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Appearances of Pyrosomes on Oregon Coast Still a Big Puzzle to Scientists

Published 02/02/22 at 5:36 PM PST
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Appearance of Pyrosomes on Oregon Coast Still a Puzzle to Scientists

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(Pacific City, Oregon) – That rather robust inundation of pyrosomes along the Oregon coast may have been short-lived, as there don't seem to be any reports of new strandings of the funky little tubular creatures. Yet it's still a puzzle to scientists why they were appearing up here in the first place. (Photo above courtesy Seaside Aquarium's Tiffany Boothe)

Pyrosomes, also sometimes called sea pickles, are actually colonies of even tinier creatures all globbed together to form one larger organism. They're not a jellyfish – they're technically a tunicate, which describes a broad range of small oceanic animals that are jellyfish-like in some ways but they have nothing to do with jellies.

Earlier in January, hordes of them were found up and down the Oregon coast, with major reports coming from the Florence area especially, but sightings sporadically dramatic in places like Coos Bay, Gold Beach, Pacific City and Manzanita as well. Some areas had them scattered about in little bunches, with 100 or so in sight from any one spot on the sands, while Oregon Coast Beach Connection received dispatches from other areas indicating thousands .

Recent strandings at Florence, courtesy Mary Nulty

It's largely agreed upon that storm action early in the month brought them onshore, and with all the current calm conditions that's likely halting. But what brought them up here in the first place from their normally-warm-water habitats of California?

The same question hit researchers from 2016 through 2018 when they showed up in unprecedented numbers.

Among those still mulling over an answer is the Hatfield Marine Science Center's Jennifer Fisher, who is a research biologist with NOAA Fisheries.

“I am afraid to say that their appearance is still a bit of a mystery,” Fisher said. “They have been been sticking around off northern California throughout 2021, so I think their appearance off Oregon now is likely due to strong winter storms transporting them north. They also washed up on Oregon beaches during the winter of 2020-2021.”

Fisher thought it was entirely possible we would not see more of these purple oddballs much more on the Oregon coast this year, if at all. This may have been it for 2022.

“2021 was an incredibly cold and productive year, fueled in part by an early start to the upwelling season,” Fisher said. “These cool ocean conditions have not favored pyrosomes in the past, and we often have a couple years of similar ocean conditions. So, if cool ocean conditions also occur in the spring/summer of 2022, I would not expect to see them in coastal Oregon waters.”

A report by NOAA shows there were some sizable numbers of pyrosomes caught in nets off Newport early in 2021, but none later in summer or fall.

Back in 2017, Fisher and another NOAA researcher, Rick Brodeur, emerged as being at the forefront of knowledge about the pyrosomes and their inundation here and on the Washington coast.

Brodeur spoke to Oregon Coast Beach Connection back then, and they had what was kind of a working theory about why the pyrosomes were coming up from California in such great numbers. It was related to a steadily-warming ocean off the Oregon and Washington coast, but not a direct line, making for an intriguing lesson in the intricacies of ocean ecosystems.

It seems pyrosomes really prefer warmer oceans, and they don't like the larger sizes of phytoplankton found in the colder waters of the Oregon coast and Washington coast.

However, temps here have gotten just warm enough to alter that food source for them a bit because of things like El Nino and the “blob” (an area of warmer waters off the Northwest that sometimes develops). Our ocean seems to be getting finer particles of food, just the kind of tasty morsels the pyrosomes like.

When you get larger bits of food, it's called “productive waters.”

“It's probably not the temperature that's driving them here,” Brodeur told Oregon Coast Beach Connection back in 2017. “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.”

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Courtesy Seaside Aquarium above and below


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