The Pale Beach Hopper, Megalorchestia columbiana

It’s fall and outer coast beach hoppers rejoice. Algal drift washes ashore and hoppers are abundant and active in the drift line.

Beach hoppers love fresh beach cast algae
Beach hoppers love fresh beach cast algae
There is a lot of hopper activity on, around, and under all the wave-deposited treasures. You can see abundant shows around this sea lettuce, and even more under the edges. Beach hoppers aren’t too picky it seems.

Look at all that beach hopper activity - guess Copenhagen really does satisfy
I guess Copenhagen really does satisfy
Terrestrial plants like tobacco attract hoppers too. Fresh shows mark the sand all around the edge of the snuff tin. Animal food also attracts hoppers.

Beach hoppers on a Nephtys carcass
Beach hoppers on a Nephtys carcass
Beach hoppers like their protein. Small drift line carcasses like this unfortunate polychaete, Nephtys, don’t last long.


Beach hoppers rejoice - a drift line dominated by eelgrass, Zostera
Beach hoppers rejoice – an early October drift line dominated by eelgrass, Zostera
A beach cast of Zostera brings out the beach hoppers. Early morning is a good time to see them out and about, celebrating.

These images show the pale beach hopper, Megalorchestia columbiana. At least I think they’re M. columbiana. While I was trying to learn more about beach hoppers, Ricketts and Calvin kind of shook my confidence.

Anyone who consults the standard systematic literature will find the descriptions too intricate for the untutored mind…

That may be true, but I’m betting the little hoppers I’m talking about here are M. columbiana.

If you’re looking for an enjoyable activity, try spending a morning photographing beach hoppers. They are easy to locate and abundant in the drift line’s early morning light, but photographing them requires patience.

Most of my attempts looked like this.

On the move
On the move
Or like this.

It just leapt out of the frame, dang it!
It leapt right out of the frame, dang it!
They scurry this way and that, mostly away from you, and when you finally get one in focus, they are just as likely as not to spring away…like a flea. But don’t call them beach fleas. Ricketts and Calvin explain it like no one else.

It should be mentioned in extenuation of the hoppers that their variant name “beach flea” is a libelous misnomer.

I found that you can track a single individual until it tires and sits still for a photo. This takes a lot of concentration and patience. To get the photos I used in this post my attention was so directed at the hoppers that I twice took a soaking in the chilly swash.

Pale beach hopper, Megalorchestia columbiana
Pale beach hopper, Megalorchestia columbiana
With only a few more or less faint markings on the dorsum, you can see why people call them pale beach hoppers. At 2 cm and smaller, they can be abundant, and in this part of the world, most people’s first encounter with beach hoppers is with the pale beach hopper. But they aren’t the only hopper on the beach.

California beach hopper, Megalorchestia californiana
California beach hopper, Megalorchestia californiana
Megalorchestia columbiana shares exposed outer coast beaches with its congener, M. californiana, a bigger, red-antennaed version called the California or long-horned beach hopper.


Ricketts, E. W., and J. Calvin. 1968. Between Pacific Tides. 4th ed., revised by J. W. Hedgpeth. Stanford University Press.


    1. Thanks. Without specimens and a dissecting scope, photos are about the only way to appreciate the hoppers close up. I wasn’t going to collect any, so I’m glad I took the time. I now have a much more informed impression.

  1. I see these guys quite often. It took me awhile to figure out what all the movement was. They sure move fast. I’m thinking I may have some shots of them. I didn’t have the patience to tire and track them, but managed with sheer luck.

  2. Nice pictures! Most of your pictures are definitely Megalorchestia columbiana. They’re the easiest beach hopper in your area to identify; the dark pigment on their backs looks like a series of butterfly wings, but there’s no dark pigment down the middle of their backs (where the bodies of the butterflies would be). I’m not sure about the next-to-last picture, it might be a juvenile M. californiana. The other species of Megalorchestia in your area are M. pugettensis and M. benedicti; they both have a checkerboard-like pigment pattern on their back, and are smaller than adult M. columbiana and M. californiana.

    1. I’m grateful to you for taking a-look at my photos and sending along your ID tips. I should’t have been so confident! I’ll update that post a little. I’m happy to hear about the other Megalorchestia in my area too. I new there were others but I never quite nailed it down. John, it would have been all too easy for you to move on without taking the time to share this information with me, so I really appreciate it. Thanks!- Steve

    2. Just wondering though the original part of this article says these hoppers are only present in the fall, it that true? Here in Cannon Beach over the years as I remember they are generally present. My point here is that they aren’t present nor have they been recently beginning in mid June. I am using my soninlaws page, I am Ed Johnson.

      1. Hi Ed, You’re right! Beach hoppers are present year-round. I mentioned fall because that’s when we get most of our drift seaweed, like bull kelp, and we get a lot of other drift material then too, eelgrass, etc. Beach hoppers depend on this material for nutrition, so fall is a good time to find lots of happy beach hoppers. Thanks a lot for checking out my stories. And for asking for that clarification. I really enjoy the beaches around Cannon Beach. You’ll recognize the area in many of my photos.- Steve

  3. In Oregon, beach hoppers are present on the beaches at night year-round, although they don’t come out of their burrows when it’s too windy or too cold. In colder areas, beach hoppers stay buried through the winter; in Sweden they’ve been found up to 2 meters deep in the sand during the winter!

    1. Thanks for the informed natural history, John. Two meters deep in cold areas, just amazing. The Cannon Beach hoppers Ed Mentions have it easy by comparison.

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