I was on the sand at Ideal Beach in Port Monmouth by mid-morning. What a great feeling to be back after Super Storm Sandy devastated the area.
The breeze had shifted to the east and the sun was trying to shine from under large patches of gray clouds. It was chilly with an air temperature of 48 degrees. The surface water temperature of Lower New York Bay was similar, in the upper 40s to lower 50s. The water level remained high from the previous incoming tide. These coarse conditions didn't matter though, I was back at the beach.
As my habit, I immediately got busy combing the beach from one end to the other looking for what there was to find on the wave-washed sand. Evidence of the great storm of three weeks ago was still piling up on the beach, with debris stacked high all along the tideline and measureless "junk" (flotsam) by the jetties and groins. Not only garbage, but great logs and whole trees had come to lie along the edge of the bay. There were even bits of pumpkins scattered along the beach, ones that almost certainly got washed up from people's flooded properties.
The beach wasn't just full of trash. There were natural artifacts from the bay to be found too, evidence of what once lived in the estuary before the arrival of Sandy. Sure, there were plenty of clams, oysters, and whelks to name just a few. But the most common find were skate egg cases. There must have been dozens of empty egg cases lying all along the high tide line.
I am sure, the egg case from a skate looks unusual. Nothing else around the shoreline of Lower New York Bay resembles a skate egg case. Some species of sharks lay eggs cases, but those can be found in tropical waters. Around here we find skate egg cases, or as some folks call them mermaid's purses, since they look like a small leathery purse.
The egg case is made of keratin, the same substance that human fingernails are made from. Inside the leathery, rectangular egg case an individual skate embryo survives with the help of four long, thin, horn-like projections sticking out from each corner. These four projections act as straws to discharge waste and circulate water and nutrients to the young skate living inside.
Never heard of a skate, you almost certainly are not alone. Skates are not the most extroverted of fish. Even though skates are a common group of fishes in Lower New York Bay, many people have never heard of them, let alone seen one. Mainly due to a skate's fondness for living alone at the bottom of the bay or ocean. It buries itself under sand or mud, and feeds primarily at night on crabs, shrimps, worms, clams, and small fish.
A skate is a wide, flattish, non-bony, cartilaginous fish. Similar to sharks and rays, their skeleton is made up of cartilage that has calcium deposits. A skate looks like a ray. They have “wings” or fin-type projections on the sides of their body to swim, and a whip like tail, which it uses as a rudder. Skates, however, are not rays. The two should not be confused. Rays give birth to live young, while skates lay eggs.
Akin to a chicken laying an egg, a female skate will lay a small egg case (3 to 4 inches long) that holds a young skate inside. Unlike a chicken, though, mother skate will not incubate the egg case. Instead, the skate egg case attaches itself to a pier, piling, or a rock on the sea floor for up to five to six months.
Once washed up on the beach, the egg case is usually empty. The young fish having already hatched out sometime before by breaking a seam on the side of the purse. Holding the egg cases in my hand, I could notice that the seam had been broken on all of them. A good sign of new life in the bay.
Yet, Skate egg cases were not the only unusual biological thing to be found on this breezy day in Port Monmouth. Off down the edge of the bay, something else weird looking caught my eye.
Mixed in with the countless debris and trash was the remains of an adult skate. At first the dead skate looked like a prehistoric find, unearthed in some archeological dig. Yet, here in front of me was an example of the constant life-and-death struggle that the strenuous urban estuarine environment imposes on all of its inhabitants. The predator-prey relationship in an enormous watery food web.
There was not much here to look at. No doubt the gulls, hermit crabs, and other coastal scavengers had a feast. Not a huge kill here either, but notable as a relic of unseen life in the bay.
From what I could see the critter appeared as a Clearnose Skate. It's my best guess. The snout was pointed like a Clearnose Skate, and the area around the nose was still semitransparent. The disc was wider than long, the tail was longer than the body, and the tail had three rows of sharp thorns. There were spines on the back too. All features of a Clearnose Skate, a common sea creature. The critter was small though, less than a foot in total disk width.
Although nearly impossible to determine what exactly caused the death of this poor critter, the discovery does follow soon after Hurricane Sandy. By and large, Clearnose Skates leave the bay sometime in autumn to migrate offshore and swim south for the winter. The fish are sensitive to cold temperatures.
Possibly this skate kicked the bucket from old age or too much stress, or eaten by a predator, such as another skate, ray, or a seal in the violent turbid waters of Hurricane Sandy. It may well have suffocated by an inversion in the water from strong winds or a steep drop in temperature at night that brought about less oxygen to the bottom of the bay. Whatever it was, this small skate isn't talking.
Yet, while one poor skate is gone, it is heartening to know that all of the empty egg cases lying on the beach signify the renewal of life. A new generation of skates have escaped the wrath of Sandy to live another day. Their world will not be easy, though, battered by surf, storms, and threatened by predators and pollution, but they have the opportunity now to perpetuate the species and be part of the great battle for survival in this hard and hectic urban estuary near New York City.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/