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Rare, Bizarre Glowing Creatures Strand on Oregon Coast Beaches

Published 12/02/2016 at 4:03 PM PDT - Updated 12/02/2016 at 4:29 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Pyrosome, a creature that glows on Oregon coast

(Oregon Coast) – Imagine a giant glowing worm-like creature, some 60 feet long and emitting a bright green-blue. Yet it's harmless and reportedly “soft as a boa.” (Most photos by Tiffany Boothe, Seaside Aquarium).

This is a relative of the truly bizarre and rarely-seen creature that has suddenly washed up along the Oregon coast in massive droves. It's called a pyrosome, and the ones found here are less than a foot. They are actually massive colonies of cloned creatures related to a kind of jellyfish called a salp.

Each individual is about 1 cm long – less than a third of an inch. They are all connected by tissue and in turn form this colony that looks like a plastic tube. Big winter storms have caused gobs of them to strand on the shores, found in all areas of the coast right now. It apparently started six weeks ago.

Seaside Aquarium's Tiffany Boothe recently snagged some pictures and announced her remarkable finds. (At right: Boothe's closeup of the colony, showing the individuals, all 1 cm or less).

“Pyrosomes, pelagic colonial tunicates usually found in temperate waters [as low as] 800 meters, have been washing ashore on Oregon's beaches,” Boothe said. “This colony of animals is comprised of thousands of individual zooids and moves through the water column by the means of cilia. They filter plankton out of the water for food and are known for bight displays of bioluminescence. In fact, their scientific name is derived from the Greek words pyro meaning 'fire' and soma meaning 'body.' “

The technical name is Pyrosoma atlanticum, and it's one of the few pyrosomes that make it to the west coast of the U.S., much less Oregon's waters. The ones that have been washing up on the Oregon coast seem to be a little longer than the average hand, but some of this type of pyrosoma get as long as 24 inches. Largely colorless, they can show up as pink, grayish or purple-green. Indeed, many of those washing up here are rather bright in hue.

The pyrosome moves up and down the ocean, sometimes close to the surface and sometimes as far down as 2600 feet. All of this activity usually happens in a day, as the colony wanders the deep, sucking in water in order to filter out food. As it sucks water in, it soon pushes it back out, thereby propelling it through the ocean. It does all this via only one opening, so it moves incredibly slow. How it eats is the same means by which it moves.

Scott Marion, Marine Habitat Project Leader, with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), said this is likely the reason it evolved to form colonies.

“Each one filters out water, creating a flow, creating a better flow for the whole colony,” Marion said.

Dr. Bill Hanshumaker, education specialist and chief scientist with Oregon Sea Grant and Newport's Hatfield Marine Science Center, said he's been receiving reports of these for about six weeks. It's a puzzle to many of the scientists at the Hatfield, who wound up passing on samples and reports to him to figure out and identify.


Another pyrosome, photo courtesy Seaside Aquarium

Marion said ODFW crews spotted a large grouping of them in the spring about 100 feet deep off Port Orford. They were about as big as those creatures showing up now, he said, but added to see them in such big numbers in these waters was pretty unusual.

There is a large array of species of pyrosomes, and most of these come from tropical waters. Some of them, at least around Australia, grow to 60 feet long. One web page called them “unicorns of the sea,” and a “60-foot-long jet-powered animal.”

Even at that enormous size they're fairly soft. They are certainly harmless to humans, although if it tried it could conceivably suck a human into its “body.”

The other striking factor is that it is bioluminescent. It glows when touched or disturbed – reportedly quite brightly. The ones you find on the beaches will be very dead so their glowing action will be gone, unfortunately. More about other glowing creatures of the Oregon coast. Where to stay in this area - Where to eat - Maps and Virtual Tours

Below: a 60-foot-long pyrosome near Australia.


Below: more oddities you may find on the Oregon coast after these storms. A salp and a nudibranch (photos Seaside Aquarium)


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