Post Updated on June 22, 2016
Santa Cruz’s Sandhill habitat is highly sensitive so it is important to stay on designated paths when visiting them. The Sandhills in this post are not open to the public but these are:
I grew up right near the Sandhills of the Santa Cruz Mountains and often heard stories of people discovering prehistoric sand dollars and sharks teeth. I searched for them myself but was never successful and so believed that maybe I was never meant to find one.
The story of the Santa Cruz Sandhills starts about 15 million years ago. In the Miocene Epoch, these currently hot and dry hills were submerged under a shallow but far reaching sea. Within it’s depths many marine species died and their remains fell to the ocean floor and were covered by layers of sediment.
Endemism In The Hills
During the formation of the Santa Cruz Mountains, this ancient seabed was pushed up and created the Sandhills of today. This uprising of ocean floor exposed prehistoric sand dollars, bones and sharks teeth. The sandy soils of the Sandhills have also created a very unique habitat where seven threatened and endangered species survive. Many are endemic, which means they are found nowhere else except in the unique Sandhills habitat of Santa Cruz County.
Sandhill soil drains quickly and contains much less organic material and nutrients in comparison to the surrounding lush redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The white sand of the Sandhills reflects the sun’s heat making for sweltering temperatures in summer. Only adapted plant species that can handle high temperatures and lack of nutrients and water can survive the unforgiving elements of the Sandhills.
Sandhills look barren and contain primarily smaller stature shrubs and annuals compared to neighboring tree dominated redwood forests. For this reason it is fairly easy to recognize the change to Sandhills habitat. They are fairly easy to spot, scattered like little islands among areas of Bonny Doon and Scotts Valley. In fact, some of these different islands have endemic species found only within their specific Sandhill zone and not in all of the the Sandhills habitat.
The Zayante band-winged grasshopper makes its home in disturbed areas of the Zayante Sandhills, including trails, so watch your step. We all need to do our part to protect these plants and animals so they can persist for future generations.
Today 4,000 acres of intact Sandhills remain in the Santa Cruz Mountains. 2,500 acres are undeveloped. Prior to development, mining operations and non-native species intrusion there were 6,000 to 7,000 acres of Sandhills habitat that were less fragmented. To learn more about the Sandhills and how to help protect them, read this article by the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County.
Watch this short 5 minute video staring Jodi McGraw, the inspirational Sandhill expert and my personal Sandhill hero.
Discovering The Past
After graduating from UC Santa Cruz in 2015, I took on an internship to help restore the Sandhill habitat with Jodi McGraw Consulting in the Santa Cruz Mountains. On the last day of my two month long internship, a peculiar going away present laid on the sandy surface in my walking path. Right before taking a step I discovered a full shark’s tooth! I picked it up and held it close. This was the tooth I had always hoped to find. The hopes and dreams of my childhood magically came true!
I eagerly emailed a few of my favorite local natural historians to share my curiosity of its origins. I was dying to know how old it was and to what species this tooth belonged to.
Frank Perry, fellow Mobile Ranger author, lime kiln expert and fossil guru, replied with a flood of information. Perry is also a Research Associate at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History and Curator of the Capitola Historical Museum. He has a wealth of knowledge in the field of Santa Cruz Mountains natural history. Here is some of his insight:
“That tooth is from a shark of the genus Isurus. It is the crown of the tooth, missing the root. It is probably an upper medial tooth, but I cannot say for sure without delving into the reference books.”
“The sand in the Sand Hills is from the Santa Margarita Formation, which was deposited when this area was under the sea some 10 to 12 million years ago.”
“…fossil teeth of about 20 different species of sharks and rays have been found in the deposit, as well as fossils of bony fishes, whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea cows, etc. Quarrying operations in the middle to late 1900s opened a remarkable window into the region’s geologic past.”
- Personal communication with Jodi McGraw via email, owner of Jodi McGraw Consulting (JMc), Santa Cruz County, June 2016.
- Bay Nature
- Land Trust of Santa Cruz
- Zayante Sandhills Conservation Bank
- California Native Plant Society
- Perry, Frank: Personal Communication. July 9, 2015.
- Endangered Species Act
- Santa Cruz Sand Hills
- Biology of Plants
- CNPS Plant Communities of Santa Cruz