Squishy, see-through sea life teeming off Canadian shores
Sunday, September 9, 2018, 10:35 AM - An abundance of squishy, transparent sea creatures is delighting both terrestrial residents and marine visitors to Brier Island, N.S., these days.
Salps — invertebrate animals that move, breathe and eat by pumping water through their plastic-bag-like bodies — have been appearing en masse in the water and on the beach for the past few weeks.
Amy Tudor, a guide with Mariner Cruises Whale and Seabird Tours, first noticed the gelatinous blobs about three weeks ago. They can appear either as individuals or as a long chain, or colony.
She said when she first saw them floating in the water, she thought they might be glass eels. But when a crew member hauled some of the critters out of the water with a sampling net, she knew she was dealing with something else.
"They're just fascinating," she said. "When you put your hand in the water with them when they're swarming very heavily … you just feel like you're dipping your hand in a big bowl of Jell-O."
Tudor said salps are an uncommon sight in the area, especially in such large numbers.
"I have never seen them so thick," she said.
The stomach of a salp is the only colourful spot inside the body. It can be different colours, and in the case of the ones off Brier Island, it is purple.
There were so many salps on recent days, Tudor said, that "it was almost as if the water was shaded purple."
Salps can appear in the water individually or in chains up to 30 metres long. (Mariner Cruises Whale and Seabird Tours/Facebook)
Tudor said a much larger marine wonder in the area, humpback whales, respond playfully to sensory stimulants in the water such as seaweed.
"If they come across a patch of rockweed seaweed … they'll generally roll in it, and put their head through it, flip it on their flippers," she said.
"The whales seemed to enjoy the feeling [of salps] and I don't blame them.… All I could think was, I want to jump in and swim with the salps, too. I want to jump in a great big giant gelatin bath."
Larry Madin is a salp expert and the deputy director and vice-president for research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
He said salps tend to make sporadic appearances on the shores of New England, as they do in Nova Scotia.
There's no evidence so far that climate change is responsible for their appearance, Madin said. Rather, it's likely they are simply pushed by the ocean's currents from their usual offshore habitat to the shorelines.
A chain of salps spotted in the water off Brier Island. (Amy Tudor)
RELATED TO HUMANS
If residents spot salps, they shouldn't be shy to touch them, Madin said.
"It's perfectly OK to pick them up and poke them," he said. "They don't sting.… They're not at all related to jellyfish."
In fact, salps are much more closely related to humans than jellyfish.
"They belong in part of the evolutionary tree which led to the vertebrates. So they're kind of cousins of ours, although they don't look much like it," he said.
Salps reproduce both asexually, creating long chains of salps that can sometimes take the shape of a wheel or a double helix, and through sexual means, creating a placenta and an embryo.
Their feces — "what we call fecal pellets, or salp poop," said Madin — serve an important ecological function. They eat phytoplankton and process it into "larger packages" which then sink to the bottom of the ocean, effectively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Those who spot a "little clear jellybean" on the beach should count themselves lucky, Madin said.
"I think it's just interesting to give people an opportunity to learn about an unusual animal which is very abundant in the ocean, but doesn't usually come close enough to shore for people to see."