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Are the Kooky Little Pyrosomes Coming Back to Oregon Coast? New Sightings

Published 2/09/24 at 7:55 p.m.
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

(Seaside, Oregon) – With still a sizable amount of scientific mystery behind them, the kooky pyrosomes have made some appearances again on the Oregon coast. This may or may not herald the return of the oddball little glow-in-the-dark creature, which hasn't been seen in big numbers for a couple of years now. (Photos Seaside Aquarium. Above: recent pyrosome in Seaside)

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It was Seaside Aquarium's Tiffany Boothe that spotted some in Seaside recently – just a handful, she tells Oregon Coast Beach Connection. However, she's received some reports of them in Newport as well.

“In 2016-2017 pyrosomes were washing ashore en masse along Oregon's beaches,” Boothe said. “So are they back? Will we see them in the numbers we saw in 2016-2017? Only time will tell.”

They are sometimes called sea pickles or sea squirts, and they're usually found in more tropical waters. Pyrosomes almost never appear this far north. Yet for those two years they were washing up like crazy, causing plenty of head-scratching for scientists.

Are the Kooky Little Pyrosomes Coming Back to Oregon Coast? New Sightings

One pair of researchers were really digging into them at the time and came up with some interesting working theories. A lot of that centered around the fact pyrosomes are attracted to smaller prey: tinier versions of the phytoplankton we normally have on the Oregon coast and Washington coast. Appearances of Pyrosomes on Oregon Coast Still a Big Puzzle to Scientists

Boothe said such ocean conditions – especially storms – can bring them as far north as Alaska.

“Pyrosoma atlanticum - the most observed species found along Oregon beaches - are a rigid, bumpy, pinkish-gray tube about the size of a finger,” she said. “Throughout the world pyrosomes can range in size from a few centimeters to over 30 feet long, but the common Pyrosoma atlanticum reaches a maximum length of two feet.”

The tricky part – and big surprise – is that pyrosomes are not actually just one creature. They are a mass of colonies all glommed together.

“These totally tubular critters are actually known as a colonial tunicate, a mass of thousands of smaller organisms with a rigid notochord (a simplistic backbone),” Boothe said.

Multi-celled critters called zooids are what comprise them: thousands of cloned versions of these create the cylindrical shape we see. These are all connected by tissue that allows each to “communicate” with each other and create coordinated behavior.

“To swim and feed, pyrosomes move their cilia (hair-like structures) together to draw in water and filter-feed on plankton,” Boothe said. “After the plankton is caught on mucus the zooids expel the water in coordination to propel their tube-body through the sea.”

Their scientific name roughly means “fire body,” which comes from the fact they are bioluminescent. Therein lies another cool fact about these critters: they glow.

However, they only do so while still alive in the water.

One former oceanography student from OSU told Oregon Coast Beach Connection back in 2020 how she was part of a research expedition off the U.S. coast and saw hordes of these glowing creatures moving past the viewing screen of the vessel. It was a rather unforgettable visual description. The expedition happened during the height of the pyrosome invasion of Oregon and Washington beaches back in 2017 or so. MORE PYROSOMES BELOW

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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