens were not a separate group of plants- they were actually a partnership of two entirely different organisms: an algae and a fungus. In general, the algae contain photosynthetic pigments that allow the lichen to capture energy from the sun, and in some cases to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into a mineral form usable by the organism. The fungus, in turn, supplies the lichen with a home, protects it from desiccation (drying out) and is able to translocate water and nutrients to support life processes.

Although there are nearly 1,000 species of lichen documented for California, we only have an incomplete inventory of the lichen flora at Point Reyes National Seashore. Since lichen are not included in any inventories of rare or endangered species, it is fortunate that many species are protected simply by their inclusion in a national seashore.

Threatened, Rare, & Endangered Plants

Point Reyes National Seashore has a variety of habitat types, from coastal dunes, to dense forests. The broad range of habitat types supports over 900 species of vascular plants. Of these plants, over 50 are currently listed by the Federal government, State government, or the California Native Plant Society as being rare, threatened, or endangered.

Why Are Threatened, Rare, and Endangered Plants Important?
We as humans are intricately connected to all species around us. By saving something as seemingly insignificant as a rare plant you also save other organisms that depend upon those plants. These may be insects or herbivorous animals such as rabbits, deer, or even mice that need the seeds of the flower of a particular species to live. 

Did you know that a tiny plant could save your life? Plants are important sources of medicine and are potential ingredients to remedies for ailments humans may not yet have experienced. Drawing from the soil and a lush matrix of interdependence between organisms, the plant itself may someday hold the key to curing and treating future illness and disease. 

Why Do We Need to Save Them?
At the cellular level...organisms need healthy "genetic stock" or diversity in genetic make-up to withstand environmental or catastrophic conditions. In other words….an organism that has many different genes as opposed to similar genes is likelier to withstand blight or a storm, disease or a drought. Having diverse genes acts as insurance against extinction and adds to an organism's resiliency. We need healthy populations, or as scientists say "viable populations", of organisms to continue to have a healthy gene pool. When populations become small, all offspring turn out to have the same genetic makeup. This makes that particular species more prone to being wiped out by factors such as blight or environmental events such as hurricanes and floods. Larger populations are healthier because of the reservoir of genes to produce healthier more resilient offspring.

What is the Park Doing to Protect Threatened, Rare, and Endangered Plants?

Rare plant populations and their protection depend on us as conservationists and land stewards to take action. Their survival becomes entrusted to our care as land use values shift and these populations suffer from grazing pressure and the competition of

non-native plant species

. The fragile nature and fate of these organisms rests within our willingness and capacity to locate, map, monitor and protect these plants.


Tule Elk

The tule elk is a subspecies of North American elk that occurs only in California. They are smaller and lighter in color than other subspecies of elk. For thousands of years, vast numbers of tule elk thrived in the grasslands of central and coastal California. In the mid-1800s, following the gold rush, uncontrolled market hunting and rapid agricultural development nearly drove them to extinction. They were gone from the Point Reyes area by the 1860s. In 1874, the last surviving tule elk (possibly as few as two individuals) were discovered and protected in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Beginning in the early 1900s, conservation efforts, including reintroduction programs, have increased the statewide population to more than 3,000.

Tule elk were reintroduced to Point Reyes National Seashore in 1978. Since then, the elk have grown from 10 animals to over 400, one of the largest populations in California. There are two separate herds of tule elk at Point Reyes. The larger herd is at Tomales Point, a 2,600-acre fenced reserve at the north end of the Seashore. The other is a herd of roughly 30 animals that was recently transplanted from Tomales Point and now roams free in the Limantour wilderness area of the Seashore. The reintroduction of this free-ranging herd is an important step in the ecological restoration in the park.

The project to reintroduce free-ranging tule elk to the Limantour area was made possible by generous grants from:

  • Canon USA, Inc., through the National Park Foundation
  • The Committee for the Preservation of Tule Elk
  • The Leonard X. Bosak and Bette M. Kruger Charitable Foundation
  • The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

Volunteer to be a Tule Elk Docent during weekends, July through September, at Point Reyes National Seashore.


Elephant Seals

While sailing along the Pacific coast in the 1800s, a whale and seal hunter named Charles Scammon reported seeing northern elephant seals from Baja California in Mexico to Point Reyes in California. Sharing the fate of many of the oceans' great whales, the elephant seals were hunted to the brink of extinction for their oil-rich blubber. One bull elephant seal would yield nearly 25 gallons of oil. Though we don't know exactly how many northern elephant seals were alive before the 20th Century, it has been estimated that fewer than 1,000 northern elephant seals existed by 1910. In 1922, the Mexican government banned hunting, followed shortly thereafter by the United States government. Since then, the population of northern elephant seals has recovered at an average rate of six percent per year. Today, thanks to government protection and the seals' distant lives at sea, the worldwide population has grown to an estimated 150,000 seals.

After being absent for more than 150 years, elephant seals returned to the sandy beaches on the rocky Point Reyes Headlands in the early 1970s. In 1981, the first breeding pair was discovered near Chimney Rock. Since then, researchers have found that the colony is growing at a dramatic annual average rate of 16 percent. When severe storms occurred in 1992, 1994, and 1998, many pups were killed. During the El Niño winter of 1998, storms and high tides washed away approximately 85% of the 350 young pups before they had learned to swim. Nevertheless, the Point Reyes elephant seal population is between 1,500 and 2,000. Fanning out from their initial secluded spot, the seals have expanded to popular beaches, causing concern for both their safety and that of their human visitors.

Competition for Habitat
Sensitive resources such as birds and plants are also affected by elephant seals. The western snowy plover, a Federally threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, breeds on few California beaches. Loss of habitat to beachfront development and human recreation has forced elephant seals and plovers to compete for limited protected space. Also, rare plants native to coastal dunes are potentially at risk. Elephant seals and their curious human visitors may physically crush plants that are struggling to remain alive.

The park's task is to balance the expansion of the elephant seal colony while providing for the health of other species. To manage this balance, the park will continue its docent program, which provides visitors with on-site information and safety messages at the overlooks. To anticipate where the elephant seals might expand to next, researchers will attempt to discover why seals prefer to breed on some beaches and not others. This information will allow the park to make responsible choices about appropriate beach use by people, pets, and wildlife.

The Secret Lives of Elephant Seals
Northern elephant seals are mysterious and unique creatures. Elephant seals range from Mexico to Alaska and Hawaii in search of food and spend 80 percent of their life in the open sea. Not only do they spend most of their life in the ocean, 90 percent of that time is spent underwater: eating, sleeping, digesting, and traveling. They are built to survive continuous dives to depths that would squeeze the life out of any other mammal. The average dive reaches 1,000 to 2,000 feet, lasts close to half an hour and is followed by only 3-5 minutes at the surface to breathe. Imagine being able to live in such extremes!

Why do they dive so deep? The oceans are full of food for millions of animals, but relatively few feed at the depths elephant seals prefer. As a result, they face little competition for food. Feeding in almost total darkness, elephant seals use their large eyes and the bioluminescence of some prey, such as octopus and squid, to find food where other predators would not even be able to see. They may use their stiff yet sensitive three to eight inch long whiskers to "feel" some food, such as Pacific hake, skates, rays, shrimp, small sharks and crabs.

