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Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada

The Species of the Sand Dunes

Dunegrass (Leymus mollis)
Dunegrass thrives in the unstable beach environment
Dunegrass stabalizes sand which aids in the formation of the Dunes
©Parks Canada / B. Campbell, 1974 / F-12

Plants growing at the top of the beach or in the dunes have a problem: when the wind blows, the sand moves. This makes it difficult to survive, but those plants that survive and thrive start the process of holding and binding the sand around them; this is known as dune stabilization. This process of stabilizing the dunes may lead to forests covering them.

Dunegrass is a native plant that can partially stabilize dunes, but it usually doesn't totally stabilize them. Unfortunately, American beachgrass and European beachgrass (which are two introduced species), are much better at holding down the sand, and since they are replacing the native dunegrass, our dunes may disappear.

European Beachgrass (Ammophilia arenaria) & American Beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata)
European & American beachgrass
Both European and American beachgrass are introduced species and are out competing native vegetation
©Parks Canada / B. Campbell, 1981 / F-24

These two species of introduced beachgrass are invading and changing the dunes and upper beaches of the pacific coast. These grasses trap sand much more effectively than native grasses, and they may form a thick lush border at the top of the beaches. These borders intercept sand blown off the beach when strong dry winds blow, starving the dunes of its normal sand supply. Without the sand blowing off the beach the dunes will eventually be covered by plants and disappear. Pacific Rim National Park of Canada has the most extensive sand dune complex on the west coast of Vancouver island, but it might not have it for long.

Parks Canada is concerned about these invasive species and in certain areas is attempting to remove them. However, for removal to be effective, it requires extensive effort and a long-term commitment of time and money. The problems caused by these two invasive species are an example of the difficulty of restoring a disturbed ecosystem.

Yellow sand-verbena (Abronia latifolia)
Yellow & pink sand-verbena
Pink sand-verbena was declared extinct in BC but has been recently found along the West Coast Trail
©Parks Canada

Salt and sand are this plant's requirements for a happy habitat. It's so adapted to salt spray that it will not tolerate regular water or extreme drought. It anchors itself in the loose shifting sand with a thick heavy taproot and grows thick, fleshy leaves to retain water during the summer dry period.

Another species of verbena, the pink sand-verbena, was declared extinct in Washington and British Columbia for several years but has been re-discovered on a beach in this National Park. If the beach is a difficult place to survive in ordinary circumstances, imagine how much harder it is now for the pink sand-verbena. Its habitat is being crowded out by the European and American beachgrasses, and while they may be here to stay, unless we intervene, the pink sand-verbena may not be.

Tracks in sand
The story of past travellers is told in the sands of the dunes
©Parks Canada / W. McIntyre, 1973 / E

Examine the sand of the dunes; it tells stories.

As you explore, look behind you and you will see your tracks. Look again and you will see the tracks of other creatures. Although not always around when you are - because they may be active at night or perhaps just shy - these animals still leave clues of their passing. Squiggles, lines, small prints, large prints... what can you guess from what you find?

Hmm, were those tracks made by someone lightly dragging their finger along the sand? Or were caterpillars moving around at night, feeding on vegetation and gathering moisture?

Northwestern Garter Snake (Thamnophis ordinoides)
The northwestern garter snake
The only snake found in the Park is the non-poisonous garter snake
©Parks Canada / B. Campbell

The most commonly seen reptile in the park is the Northwestern garter snake. It is another creature that leaves S-curved squiggles in the sand. This non-poisonous snake easily tolerates the cool temperatures of our area, but you might surprise one sunning itself to raise its body temperature just a little bit higher.

A mouse foraging in the moss
Mice are common residents of these sand dunes
©Parks Canada / M. Hobson, 1985 / A-5

Mice have tiny, delicate prints. Study the sand to see if you can find any.

Can you tell which direction the mouse was going? Where did it stop? Do you see any evidence of what it might have been eating?

Mice are more active at night, constantly looking for food and trying to avoid becoming food for other creatures such as owls.

Vancouver Island Wolf (Canis lupus crassodon)
A wolf peers through the vegetation
Wolves use the dunes as a corridor, leaving only tracks and scat
©Parks Canada / M. Hobson, 1990 / A-7

Wolves travel through the dunes. Though rarely seen, their tracks give them away.

Look for dog tracks that look just a little too big. There's a good chance they are wolf tracks.

Sometimes there will be only one set of tracks, but often there will be a line of them if the pack traveled though the area.

If you do see wolves, watch them from a distance. Wolves in this area have followed people, and attacked and killed loose dogs. If you have a dog, please keep it on a leash.

Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
Kinnickinick creeps across the dune, stabalizing the sand
Brilliant red kinnickinick berries brighten the dunes with colour
©Parks Canada / 1983 / F-99

Kinnikinnick, also called bearberry, is one of the first plants to creep across the sand surface, holding it in place. Where the sand meets the forest's edge, look for interwoven mats of this evergreen shrub. It bears bright red berries that look like miniature apples.

Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja sp.)
Indian Paintbrush
This parasitic plant steals nutrients from the roots of Kinnickinick
©Parks Canada / W. McIntyre, 1977 / F-115

If you see the bright red flowers of Indian paintbrush, look around to see if you can find kinnikinnick nearby. There's a good chance you will see some, because paintbrush tends to steal food from kinnikinnick. Indian paintbrush is partially parasitic, which means that instead of making all its food through photosynthesis, it steals some nutrients by connecting its roots to those of nearby plants.

Beach Morning Glory (Convolvulus soldanella)
: Beach Morning Glory or bindweed
The pink flowers of beach morning glory attracts pollinators
©Parks Canada / B. Campbell, 1977 / F-107

When flowering, the beach morning glory is easy to spot. Look for the pinkish-purple, broad-funnelled flowers. This plant is also called beach bindweed because of the way it twines around other plants as it grows.