People who study the coastal waters from Oregon to Alaska are rather familiar with the inhabitants of the area, but one new arrival has stumped many.
As if the West Coast didn’t have enough to worry about what with earthquakes, ridiculous real estate prices and North Korean nukes, now there’s something new to keep you up at night.
“Sea pickles” to be precise, millions of them, clogging fishing nets, snagging hooks and littering the Northwest’s beautiful beaches. The gelatinous critters, called pyrosomes, are actually colonies of multi-celled animals known as zooids.
Pyrosomes can grow to more than 30 feet in length, but most washing up on beaches resemble transparent, tubular worms ranging from a few inches to over a foot long. Covered with small bumps, they are firm like cucumbers, but when touched they ooze a jelly-like pus, the National Geographic‘s Craig Welsh notes.
During a cruise to study the creatures off the Oregon coast two weeks ago, one team of researchers reportedly scooped up 60,000 pyrosomes in five minutes.
“There were reports of some pyrosomes in 2014, and a few more in 2015, but this year there has been an unprecedented, insane amount,” researcher Olivia Blondheim told the Guardian.
No one knows where the gummy, bioluminescent critters are coming from or what is fueling their population boom. If fact, little is known about pyrosomes at all, other than that reproduce assexually. What they eat or what eats them largely remains a mystery, writes Welsh.
Previously, their range has been limited to tropical or semi-tropical areas such as parts of the Mediterranean Sea or off Australia.
Some scientists think warmer ocean conditions are to blame for their sudden concentration in the Northwest, but unusual sea currents or a change in diet could also be factors. According to the Smithsonian, Sitka (Alaska) fisherman have stopped fishing for salmon altogether because waters are so choked with sea pickles.
Normally pyrosomes, also known as “fire bodies,” stay submerged fairly deep, but recently they have invaded the upper depths of the ocean, especially in Alaska. Scientists worry that their numbers are so great, they may be sucking up oxygen that other marine life need to survive.
Pyrosomes have already been spotted in Monterey Bay. Whether the San Francisco Bay Area will see the same level of infestation as the Pacific Northwest remains to be seen.