What allows such deep diving? Pressure increases as seals go deeper into the ocean. As they dive, outside pressure compresses the air in their bodies. Elephant seals differ from humans in that when they dive, they carry all the oxygen they need in their blood rather than their lungs. Before diving, elephant seals exhale; collapsing their lungs so there is little air to be compressed. As they dive, the seals fat is also compressed so that the animal loses its buoyancy and sinks, allowing it to achieve great depth with little effort.

Elephant seals prolong their dives by reducing their heart rate. A seal resting on land has a heart rate of 55-120 beats per minute, but when it dives, the heart slows to 4-15 beats per minute. The seal maintains normal blood pressure by decreasing the blood supply to its extremities, allowing the blood to flow primarily to the vital organs and the brain. This also helps the seal conserve body heat when down in the cold ocean depths.

During semi-annual migrations, adult males and females are not only thousands of miles apart, but they have different feeding patterns. Males return to the same feeding areas off the Aleutian Islands each year, while females feed in the northeast Pacific and near Hawaii. To complete both round-trips, females journey over 11,000 miles, males 13,000 miles. Males dive deeply and repeatedly for food. After about three weeks, they have eaten so much that their dive pattern changes to a flat-bottom dive, following the bottom contours as they rest and digest. Females also dive deeply and repeatedly, but they go deeper during the daytime than at night.

Although their locations and diving patterns differ, both sexes dive repeatedly for four to five months during summer and fall. Research suggests that elephant seals forage continuously during their migrations and, furthermore, they don't sleep! They may take "cat-naps" when they dive, as their heart rate slows, making only brief, infrequent surface appearances. This pattern, and the incredible amount of time spent below the surface, explains why so few of them have been seen in the open ocean despite their rapidly growing population.

Point Reyes National Seashore is one of the few places on the Pacific Coast where northern elephant seals may be observed and studied. Their semi-annual sojourns to the shores of Point Reyes provide a unique opportunity to glimpse the lives and behaviors of these elusive ocean giants. The Elephant Seal Overlook near Chimney Rocky is a great place for viewing elephant seals and discovering for yourself the secrets of these wild wonders of the deep!


With nearly 490 species recorded (45% of species of birds in North America), Point Reyes National Seashore easily claims the prize for the greatest avian diversity in any U.S. national park. The species total here, in fact, is larger than the species total in each of forty of the United States. Some of the factors responsible for attracting this amazing diversity are Point Reyes' location at an optimal latitude, its diverse habitats, its location along the Pacific Flyway, and the shape of the peninsula which acts as a geographic magnet.

While all birds at Point Reyes are protected, two threatened species currently are the focus of studies and extra steps to ensure their survival: the snowy plover and the northern spotted owl.


Amphibians are vertebrates (animals with backbones) that spend a part of their life underwater and the remainder living on land. They are ectothermic (more commonly known as "cold-blooded"), meaning that they depend on the temperature of their environment to regulate their own internal temperature. Amphibians are distinguished from reptiles by their absence of scales (although some of them have scales embedded under their skin). Amphibians are further distinguished by those that are voiceless and their larvae have no teeth (salamanders) and those that make noise and whose larvae have teeth (frogs and toads).

At Point Reyes, there are six species of salamanders. The most common include the Rough-skinned newt, the California newt, the slender salamander, Ensatina, and arboreal salamander. Larval California giant salamanders are found in many of the cooler streams in the Olema Valley, but adults are rarely seen except on warm, rainy nights.

There are four species of frogs and toads known from the Seashore, one of which is not native to this area. The bullfrog was introduced into California in the 1800s, and has spread throughout much of the state. The most common frog is the Pacific treefrog, a species that calls in large, loud choruses in the late winter and spring. The California red-legged frog is Federally listed as a threatened species. While populations of this frog are greatly reduced throughout many parts of the state, there are still good-sized populations of this frog at Point Reyes.

Although the number of amphibian species is limited at Point Reyes, the rarity of species is notable. The highest densities of California red-legged frogs, for example, are located in riparian areas of Point Reyes. This species is now federally threatened but was once abundant throughout California and was the species of Mark Twain’s legend of the jumping frog of Calaveras County.

Globally, over 200 amphibian species have experienced recent population declines, with reports of 32 species extinctions. Data from California clearly document not just a decline in frog and toad populations, but extirpation of certain species throughout a significant portion of their range. Some of the reasons for this decline include factors related to the overall biodiversity crisis such as habitat destruction (alteration; fragmentation), introduced species, and overexploitation.

However, these are not the only reasons for declines as they have also declined in relatively ‘pristine’ environments. The more complex and elusive mechanisms potentially underlying declines include climate change, UV-B radiation, chemical contaminants, infectious diseases, deformities, or a combination of any of these factors that may exacerbate negative conditions. Researchers are finding that there is not a single overarching cause for global declines; instead all of these factors are threatening amphibian populations to a greater or lesser extent.

Spotted Owls

Northern Spotted Owls (Strix occidentalis caurina) usually nest in large, old trees and multi-layered canopies typical of old-growth forests such as those of the Pacific Northwest. They are considered an indicator species because their presence is a gauge of the ecological health of the habitat.

This owl, which is recognized as threatened by the United States government, prospers in the mild climate of coastal California. Possibly the densest known population of northern spotted owls is found on the public lands in Marin County. The abundance of spotted owls is probably due to a large population of their favorite prey, dusky-footed woodrats (Neotoma fuscipes).

Biologists and project volunteers from Point Reyes National Seashore, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Muir Woods National Monument, Point Reyes Bird Observatory, Marin Municipal Water District, and Open Space District monitor the population of spotted owls on public lands in the western portion of Marin County. Through long-term monitoring and banding programs, researchers study specific sites, reproductive success and dispersal of local spotted owls.


Harbor Seals

When you walk along a trail overlooking the numerous pocket beaches of Point Reyes, you may catch a glimpse of shy harbor seals (Phoca vitulina). They often haul out along the Pacific Coast from the Bering Sea to Baja California, sometimes in large numbers at established colony sites. Harbor seals are curious animals when in the water, and often lift their heads out of the water to look around. Sometimes when they see a person walking on the shore or kayaking, they follow at a distance of as close as 15-45 meters (50-150 feet) in the bays and estuaries of the park.

Harbor seals are residents of Point Reyes and so they may be sighted year-round both on land and in the nearshore waters. Some seals also migrate annually up to 800 km (500 miles) during the winter months to other foraging areas, and then return to Point Reyes to breed and molt their fur. Point Reyes has the largest population of harbor seals in California, excluding the Channel Islands, with twenty percent of state's harbor seals living or breeding within the park's boundaries. Select colonies at Point Reyes have been monitored since 1976, and have increased as the population has recovered with protection provided by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972).

Harbor seals, and other pinnipeds, usually haul out in large groups onshore at traditional sites such as Point Reyes Headland. Their habit of hauling onto land to rest, give birth and nurse their young, and warm themselves in the sun provides nature enthusiasts a chance for an excellent wildlife sighting, but also makes the harbor seal vulnerable to disturbance. Harbor seals are shy animals whose habits are easily disrupted by the presence of humans on land. We recommend that visitors stay around 90 meters (300 feet) away from seals resting onshore.

