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Bizarre Balls of Sea Goo on Oregon, British Columbia Beaches: What Were They?

Published 06/07/2018 at 4:22 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection Staff

Bizarre Balls of Sea Goo on Oregon, British Columbia Beaches: What Were They?

(Cannon Beach, Oregon) – The north Oregon coast town experienced a bit of a mystery in recent months, as did – it turns out – the province of British Columbia. The land that gave us Grimes and Stargate: SG1 saw the same surreal scientific puzzle as Cannon Beach, but in this distinctly anti-science environment of the United States it took Canadians to solve the mystery.

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For those on the Oregon coast, it all started in early April. A volunteer for the Haystack Rock Awareness Program (HRAP) in Cannon Beach found a weird ball of brown, slightly squishy stuff on the beaches.

HRAP spokesman Kari Henningsgaard said the first example was found on April 9, and an almost frantic search for an answer began – a search which wound up, quite literally, all over the place.

“We asked the Seaside Aquarium and Tiffany Boothe guessed it to be a compound tunicate - possibly stubby stalked compound tunicate,” Henningsgaard said. “Fawn Custer of Coast Watch also guessed it was a tunicate. Citizen scientist Stephen Grace thought they were bryozoan colonies, and guessed them to be Pectinatella magnifica. Eric Owen, land steward for the North Coast Land Conservancy, found them to be inconsistent to what he had experienced that species to look like.”

It turns out at least one British Columbia biologist had a head start on the oddity. A marine biologist from southern Canada known as the Marine Detective on Facebook – real name Jackie Hildering – had spotted to freaky little finds two years ago. When another B.C. biologist found more this year, along with Oregon coast’s HRAP, she went to work.

“Okay, this one is driving we marine nerds crazy,” Hildering wrote on FB. “What are these ocean balls?! I first noted them in April 2016 in Port McNeill, British Columbia, and this year known documentations include: Haystack Rock Awareness Program in Oregon and Cyndi Browne in Port McNeill.”

The answer came slowly but clearly – from Canada, however. Not from the U.S. Another biologist in the province had examined them under the microscope and figured out they were likely egg masses from a kind of sea worm called the Pile Worm or the Clam Worm. Technically: a polychaete worm by the real name of Nereis vexillosa. Other marine brains chimed in and confirmed.

So why were these showing up just now along the west coast of the continent?

Hildering doesn’t think that was the case.

“There’s nothing out there in the ocean that was causing them to come in,” she said. “They’ve probably been coming in all along. It’s just now that humans are noticing.”

There’s simply a lot of stuff out there in the ocean, and it’s hard to notice everything that’s coming in with the tides, she said.

The clam worm itself lives just a little ways offshore, probably just beneath the breakers you see coming in. They reproduce by ejecting parts of their bodies, which then eventually fertilize the eggs the females have released into the same area of water (known as a mating swarm.) The fertilized mass drops to the ocean floor and grows to about the size of an egg.

Mating is done in winter and spring and dependent on darkness. If these egg masses wash up again in the area, it will be next season.

Clam worms are often used for bait and will squirm like crazy when captured. They also pack some powerful jaws for such small creatures and can bite when handled. You needn't worry about them being on bad behavior if you're swimming in the ocean, however.

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