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Creature Feature: Exploring Assateague’s Marine Life

Driving onto Assateague from the Maryland side on Route 611, the Assateague Island Visitor Center appears to the right of the road before you cross the Verrazzano Bridge. It’s worth a stop in before a camping trip or even just a day spent on the island, because even if your only plan is to lay on the beach all day, having just a basic knowledge of all the land and sea life that inhabit the state park will make your trip all the more fulfilling. Especially when you see one of the species you’ve just met in the Visitor Center out enjoying life in its natural habitat.

Aquariums, exhibits, maps of the park, informational brochures and a film about the island’s famous wild ponies can all be found in the Visitor Center, which all but functions as a local wildlife museum. There’s also a touch-tank, which recreates the region’s marine habitats and provides a kid-friendly ecological education tool. It’s a pretty cool concept for adults, too: Stick your hand in, pick up something slimy and learn something new! The photos below depict just a small sample of what you’ll find in the Assateague Island Visitor Center touch tank and out in the wild. 

Assateague touch tank
You are here. If you’re not great with directions, the map outside the building will show you where you are in relation to the rest of the Delmarva peninsula. 
Assateague touch tank
The hands on the wall say it all. And for the little ones, stepping stools allow even the smallest of junior rangers to stick their hands in the tank. 
Assateague touch tank
Channeled Whelk: Pick up this spiraled shell, flip it over and find a large marine snail inside. The whelk feeds on clams, oysters and mussels, and is preyed upon by crabs, urchins and sea stars. These gastropods have been in existence for over 30 million years. Another whelk — the knobbed whelk, similar in appearance and also found in this touch tank — is the state shell of both New Jersey and Georgia. 
Assateague touch tank
Our hunch was that this is a very tiny baby mud snail. In the U.S., the New Zealand Mud Snail population is made up almost entirely of self-cloning  parthenogenetic (asexually reproducing) females. Very slimy but kind of cute, in a weird way. 
Assateague touch tank
Atlantic Ribbed Mussel: Locally, you can find these bivalves in the marshes and mud flats of the Chesapeake Bay. You can find out their age by counting the ribs on their shells; ribbed mussels are edible, but they’re tough and don’t taste as good as the blue mussel. 
Assateague touch tank
Skate Egg Case: Egg cases like these surround and protect the eggs of oviparous (egg-laying) sharks, chimaeras and skates, as seen here. The cases themselves are sometimes called “mermaid’s purses.” 
Assateague touch tank
There weren’t any horseshoe crabs in the tank on that particular day, but there was a model of the horseshoe crab’s underside…
Touch tank crab
So here’s a throwback picture from the Chincoteague Visitor Center’s touch tank last year, where there was a horseshoe crab available to hold. 
Assateague touch tank
On a typical day at the touch tank, visitors will find knobbed and channeled whelks, Atlantic ribbed mussels, mud snails, skate egg cases and horseshoe crabs, in addition to Northern quahog clams and channeled whelk egg cases. 
Assateague touch tank
We were drawn away from the touch tank to another nearby tank filled with little transparent shore shrimp, or Common Grass Shrimp. Put a finger near the glass and move it around, then watch the shrimp follow. Growing only as long as 1.5 inches, the common grass shrimp have segmented bodies, a serrated “horn” above their eyes and little claws on their first two pairs of legs. 
Assateague touch tank
There’s a lot of life in the Assateague Visitor Center, and each species is super interesting in its own way — but I have to say that a transparent animal you can literally see through to the other side is probably one of the coolest. 
Bob the horse
And here’s a picture of a horse from last winter, just because you can’t write about Assateague without including a pony picture. This is Bodacious Bob, a 17-year-old Bay Pinto Stallion.
Kristin is a writer and photographer in Ocean City, Maryland, and is the content manager for OceanCity.com and other State Ventures, LLC sites. She loves getting reader-submitted stories and photos, so send her an email anytime. She also works part-time at the Art League of Ocean City and the Ocean City Film Festival and lives just off the peninsula with her dog and fiancé. Her photos can be found on Instagram @oc_kristin.

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