How to Identify Harbor Seals
The harbor seal, northern fur seal, California sea lion, Steller sea lion and northern elephant seal are the five species of pinnipeds a visitor might see at Point Reyes. Harbor seals can usually be distinguished from elephant seals by size alone. The harbor seal is a rather small marine mammal, only getting up to 1.5-1.8 m (five-six feet) in length and 115 kg (250 pounds) in weight, whereas elephant seals are much larger. Bull elephant seals average about 1,360 to 2,500 kg (3,000 to 5,500 pounds), while females range in weight from 360 to 545 kg (800 to 1200 pounds). However, yearling and weaned pups weigh about 135 kg (300 pounds), so a young elephant seal could be mistaken for an adult harbor seal, if one attempts to identify the seal by its size. What color is the seal? While young elephant seals are a uniform gray, harbor seals are typically silver, white or gray, with black spots, although some harbor seals also are black or brown with white spots. Sometimes a harbor seal may have a reddish colored head or body, which is due to iron oxide deposits on the hair shafts.

Harbor seals and elephant seals are in the Family Phocidae (the earless seals) so unlike sea lions and fur seals, they do not have external ear flaps on the head, just a small hole where their ear is. Harbor seals and elephant seals also are unable to rotate their pelvis, and so they drag their body inchworm fashion around on land, on beaches, or other nearshore substrates that have a low slope. Sea lions, in contrast, can rotate their pelvis forward and walk on all four limbs, enabling them to use steep, rocky shoreline habitat unavailable to harbor seals. Harbor seals also differ from sea lions in their smaller size and lighter color. When in water, harbor seals propel themselves with their hind flippers in a sculling motion, and steer with their front flippers, whereas sea lions and fur seals propel themselves with their fore-flippers, like wings.

What Do Harbor Seals Eat?
Harbor seals are within the Order Carnivora, which means that they primarily eat meat. The meat they eat is fish in the nearshore waters of the park, such as herring, anchovies, sardines, hake, flounder, sole, salmon and sculpin. They also eat invertebrates such as octopus and squid and even crabs. The harbor seal is considered an “apex predator” because it feeds towards the top of the food chain. Apex predators are often used as an indication of the condition of their ecosystem because they can’t do well unless all of the organisms within their habitat are doing well. Point Reyes has been using the harbor seal as one of the indicators of the condition of the area’s marine systems. The population has grown and stabilized over the past decade and females give birth to pups around every year. During El Nino years, though, female seals often skip giving birth and the population counts onshore are lower, likely because seals are spending more time in the water looking for food.

What eats harbor seals?
White sharks are the primary marine predator of harbor seals, but occasionally other large sharks and killer whales eat them. Terrestrial predators such as coyotes and bobcats can also occasionally prey on harbor seals resting onshore, particularly pups that are very young.

Rarely, male elephant seals have been documented killing harbor seals in California at harbor seal colonies such as Jenner. This elephant seal behavior is very unusual, and the male seals do not appear to interact or haul out with other elephant seals. Instead, they haul out at harbor seal colonies.

Why Harbor Seals Haul Out
Harbor seals (and sea lions) haul out (come out of the water) almost daily to rest and to warm up. They cannot maintain their body temperature if they stay in cold water all the time because of their smaller size and thinner blubber layer. Northern elephant seals lose less heat than harbor seals because are much larger and have a thicker blubber layer that allows them to stay at sea for months at a time before coming onshore to rest and give birth.

All pinnipeds give birth on land, and that is one fact that distinguishes them from cetaceans, another group of marine mammals. Harbor seals give birth between March and June on tidal sandbars, rocky reefs and pocket beaches. They can give birth on areas which are inundated at high tide because harbor seal pups, unlike most pinniped species, can swim at birth. During the pupping season, mother seals will spend more time onshore nursing pups and resting, for an average of around 10-12 hours per day. The mother harbor seal stays with the pup almost continuously and rarely leaves the pup alone onshore. Mothers can take their pups with them when they go swimming and feeding because pups are adept swimmers.

A mother caresses and nuzzles its baby pup constantly, and for four to six weeks nurses it with her rich milk. The 48% fat content of milk makes the pup gain weight rapidly, and by around 30 days they are weaned. Pups weigh around 11 kg (25 lbs) at birth but when they are weaned they may weigh as much as 22 kg (50 lbs).

During the breeding season, male seals hold territories in the waters adjacent to where females haul out on shore, called maritory. Females are receptive to mating around when the pups are weaned and mating occurs in the water. Male seals will protect their maritory from other males and engage in stylized fighting during the breeding season.

Shortly after the pups are weaned, the seals begin their annual molt of their sea worn fur. The fur sheds much like a dog and the seals turn a luminous color with new fur. The molt period begins around mid-June and extends through July. During this time, seals will spend more time resting onshore because it is energetically taxing. Also, studies have shown that hair follicles grow faster in onshore than in the water. Seals can stay onshore resting for an average of 12 hours per day during the molt compared to around 7 hours per day during fall-winter months.

Harbor Seals Vulnerable to Disturbance
When seals and other pinnipeds haul out, they are extremely vulnerable to human disturbance. Often they will react when humans come within 90 m (300 ft). Their reactions can be anything from a head alert (lifting their head) to flushing (retreating into the water). Harbor seals leave their haul-out sites when harassed by people, dogs, boats, aircraft or other human actions. Even a temporary disruption stresses the animal by cutting into its time to warm up, rest, and nurture young. Harbor seals may also abandon a haul-out site permanently, as they did at historic sites in San Francisco Bay, due to high and chronic incidences of human disturbance.

March through July, the pupping and molting seasons, is an especially vulnerable time for harbor seals. While hiking along the shores of the Pacific during these months, you may come across a seal pup alone on the beach. It is most likely not abandoned. The mother is probably in the water nearby feeding. However, if a mother is repeatedly disturbed on a site with her pup, she may decide to abandon her pup for the safety of the water, so please be sure to stay well away from any seals you see.

How You Can Help
If you see a lone pup, do not touch, move or otherwise disturb it. It is extremely difficult to reunite a mother and her pup after the pup has been moved, and very difficult to raise a pup in captivity.

Please take care NOT to make your presence known — either visually or audibly — when you come across an individual or a group of harbor seals when you are on land or on the water. Seals may flee into the water immediately when they hear or see a human. This flight disrupts their resting, can cause mother-pup separations and may endanger their health. If you see the seals raise their heads in a startle response, immediately back away so that they do not feel threatened.

Maintain a minimum distance of 90 m (300 feet) from any marine mammal in the water or on the shore to prevent a disturbance.

Avoid areas closed to visitors during the breeding season, from March 1 through June 30. Drakes Estero and the mouth to Drakes Estero are closed to boating, canoeing and kayaking. Double Point is closed to all visitor access. Tomales Point and Limantour Spit are harbor seal pupping areas, but are not closed. Please use care not to disturb the animals at these places and keep a distance of 90 m (300 feet) away. Ask at visitor centers for a map indicating closed areas.

If you see an animal (adult or pup) that you think is in distress, do not touch or approach it. Contact a park ranger and give the exact location and a description of the animal, making note of its behavior, color, size (length and girth) and any particular markings or tags.

Contact the nearest National Seashore ranger first:

  • Bear Valley Visitor Center: 415.464.5100
  • Lighthouse Visitor Center: 415.669.1534
  • Ken Patrick Visitor Center: 415.669.1250
  • Visitor Protection: 415.464.5170

If there is no answer at National Seashore numbers, call: Marine Mammal Center: 415.289.7325 

Become a Harbor Seal Monitoring Docent at Point Reyes National Seashore. Volunteers monitor the population of harbor seals in spring and summer. The data that they gather help scientists follow trends in the population, assess their health, identify disturbances to the harbor seals and protect, and preserve this valuable resource.

