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Soft sand, gentle waves, colorful beach glass, seaweed, and scattered shells. Maybe a relaxing place to sit with family and friends, sinking your feet into the warm sand. Does this come to mind when you think of the beach? Well, wait until you find out what's lurking beneath your beach blanket! Dive into the microscopic world of life among the grains of beach sand.

Poipu Beach
Poipu Beach, Kauai, Hawaii. Image courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

Sandy beaches are home to some of the most diverse creatures you've never seen

In the Shores and Shallows Gallery of the Sant Ocean Hall, a beach display features magnified grains of sand and the tiny beach critters that live between them. It showcases the diversity of life that exists underfoot on a sandy beach – an entire world that most of us know nothing about, much less have ever seen!

Through a detailed diorama and a large photomural of sand grains blown up a hundred times their actual size, you'll learn that more than half of Earth's major animal groups are represented as “meiofauna” between grains of sand. These organisms wriggle, twist, eat, and reproduce all just inches beneath your feet.

These three drawings - Entoprocta (left), Gnathostomulida (center), and Myxosporidia (right) - were created by one of the Museum's scientific illustrators to represent types of meiofauna Images courtesy of: Molly Ryan, National Museum of Natural History

Can you imagine the ways these tiny beach critters survive, living in a habitat that is constantly shifting and being pounded by waves? This requires the ability to slither between sand grains, claws to grip onto those grains, and spines and shells for protection. You’ll see video clips of these fascinating creatures, tucked within the magnified grains of sand.

Are all sandy beaches the same?

There are different types of beaches and multiple factors that influence the formation of sand. Many beaches may look alike, but they are actually very different from each other. Wave patterns, geology, and other factors shape the composition, size, texture, and color of sand. Grains can be big or small, rough or smooth, glittery or dull, and made of light shells or dark minerals. In the exhibit, you'll be able to see and compare samples of real sand from three places in the United States – a volcanic beach from Hawaii, tropical sand beach from Florida, and rocky coast pebble beach from Maine.

Sand grains from California and Hawaii
Compare the grains of sand from California (left) and Hawai'i (right). How are they different? How are they similar? Images: (c) 2006 Microbus

Loving Our Beaches to Death

Most people love beaches – and sometimes we love them almost to death. We stomp on dunes, move sand, and build homes and hotels close to shore. All of these activities have a dramatic impact. The exhibit demonstrates what happens when we move sand onto or away from a beach by putting up a jetty or pumping sand from one place to another.

You can contribute to solutions

Smithsonian Marine Station
Overhead view of the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce, Florida Image courtesy of: Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce, Florida
There are many tools and techniques for preserving and protecting the beaches we love. You’ll learn how to mind your beach manners and help contribute to solutions. The beach diorama is modeled after a barrier island beach located at the Smithsonian’s Marine Station at Ft. Pierce, Fla. You’ll have a chance to learn about the research activities that Smithsonian scientists are conducting on a diversity of habitats: mangroves, barrier islands, beaches, salt marshes, seagrass beds, reefs, and more.

Their findings promote conservation and stewardship of marine resources.

As you circle the beach display, there’s no doubt about one thing – you’ll never look at sand quite the same way again.

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