The Sant Ocean Hall: Life in the Sand Exhibit

10 grains of star shaped sand collected from southern Japan
Star shaped grains of sand collected from southern Japan are the shells of microscopic foraminifera. (Flickr User Mouser NerdBot)

Soft sand, gentle waves, colorful beach glass, seaweed, and scattered shells. It may be 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 living beneath your beach blanket! Dive into the microscopic world of life among the grains of beach sand.

Sandy beaches are home to a Diversity of Life
In the Shores and Shallows Gallery of the Smithsonian's Sant Ocean Hall, a beach display features magnified grains of sand and the tiny beach critters that live among 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.

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.

Different Types of Sand

Preview grains of sand collected from Orient Point, Long Island, NY
Many beaches may look alike, but they are actually very different from each other. The sand here was collected from a beach on Orient Point, Long Island, NY. (Flickr User Mouser NerdBot)
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.

Human Impacts on Beach Environments

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.
Preview Coral Sand
Coral sand is made up of tiny bits of coral and other ocean animals such as foraminifera, molluscs, and crustaceans. (David Maitland / Nikon Small World)
Your Actions Can Help Protect and Preserve Beaches
There are many tools and techniques for preserving and protecting ocean environments, like 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, FL. 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.
September 2011