Protecting Marine Mammals
The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 provides federal protection not only to harbor seals, but also to northern elephant seals, California and Steller sea lions, whales, porpoises, sea otters and other marine mammals. This law prohibits killing or harassing these shy creatures in any manner.

Any human action that causes a change in the behavior of a marine mammal is considered harassment.


The phylum Mollusca is large and diverse, encompassing ten different classes of animals. The animals are most commonly recognized as one of three different types: the bivalves, the univalves, and those without shells (or with very small internal shells, ex. slugs). Bivalves are mollusks with two shells such as clams and oysters. Univalves are animals with one shell such as a snail. Mollusks without shells include squid, banana slugs, and octopi.
Some mollusks are terrestrial, occurring in most environments on earth, while others live in the water for some or all of their life. Many of the most popular mollusks are marine species because they are pretty and some are caught for food or jewelry. Some of the qualities that define a mollusk are definite organs (mainly heart, gonads, and kidneys), a complete digestive tract, and a muscular foot. Although their bodies are not segmented, they do have two definable parts: the head and the foot. Their shells are made of calcium carbonate. The shells are very decorative on the inside for many marine species, and the outside for many snails. Most mollusks have at least two stages of life and their second stage (or adult phase) is often marked by bearing a shell.

Polyplacophora are more commonly referred to as chitons. They look ancient, like a trilobite of the ocean. Their body is an elongated dome with eight overlapping plates and they are usually as big as a quarter. Making their living on algae, they are commonly found in intertidal areas as they cling to the rocks, but usually they are camouflaged very well with cryptic coloring.

Those animals with two shells are conveniently all lumped together in class Bivalvia. They don’t have a formal eating structure, so they filter food by siphoning it from the water with gills between their two valves. Their organs, including their nervous system, are all located between the two shells and they have a muscular foot that can stick out. This foot is used for locomotion, attaching to rocks, or both. Bivalvia is diverse and includes animals like the oyster, which give us pearls by covering bits of sand that come into their system with the calcium carbonate that they use for their shells. The waters surrounding Point Reyes are a popular spot for collecting oysters and clams.

Tusk Shells
The class Scaphopoda are known as tusk shells and found in marine environments world wide. They look like elephant tusks that are 15cm long, and they feed on the bottom of the sea. Most likely, these animals occur at our Seashore, but the chances of seeing them are extremely unlikely.

Gastropoda is the most widespread class within Mollusca. It is estimated to have as many as 75,000 species and undoubtedly many of its species occur at Point Reyes. The gastropods are univalve animals and can be terrestrial, freshwater, or marine and include snails, abalones, limpets. Their name is from Greek roots with gaster referring to stomach and poda referring to feet. This makes sense because their major two body parts are their head region (with most of their organs) and their muscular foot. This separation also comes from a process which also defines a gastropod called torsion. Torsion occurs during their development into an adult; their internal organs twist 180 degrees and results in the separation of its organs from its foot. Although the gastropods have some similarities, they are for the most part extremely varied and because they all live in very different places, they eat very different things.
The abalone is by far Point Reyes most famous specimen of Gastropoda. It is a beautiful marine snail that at one time was extremely abundant along the coast. Currently, there are very stringent restrictions on the collection of abalones in northern California. The banana slug is one of the most commonly spotted Gastropods at Point Reyes.

Most intelligent and softest are the easiest way to describe the cephalopods. The creatures of Cephalopoda have lost their shells, and compensate with a far more developed brain. Also, they have an overdeveloped muscular foot, which is turned into arms or tentacles. Its flagship members are octopus, squid, cuttlefish, and nautilus. Besides being able to make a living in difficult places, they are able to defend themselves in unusual ways. Most are able to change color and texture rapidly to match surroundings, and are also able to shoot an ink cloud to make a getaway.

Point Reyes Seashore has the Red Octopus (Octopus rubescens), but like may inhabitants of the sea, it is almost never seen. They do live in intertidal areas, but spotting one is extremely rare and if you do, it is safest to not touch the animal. Another common cephalopod is the common squid, but don’t expect to see this one either. They only will come towards the shore area to breed and then die.

Wildlife Viewing

Point Reyes National Seashore is home to wide diversity of wildlife. Nearly forty species of land mammals and at least a dozen species of marine mammals may be seen here. Birders scouring the Point Reyes peninsula have identified nearly half of the bird species found in North America. The park is home to one of the largest populations of tule elk and hosts a thriving breeding ground for the once nearly extinct elephant seal. Jutting 10 miles into the Pacific Ocean, Point Reyes offers one of the best spots for viewing the migrations of the California gray whale. Nearly half the park has been designated as a Wilderness Area. Quite possibly, you may encounter wildlife during your visit to Point Reyes. But there are no guarantees when it comes to wildlife watching. Even if you set out to see a particular species, you may not see it at all.

The key to experiencing the wildlife and the wilderness at Point Reyes is to take your time and to find a quiet space to do it. And above all, be aware of your surroundings. But finding wildlife isn't very difficult, if you aren't too particular. Just by stepping out the door of the Bear Valley Visitor Center you are likely to see gophers or gopher snakes, turkey vultures or great blue herons. You might notice black-tailed deer, jackrabbits, or even a coyote or bobcat. However, the best wildlife watching requires patience and the willingness to venture out on the trails, just to enjoy the surroundings. It also requires a sense of ethics. Everything we do may affect wildlife and wild lands.

Wildlife watching is more than a momentary pleasure. It is a practice that can sharpen your senses and teach you about relationships between living things and the earth. It may cultivate an understanding of your own relationship to other living things, strengthening your bond to nature. Ultimately, it can awaken a sense of responsibility for the wild lands and the wildlife protected here at Point Reyes National Seashore and beyond.

Here are some suggested areas for wildlife viewing:

  • Abbotts Lagoon
  • Drakes Estero
  • Elephant Seal Overlook
  • Five Brooks Pond
  • Lighthouse
  • Olema Marsh
  • Sea Lion Overlook
  • Tule Elk Preserve

Abbotts Lagoon
The easy 1.5-mile trail takes you past a fresh water pond to a footbridge crossing the brackish lagoon. If you continue along the sandy lagoon shoreline, you will be rewarded by the dramatic views of the open ocean and along the Great Beach. The three different water sources provide diverse habitats for the wildlife in the Abbotts Lagoon area. This is one of the best fall and winter birding sites in the park; shorebirds, waterfowl, sparrows, hawks and osprey are commonly sighted. Consider yourself one of the fortunate if you spot a golden eagle or a peregrine falcon eyeing the shorebirds!

Drakes Estero
A 1-mile, downhill walk through a deserted Christmas tree farm provides the observant hiker opportunity to see owls perched in the pine trees. Further along the trail is a footbridge, which offers an excellent vantage point from which to view wading egrets and herons, many species of shorebirds, as well as hawks and osprey. Drakes Estero offers the best birding opportunities during the fall migration and winter layover. When the mudflats are exposed at low tide, a plethora of life on a much smaller scale is visible. Crabs and other invertebrates scampering on rocks and in the mud below the footbridge may be seen playing their part in nature's vast food web. The largest harbor seal breeding colony in Point Reyes (and 20% of California's mainland harbor seal population) can be seen at Drakes Estero.

