See millions of years of history while beachcombing in San Francisco

Sand dollar skeletons and fossils turn Ocean Beach into a living lab—perfect for a family day trip.

1/22/2022 10:02:00 AM

Seaside beaches near San Francisco are perfect places to take a deep dive into the fascinating history of one odd creature: the sand dollar

Sand dollar skeletons and fossils turn Ocean Beach into a living lab—perfect for a family day trip.

Ocean Beach, it’s nearly impossible to miss the sand dollars that dot the shoreline. At almost any time of day and tide, any season of the year, these white discs stretch as far as the eye can see: some cracked underfoot or broken in the Pacific waves, others still full and flawless with a flower-like pattern on top.

In such a densely populated, thoroughly developed city, there aren’t many places left that feel truly wild. But this salty Bay Area stretch known for roiling surf, epic vistas, and mercurial weather still manages to conjure edge-of-the-world vibes. 

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The most amazing things happen in Nature!... we can't stop being in awe at this incredible engineering... They are very interesting things! Mermaid money Actually a really good place to find dead bodies and syringes... if that's what you're looking for Bunlardan birine sahibim 🥰 🍀 DaalChawal3 I love love love the sand dollar.

San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, it’s nearly impossible to miss the sand dollars that dot the shoreline. At almost any time of day and tide, any season of the year, these white discs stretch as far as the eye can see: some cracked underfoot or broken in the Pacific waves, others still full and flawless with a flower-like pattern on top. In such a densely populated, thoroughly developed city, there aren’t many places left that feel truly wild. But this salty Bay Area stretch known for roiling surf, epic vistas, and mercurial weather still manages to conjure edge-of-the-world vibes.  Like lots of people seeking fresh air and a restorative escape during the pandemic, I’ve been drawn to Ocean Beach. But as a lifelong beachcomber, I’m there looking down, not out, searching for treasures on the sand. Such a quest makes every visit to this living lab an exciting opportunity for an all-ages family adventure. While sand dollars can be found along coasts around the United States, the seaside beaches near San Francisco are perfect places to take a deep dive into the fascinating history of one odd creature. This illustration of sand dollars and heart urchins shows the diversity of echinoids, a class of marine animals. The type of “eccentric” sand dollar that washes up on Ocean Beach can live up to 15 or 20 years; you might find ones that range in size from the diameter of a quarter when they're young to that of a baseball at full size. Please be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited. An eccentric species Sand dollars are striking—delicate in a way that the wayward rocks and driftwood are not—and so ubiquitous that it’s easy to overlook the obvious question: What are they? They’re a type of sea urchin, or echinoid—a class of living things that thrive in marine environments around the world. When submerged in their natural habitat, sand dollars are covered in short spines that look like a thick, fuzzy, purple coat; in death, that soft tissue decomposes and what remains is bleached by the sun. This means that the white ones that wash up are actually sand dollar skeletons (“tests,” in science-speak). Examine one closely and you’ll see a remarkable geometry of interlocking plates that make up the brittle form—but no backbone, because they’re invertebrates. Preeminent expert