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Gobs of Pyrosomes Hit Oregon Coast - Scientists Mystified, But There's a Theory

Published 12/04/2017 at 4:35 AM PDT - Updated 12/04/2017 at 5:05 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Gobs of Pyrosomes Hit Oregon Coast, Scientists Mystified - But There's a Theory

(Oregon Coast) – Great gobs of pyrosomes have again been washing up on the Oregon coast as of late, and it turns out these surreal little guys have regional scientists mystified – and slightly concerned. (Above and all photos courtesy Tiffany Boothe of Seaside Aquarium, showing the large amount of pyrosomes washing up in recent weeks).

These small tube-like creatures made quite a splash last year and the previous year, having not really been seen here before. This year, they're getting tossed up in unprecedented numbers as they're apparently moving northward: the normally tropical-dwelling organisms showed up as far north as Alaska where there were so many they clogged fishermen's nets. This was a double whammy for Alaska: not only had they never been seen up there – ever – but the population was so enormous as to be problematic.

What's causing these wee beasties to beach in this region all of a sudden? It appears something is shifting in the Pacific Ocean.


Two researchers on the Oregon coast are looking into them more closely than anyone else. Jennifer Fisher is a research assistant with the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, and Rick Brodeur is a research biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also based out of Newport. The two have been venturing out to sea with other researchers and looking at the populations of pyrosomes in the state's waters. Fisher will be heading out again this week to do a sort of head count, and Brodeur will be on a winter cruise with a NOAA vessel to collect them for study.

Brodeur said things are abruptly warmer in the oceans off the Oregon coast in recent years, but there's a plot twist to all this.

“I suspect it has a lot to do with the warm ocean conditions we've had the last few years, starting with the 'blob' and followed the next year by a fairly strong El Nino,” Brodeur said. “That's probably pushing these guys northward and closer to shore than they are normally found.”

Pyrosomes – which are actually a mass of tinier creatures that have grown into a colony of hundreds or thousands – live in tropical waters all over the world. Now the surprise: there, they thrive partially because of the temperature but also because warmer waters make for finer food particles. In Oregon's waters, larger phytoplankton dominate because of the cold. Brodeur said pyrosomes don't like those bigger chunks of food, but with the influence of warmer waters, the food particles get smaller around here.

It's called “productive waters” - meaning larger food sources are floating about.

“It's probably not the temperature that's driving them here,” he said. “They don't like productive waters. They like the more blue ocean water, with fine food particles. They don't like the plankton we have here, especially the phytoplankton. Those cells are too big for them. They don't really do as well, but they do better farther out in the ocean with the finer particles.”

The fact is no one is exactly sure why there are so many pyrosomes, but Brodeur and Fisher have this working theory at least. Still, Brodeur said he's never seen these in his year working in this area.

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Another thing that isn't well known is how much cold can they tolerate. Brodeur said they do grow faster in warmer waters, but that isn't stopping them from – if you'll excuse the pun – establishing a beach head here. The surprise twist is that the temperature itself is not stopping them from coming up this far north, only the kinds of particles found in warmer or colder temperatures.

“I suspect that's not keeping them out but it's productivity and not temperature,” Brodeur said. “It's not good for salmon and other fish. The last couple years have been bad for them with not as many food particles as salmon like.”

Pyrosomes, sometimes called sea pickles, are full of surprises. Aside from the fact you're really looking at just a large colony of near-microscopic creatures, they also glow in the dark. They are bioluminescent, meaning they give off light when touched. This can only happen when they're alive and in their natural habit, however.

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There is a form of bioluminescent phytoplankton that can give off a glow on Oregon beaches sometimes, creating what's called glowing sand at night.

Brodeur, Fisher and other scientists are a tad worried about some aspects of all this. Besides the ominous shades of climate change this represents, there is the possibility that if too many of them die off at once in these waters they'll create another “dead zone” off the coast, which can wreak havoc on the near-shore environment. This occurs when the decaying bodies eat up all the oxygen, and other creatures like fish and crabs are forced to move en masse or even choke to death.

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