Elephant Seal Overlook
From December through March a breeding colony of elephant seals can be observed from this excellent vantage point above beautiful Drakes Bay. Elephant seals, hunted nearly to extinction, have made a remarkable comeback. These marine mammals spend almost all their lives in the deep ocean waters, diving to depths of a mile in search of food. Adult male elephant seals, which can weigh up to 5,000 pounds, have a huge overhanging proboscis (nose), hence their name. The males are the first to arrive here, in December, to stake out a claim on the beach. Then pregnant females begin to arrive and soon give birth to a single pup. Subadult and juvenile animals arrive and the colony can number close to one hundred animals.

From the Overlook you can witness the fascinating behavior of these animals, including male dominance contests, birthing of pups and the interactions of mothers and pups. You will hear the distinctive vocalizations of females, pups and the powerful trumpeting of the adult males (bulls) which can be heard for over a mile.

During weekends and holidays, highly trained docents staff the Overlook. They have binoculars, spotting scopes, and a wealth of information to share with you.

Five Brooks Pond
Five Brooks Trailhead is an excellent observation area for birds and winter-run salmon. No one knows the origin of the name "Five Brooks" but five seasonally appearing creeks empty into Olema Creek within a one-mile section near the current trailhead. A 110-lot subdivision was once planned for this area which now provides habitat for pileated woodpeckers, swallows, warblers, and thrushes. The pond was a mill pond for the Sweet Lumber Company which harvested trees at Five Brooks between 1956 and 1963. Today the pond provides a winter resting-place for green-backed herons, grebes, hooded mergansers, and ring-necked ducks. In the early evenings, bats may be seen swooping over the pond in search of their daily insect meals. Salmon working their way up Olema Creek may be viewed from the bridge at the immediate entrance to the trailhead area during the winter run, approximately December through February.

Five Brooks is located on Highway 1 approximately five miles south of the Bear Valley Visitor Center.

At the end of California's longest peninsula, the Point Reyes Lighthouse offers a spectacular place from which to view wildlife. Turkey vultures, ravens, and hawks are regulars. Peregrine falcons are a treat to see. A colony of approximately 12,000 common murres has established itself on the rocks north of the Lighthouse and can be viewed from the observation deck above the Lighthouse during the spring/summer nesting season. The cypress trees along the walkway to the Lighthouse are good "bird traps." On foggy days during the fall migration, unusual songbirds, warblers, and grosbeaks may be seen. Land mammals such as native black-tailed deer are commonly seen; gray foxes and long-tailed weasels are occasionally seen. Marine mammals such as harbor seals and sea lions are a thrill to watch when sunning themselves on the rocks or diving and feeding in the open ocean. Whether it's sunny and clear or foggy and wet, the gray whale migration occurs January through early May. Gray whales swim about 5 mph, 24 hours a day with a 4 to 7 week layover (late January through early March) in Baja California and are most frequently seen from the Lighthouse area in mid-January and mid-March. The last to leave Baja are the cows and calves. Therefore, they are the last northbound whales to be seen, April through early May.

Olema Marsh
Olema Marsh is one of the largest freshwater marsh areas in Marin County and is a peaceful birdwatching spot. Once a part of the nearby Bear Valley dairy ranch, the milking barn has been converted to a park residence. (Please do not disturb tenants.) Kingfishers and red-winged blackbirds are common among the tules and cattails. In autumn, migratory water birds rest in the marsh. It is a good spot for migratory water birds in winter. During high tides, egrets and herons may be seen feeding. Olema Marsh is located off Bear Valley Road, about two miles north of the Bear Valley Visitor Center.

Sea Lion Overlook
Follow the steep 54-step staircase down the side of a cliff and look straight down. It might appear to be a rocky shoreline, but keep looking and listening. If a "rock" moves or barks, it's probably a California sea lion! Sea lions have hair and blubber to keep them warm, but they need to haul out on the rocks to sun themselves and get warm between forays into the 53-degree ocean water. Sea lions may be seen and heard year-round at this site. Sea lions can be easily distinguished from harbor seals because they are much larger and can use their back flippers to move easily. Harbor seals are unable to rotate the pelvis and therefore must travel on their bellies. Sea lions also have external ear flaps. In the spring, you may see nesting Brandt's cormorants. They are bigger than the double-crested and pelagic cormorants, and have bright blue throat pouches during breeding season. This is a good gray whale watching site, especially in April when the cows and calves swim close to the coastline on their northbound migration.

Tule Elk Preserve
The tule elk herds had virtually disappeared by 1860, 13 years before the state awarded them complete protection. In the spring of 1978, two bulls and eight cows were brought in from the San Luis Island Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos. The elk were contained within a temporary, 3-acre enclosure to allow for adjustment to their new surroundings. That summer, six of the cows bore calves. In the fall, 17 elk were released from the enclosure on Tomales Point to 2,600 acres of open grassland and coastal scrub. By the summer of 1988, the population was at 93 animals. The population census taken in 2000 counted over 400 elk.



Take time to explore Point Reyes National Seashore, and you will find that wildlife abounds. Animals at Point Reyes National Seashore range from large marine mammals such as the northern elephant seal to the relatively small endangered Myrtle's silverspot butterfly. Because Point Reyes National Seashore is part of the California Floristic Province (characterized by Mediterranean vegetation) and a zone of overlap of marine provinces (Californian and Oregonian), a wide variety of animals are found in the diversity of habitats.

Current inventories document approximately 80 species of mammals, 85 species of fish, 29 species of reptiles and amphibians, and thousands of aquatic and terrestrial invertebrate species. Nearly half the bird species of North America, 490 species, have been spotted here.

The animal life found at Point Reyes National Seashore is as varied as the landscape. Whether you choose to hike the mountains or stroll along the shores, keep your eyes and ears open for a chance to experience nature at its best.

Other Invertebrates (corals, sponges, worms, etc.)

Invertebrates are the animals in our world without a backbone. You know a lot of them. The insects and crustaceans have outer skeletons, while the mollusks and the worms don't have much of a skeleton. Invertebrates make up more than 90% of the animals on earth and are part of the base of our food chain.

Corals, sponges, and worms are common words to our ears, but scientists would call them cnidarians, poriferans, and annelids. They each have their own phylum and each phylum is extremely diverse. One thing they all have in common is that they are ancient and simple biological organisms.

Corals, Anemones, & Jellies
Phylum Cnideria contains corals, anemones, and jellyfish. Their name comes from the Greek word cnidos which means stinging nettles. Most animals in this phylum have a capability to sting prey with nematocyst cells which either sting or inject a toxin. Corals are in class Anthozoa and are sessile polyps that live in colonies which act as a single organism. The shapes of corals can be incredibly diverse, but they are all groups of tentacled creatures that live on a calcareous skeleton and share nutrients. Most corals are known for being very colorful, but they don’t actually have color. Many live symbiotically with algae that are extremely colorful. The algae provide carbohydrates to the corals, while the corals provide carbon dioxide for the algae. Sometimes, the coral may become stressed and it can eject the algae, which is known as “coral bleaching”. Coral is well known for the reefs it can form with its calciferous skeleton, but in central California, coral doesn’t form reefs. But, like a coral reef, corals of Point Reyes are extremely sensitive to change in salinity and temperature. Development along coastal areas can result in runoff, which changes the salinity of the water and can kill the corals.

Sea Sponges
Phylum Porifera encompasses the sponges of the sea. The skeletons of sea sponges are well known because they are natural sponges and are often sold with spa products. There are different types and not all of them are useful as soft sponges because many varieties have skeletons that are hard and spiky. Sponges are extremely simple creatures and do not have blood or organs. They live by absorbing all of their gasses and nutrients from the water and returning wastes to the water by direct diffusion through cell walls. Most species require a solid rock to spend their life on, so it is not uncommon to see a bunch of corals growing together on an ideal spot which is referred to as a “sponge garden”. Sponges can be found in intertidal zones and in the deep sea.

Phylum Annelida contains an extremely wide variety of segmented worms that live in an extremely wide variety of habitats. They can live in water, the ground, or in another animal’s body such as a snail. The segmented worms that live in the sea are referred to as polychaetes. Their name defines them as worms with “many bristles” because they have sensitive hairs on each segment of their body. Bristleworms, as they are sometimes known, make up a large portion of marine life. Predictably, these worms are a large food source for the carnivores of the sea and mudflats. Lugworms, sandworms, and clamworms are some popular types that feed birds, crustaceans, and fish. This certainly explains the abundance of animals foraging the mudflats during low tides.

In Point Reyes...
Many of these invertebrates can be found at Point Reyes within intertidal habitats. Intertidal habitats exist on rocky shorelines that are only covered part of the time with water due to the tide. These pools are popular places for these animals to live because they receive a lot of sunlight which provides food for the things that intertidal creatures eat.

When exploring intertidal regions it is important to remember that these places are extremely sensitive. When the tide is low these animals are simply trying to “hold on” until the water comes back over them. Here are some simple rules for tidepool etiquette:

  • Be careful walking. It is wet and slippery down there and a fall could mean injury to you and the animals. Also, many of the animals are not easy to see so look closely.
  • Look more, touch less. Most of the animals will die if they are picked up and some may hurt if you touch them. Get down low and watch them at their level, this way you can see their interactions and learn a lot.
  • Watch the waves. Waves are variable and dangerous if you aren’t watching them. Don’t be knocked over by a sneaker wave – keep your eyes on the ocean at all times.


The shores of Point Reyes are full of rocky cliffs. These cliffs create large, rocky intertidal zones that harbor a variety of hardy crustaceans. The animals most commonly associated with subphylum Crustacea are the bigger members such as shrimp and crabs, but Crustacea also includes important members that are only visible with a microscope. Crustaceans have a couple of defining qualities. They have segmented bodies with hardened shells which are regularly shed. Their limbs have two branches to them, and they have two pairs of antennae. Six classes make up the subphylum Crustacea and are by far the most dominant arthropod on earth. Members of all of the classes inhabit the waters of Point Reyes, but only some can be easily found.

Fairy Shrimp, Tadpole Shrimp, Water Fleas, & Clam Shrimp
The class Branchiopoda has some marine representatives that can be found more easily with a microscope and a water sample. The easiest way to see them is to buy some fish food. They are often used for aquariums and labeled “brine shrimp” or “sea monkeys”. The marine animals in this group often look like shrimp, but they are much smaller and a greater food source.

Barnacles, Fish Parasites, & Copepods
The class Maxillopoda encompasses a large variety of the crustaceans. Cirripedia are known more commonly as barnacles. Although this sessile adult form can be spotted on rocks and even sometimes whales, their younger life forms swim around. Branchiura are often referred to as “fish lice” because of their parasitic nature. They parasitize only the outside of fish.

The dominant group within this class is definitely the copepods. They make up most of what is known as zooplankton. Zooplankton feeds shrimp and krill, which feeds much of the larger life forms in the ocean. Ecologically they are very important because they absorb carbon and transfer it to the ocean carbon sink. In California a little orange speck called Tigriopus californicus is most commonly identified in intertidal zones and looks like red pepper in a glass of water. 

Seed Shrimp
Class Ostracoda is made up of small crustaceans that look much like seeds. They are found in the upper layer of the sea floor and usually are only 1mm long. When living in the sediment, it can look much like an extremely small clam, but it has different types of appendages it can stick out for different purposes. Visitors should not expect to find these small jewels.

Shrimp, Crab, Lobsters, & Krill
Two-thirds of the crustacean species are represented in the large class Malacostraca. This class contains the most conspicuous species, many of which are commercially harvested. There are general qualities that apply to all animals within this class. They all have three segments with distinct segments within them. They swim with the appendages on their back segment (abdomen). They have specialized mouthparts called maxillipeds, and a two-chambered stomach, as well as a centralized nervous system.

In Point Reyes...
Krill, although rarely seen by visitors, can feed the occasional gray or blue whale passing by the tip of the peninsula. Many of the crustaceans that live here are important players in lower trophic levels of the ocean and are very small. However, there are plenty of big guys too. Many types of crabs (and their old shells) live here, such as the Pacific rock crab, Thick-Clawed Porcelain Crab, Pea Crab, and Pacific Mole Crab. Two types of barnacles that are common to find are the Gooseneck Barnacle and the White-acorn Barnacle.

These creatures are among the hardiest in nature, surviving for several hours each day out of the water and withstanding the intense pounding surf. However, they are not resistant against encroaching new species and they don’t have a defense against curious humans. It is important to recognize that when these creatures are visible, they are also the most vulnerable and must be treated with respect.

Mountain Beaver

The term "beaver" often leads people to imagine a large rodent living in ponds and building dams. This is not the case with the mountain beaver (Aplodontia rufa). Mountain beavers are an unusual and primitive species of rodent. They are about the size of a muskrat, 10-12 inches (27-30 cm) long. However, they have a very short tail, less than one-half inch (1 cm) long. Mountain beavers live in underground burrows typically dug in dense thickets or in forest openings. The burrows have separate chambers for excrement, food storage and nesting. The presence of burrow openings is often the most obvious evidence of mountain beaver activity. Typically, there are multiple openings, 6-7 inches (15-18 cm) in diameter, in an area of about 150-170 square feet (14-16 square meters). Charles Camp described the burrow system in 1918 as follows:

"Wherever the aplodontia lives it digs extensive underground tunnels that in a populous colony form a network of passages a few inches beneath the surface of the ground. Each burrow system has many openings to the surface, but excavated dirt and rubbish is pushed out usually at only a few of these holes."

Mountain beavers are seldom seen because they feed mostly at night. They eat a wide variety of vegetation including coyote brush, sword fern, cow parsnip, blackberries, poison oak, California nettle, foxglove, and thistle. A mountain beaver needs 1/3 of its body weight in water every day because its kidneys are simple and inefficient at conserving water. This means an adult needs to consume 1-2 cups (295-450 ml) of water daily, by drinking or from food. Because of this, mountain beavers are restricted to areas near water or with extensive summer fog along the Pacific coast.

Mountain beavers range from the southwest corner of British Columbia south through western Washington and Oregon. In California, their range extends through the Sierra NevadaMountains and barely into Nevada. Along the California coast, mountain beavers are found south to near Cape Mendocino and then in isolated coastal populations at Point Arena and Point Reyes.

The subspecies of mountain beaver found at Point Reyes, the Point Reyes mountain beaver (Aplodontia rufa phaea), is endemic to the area - found nowhere else. It is only known to occur in western Marin County, almost entirely within Point Reyes National Seashore. Here it is found on cool, moist, north-facing slopes in moderately dense coastal scrub. This scrub vegetation typically includes coyote brush as well as sword fern, bracken fern, poison oak, California nettle, and cow parsnip, which tend to grow in the moister areas.

Most of the area occupied by the Point Reyes mountain beaver was regularly burned by Coast Miwok Indians who once occupied the Point Reyes peninsula. In the last 100 years, however, fires have been far less frequent and routinely suppressed. This fire control has resulted in a buildup of highly combustible fuels.

The Vision Fire of October 3-12, 1995 burned 12,354 acres (5,000 ha), with 94% of the burn area within Point Reyes National Seashore. The fire consumed mostly coastal scrub, but also some Bishop Pine and Douglas fir forest, grassland, and riparian habitats. The fire burned 40% of the known range of the Point Reyes mountain beaver, including the majority of what was believed to be prime habitat. The post-fire survival rate of mountain beavers throughout the burn area was very low. It is expected to take up to 20 years post-fire for full recovery of the population.



Point Reyes National Seashore encompasses approximately 71,000 acres of grassland, forest and shoreline along the Pacific coast north of San Francisco. The diversity of habitat is home to nearly 40 species of land mammals. While driving or hiking through the seashore you are likely to see some of these residents, such as bobcat and the Tule Elk. The shoreline, that interface between the aquatic and terrestrial environments, provides prime haul-out and breeding sites for several species of seals and sea lions. The adjacent marine waters (which include two National Marine Sanctuaries) support at least 20 species of whales and porpoises that can sometimes be seen from the mainland.

Snowy Plovers

Partnering Science and Education to Save a Threatened Species

Since 1995, Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) and Point Reyes Bird Observatory Conservation Science (PRBO) have been implementing a recovery project for the breeding western snowy plover (Charadrius alexandrinus nivosus) population within the Seashore. The snowy plover is a small shorebird that was listed as a federally threatened species in 1993. Current estimates project that there are roughly 1,800 western snowy plovers along the Pacific Coast from Washington to Baja (USFWS unpublished data). Their diminishing numbers are largely due to habitat loss and degradation from the introduction of nonnative plants.

Share the Beach—Being Mindful of Human Activities that Affect Plovers

Gulls, ravens, foxes, coyotes, dogs, feral cats, skunks, and raccoons are famous for developing feeding habits based on reckless human disturbance and often congregate where people recreate. Even simply standing a stick in the sand as a flagpole can draw predators: the stick provides a perch for raptors that otherwise have no vantage points on barren beaches.

Management Methods

To reduce human disturbance of plovers, the park used educational signs and brochures to teach the public about the vulnerability of nesting snowy plovers and to alert visitors to seasonal closures and pet restrictions in plover habitat. On weekends, when recreation was most intense, park employees and several volunteer docents were present on beaches and at trail heads to educate visitors.

Current Statistics

The plover nesting season in 2006 was the most successful since 1995. An estimated 23 of 24 nests were protected with exclosures and 51 eggs hatched out of 69 laid (74% hatching success). Of the chicks that hatched, 23 fledged, yielding a 45% fledging rate. For a population to be self-sustaining, a rate of > 1 chicks fledged per male is the annual goal for productivity. Typically, plovers will lay 2-3 clutches per year; both male and female will incubate the 1-5 eggs laid; and once the eggs hatch, the male will stay with the hatchlings (brood) for roughly 28 days until the chicks are fledged (can fly), protecting them from predators and guiding them to places to eat insects. To find out the latest, visit our Snowy Plover Updates page.

Habitat Restoration

Since March 2004, plovers have begun to nest in the dune area restored with heavy equipment. This is the first time plovers have used these back dunes since research began in 1972. Normally, plover nesting activity has been restricted to a narrow strip of sand between the beachgrass formed sea wall and the high tide line. Plovers are using the area for chick rearing as well. Male plovers have been seen moving chicks to this area from as far as a mile and a half away. The restored area is open enough for plovers to see approaching predators and provides areas of protection (chicks are much harder to find in open sand fields) and native food sources.

Creating Awareness Reduces Chick Loss

Since 2001, the snowy plover recovery program has included a significant volunteer education effort with funding support from Point Reyes National Seashore Association. These "Snowy Plover Docents" frequent Seashore beaches on weekends and holidays, providing snowy plover education to nearly 2,000 visitors annually. Far fewer chicks are being lost on weekends and holidays compared to weekdays, suggesting that docent presence and education efforts are playing a critical role in sustaining snowy plover breeding populations on Point Reyes beaches.

Visitor education is very important to the success of plovers at PRNS because the birds are easily disturbed by recreationists on beaches. When disturbed, chicks are exposed to predators and use energy needed for growth. Egg failure and chick mortality remain high because of disturbance, predation, environmental factors and other reasons, with 18 eggs failing to hatch (26%) and 29 chicks failing to fledge in 2006. The survival of every chick is important during this time of building up the population, and the park will continue the protection, restoration and education programs in the near future until the population reaches and is sustained at the USFWS recovery plan target number of 64 breeding birds for Point Reyes beaches, and one chick produced per male during the breeding season.

Why Should I Care?

The health of our sandy beaches and avian environment might be measured by the number of snowy plovers residing, nesting, rearing, and fledging young. Western snowy plovers will share the shore as long as they have small, protected nesting islands.

The snowy plover is an important part of the interconnected web of life on the shore. Plovers have lived on California beaches for thousands of years, but today human use of their remaining beach habitat seriously threatens their survival. Once numbered in the thousands, fewer than 1,900 breeding plovers remain (USFWS unpublished data). Prior to 1970 they nested at 53 locations in California, while today they nest in only half as many sites (USFWS 2001). Point Reyes, once known for having at least three plover breeding beaches now only has one (Peterlein 2005). The health of our beaches and community will depend on our local management and community response during the critical breeding season.

How Can I Help 'Snowies' Nest in Peace?

The efforts of the National Park Service, state parks and other land management agencies combined with your active cooperation, prove we can all make a difference in the survival of the western snowy plover along the seashore. Since snowy plover breeding season coincides with the peak of human visitation, there are many things park visitors can do to avoid or minimize impacts on the birds.

Literature Cited:

Schwarzbach, S. E., and M. Stephenson, T. Ruhlen, S. Abbott, G.W. Page, D. Adams. 2005. Elevated mercury concentrations in failed eggs of Snowy Plovers at Point Reyes National Seashore. Baseline / Marine Pollution Bulletin 50 (11): 1433-1456.

U.S. and Fish Wildlife Service 2001. Western Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus nivosus) Pacific Coast Population Draft Recovery Plan, Portland Oregon. xix + 630 pp.

Page, G.W., and L.E. Stenzel (eds.). 1981. The breeding status of the Snowy Plover in California. West. Birds 12:1-40.

Peterlein, C.R. 2005. Distribution, protection and nest success of snowy plovers at Point Reyes National Seashore in 2005. PRBO Conservation Science, Stinson Beach, CA. 14 pp.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1993. Endangered and threatened wildlife and plants; determination of threatened status for the Pacific coast population of the western snowy plover, final rule. Fish and Wildlife Service. Federal Register 58(42):12854-12874.

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Insects, Spiders, Centipedes, Millipedes

The Phylum Arthropoda contains creatures that have a skeleton on the outside and jointed legs. You have seen many of the members such as spiders, centipedes, millipedes, flies, beetles, and crabs. This Phylum is split into different Classes and spiders, insects, centipedes and millipedes all have their own.

Spiders are easily seen when in the coastal grasslands of Point Reyes. They make webs between tall grass blades that are truly art. There are three things that set spiders, in the Class Arachnida, apart from the rest of the arthropods. They have fangs, four sets of legs, and a cephalothorax, which is the head and thorax fused. Spiders are difficult to identify, and not very well documented, but don’t let that discourage you from finding and enjoying them. The Seashore has some stunning examples that are full of color and found in intricate webs and in the ground.

California has over 30,000 species of insects within the state which scientists put into Class Insecta. They occur in all terrestrial habitats on earth except the poles and certainly occur in abundance at Point Reyes. As primary consumers they eat dead and decaying things, which return those things to the earth as nutrients.

Two qualities make an insect an insect. First, they have 3 body segments, a head, thorax, and abdomen. Second, they have 3 pairs of legs. All insects go through "life stages" where they are one form and then metamorphose into another form. A good example of this is when a caterpillar changes into a butterfly. Often, each life stage uses different types of resources. A caterpillar will crawl on the ground and eat leaves, but a butterfly will fly from flower to flower drinking nectar. This is important because when scientists are trying to conserve certain species, they must conserve the resources that each life stage uses.

Centipedes have a Class of their own called Chilopoda. They are set apart because of their very unique features. Centipedes’ bodies are segmented into many parts and each segment has a single pair of legs. They are all carnivorous and feed on other arthropods, earthworms, and snails. So, they can be found by looking for their prey in damp places under leaves, rotten logs, and rocks. The species in this area do not harm humans – no need to be afraid.

Millipedes are often mistaken for centipedes, but millipedes have two sets of legs on each of their segments. With so many legs it looks as though a wave is going through its legs when it walks. They too have their own Class, called Diplopoda. Millipedes are herbivores feeding mostly on decaying vegetation. They can usually be found crawling along forest floors where it is damp and there is plenty of humus (decomposed plants) to eat. California’s coast is home to the Yellow spotted millipede that emits a warning smell to predators which smells like almond extract to humans.

In Point Reyes...
Point Reyes hosts a large variety of habitats that hold a large variety of arthropods. Some of the insects here are listed with the Endangered Species Act. The Myrtle’s Silverspot butterfly is endangered and the Marin elfin butterfly, Point Reyes blue butterfly, San Francisco Lacewing, San Francisco Forktail Damselfly, Bumblebee Scarab Beetle, and Globose Dune Beetle are all species of special concern. The North American Butterfly Association has been conducting annual counts at Point Reyes for several years and often finds the rare butterflies.

A commonly seen caterpillar in the fall is the Yellow-spotted Tiger Moth, which is black with a yellow band through the middle and has long white hairs jutting up all over its body. The spring may provide some excellent opportunities to find butterflies in the park. You may see the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly on woodland borders or the Spring Azure butterfly anywhere within the park. In the summer, beetles are more easily spotted along the ground when the vegetation is dry and brown. Jerusalem crickets are plump and plentiful along the coast and many species of snakes feed on them.

Spiders are often seen, but not as often identified. A couple of the more conspicuous ones include the flower spider (Misumena vaita), which looks like a small crab and hangs out in flowers. It can change colors to match its surroundings so that when an insect, often a bee, lands on the flower it can attack and eat. The red-backed jumping spider (Phidippus johnsoni) is found at Point Reyes and even included in a state-wide study. They are black with red spots on their abdomen and they jump like their name implies. If you see a beautiful web, check the middle for Cyclosa conica. This classic-looking spider decorates its web with dead victims to hide amongst as camouflage.

As you can see, Point Reyes National Seashore provides habitat to a large variety of arthropods. Keep your eyes open and point them down once in a while!

Threatened, Rare, & Endangered Animals

There are over 50 species of animals at Point Reyes that are listed by the state or federal government as threatened, rare, or endangered. These include reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish, invertebrates, and mammals. For a species to be listed as endangered, it has to be in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Threatened means a species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. As habitat is lost to human development, protected areas like Point Reyes National Seashore are increasingly important to the protection and recovery of species that are on the verge of disappearing from our world.


Exotic Deer

Zoo Animals in the Wilderness

Of the four species of wild ungulates seen at Point Reyes National Seashore, only two are native to the California coastal ecosystem, tule elk and black-tailed deer. The other two species, fallow deer and axis deer, were purchased from the San Francisco Zoo in the 1940s and released by a local landowner prior to the establishment of the Seashore. Axis deer are native to India and Sri Lanka. Fallow deer, natives of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, are the most widely introduced deer species throughout the world. Descendants of these released animals, upwards of 1100 animals, can be seen throughout the pastoral lands and the wilderness areas of the park.

Hidden Impacts

Axis deer and fallow deer are extremely disruptive to the natural ecosystem at the Seashore. Some of the more serious effects these non-native deer have include competition for the same food and displacement of the native tule elk and black-tailed deer. Recent information indicates that the presence of these invasive species is greatly suppressing native black-tailed deer, a keystone species at Point Reyes. Fallow and axis deer also have potential for transmitting paratuberculosis (Johne's disease) and exotic lice to the native ungulates.

Non-native deer damage riparian and woodland habitats and have indirect impacts to the native wildlife dependent on this habitat. Loss of riparian habitat can affect a number of threatened or endangered species, such as the California red-legged frog, coho and Chinook salmon and steelhead trout.

An Historic Re-Introduction

In 1999, two dozen tule elk were re-introduced to the Limantour wilderness area of the Seashore. These animals are the founders of the first free-ranging elk population in the Point Reyes area since their local extirpation in the 19th century. Elk, historically the dominant herbivore in the coastal ecosystem, were hunted to near-extinction by early settlers to California. Because the new herd's range is used by both axis and fallow deer, Seashore managers are concerned that competition for forage, risks of disease transmission and direct behavioral interference may all impact the long-term survival of the elk population.

Expanding Threats

Since 1994 when control of exotic deer populations was discontinued, numbers of both species have returned to pre-controlled levels, approximately 250 axis deer and over 860 fallow deer. Axis deer populations, in particular, can increase very rapidly because of year-round breeding and early sexual maturity in fawns. Fallow deer, once limited to the central portion of the Seashore, are now found throughout all wilderness areas. Fallow deer range has even expanded beyond the borders of the park into nearby private property and state parklands.

The National Park Service and Exotic Ungulates

NPS policy on non-native animals requires their control or elimination when they pose a significant threat to park values, i.e. when the species: "threaten to alter natural ecosystems; seriously restrict, prey on, or compete with native populations..." (National Park Service, 1991). A 1999 Presidential Executive Order mandated that each Federal agency: "...detect and respond rapidly to and control populations of (invasive species) in a cost-effective and environmentally sound manner..."

After four years of research and public participation, the NPS has developed a plan to completely remove both species of non-native deer from the park by 2021. The plan responds to public comment by using both non-lethal and lethal methods to remove the two invasive species. The park will use long-acting contraception on as many females as possible and humanely remove others. The NPS will donate meat and hides to non-profit or charity organizations.


Coastal Dunes

The coastal dunes rise above the reach of the highest tides. When strong winds pelt you with sand at the Point Reyes beach, you can leave. The plants here can't. They tough out growing on our wild shore with special adaptations. To keep from being completely buried by sand, beach strawberry and beach morning glory can grow up new shoots from horizontal underground stems. The sand has few nutrients available for plants, so dune lupine allows special bacteria into its roots that converts nitrogen in the soil into a form plants can use. Grasses are particularly good at conserving water in their leaves, perhaps too good. Much of the grass you see is invasive. European beachgrass is a highly invasive grass that has taken over vast tracts of dunes. Iceplant, native to South Africa, has likewise colonized a large portion of our dunes. Its fleshy leaves prevent water loss and help it outcompete native vegetation. At Abbotts Lagoon, the park removed 50 acres of these and other invasive plants, and now the endangered beach layia and Tidestrom's lupine are growing there.