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Life Finds Home on Ropes Beneath Oregon Coast, Washington Coast

Published 07/31/22 at 4:45 AM PST
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Life Finds Home on Ropes Beneath Oregon Coast, Washington Coast

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(Seaside, Oregon) - For such a beautiful place, the ocean is actually fairly weird. On the surface it's all calming waves and hypnotizing tidelines, but underneath life is doing some extraordinary stuff. Just beyond those lovely beaches of the Oregon coast or Washington coast, the real estate gets bizarre. (All photos courtesy Seaside Aquarium. Above: closeup of a stalked tunicate on a rope)

It all kind hearkens back to that line in Jurassic Park: “Life will find a way.”

Seaside Aquarium finds wacky examples of this quite a bit, like lifeforms living on and thriving off manmade debris that's normally bad for sea creatures. Rope is a prime example, according to the aquarium's Tiffany Boothe.

“Discarded ropes can cause serious, life-threatening entanglement issues for many marine animals,” Boothe said. “They can, however, also provide a place for many marine organisms to settle and live.”

Scouring the beaches of the Washington coast and Oregon coast all the time, crew from the aquarium have made some wild finds and then brought them into their tanks on occasion. Sometimes fishermen turn them in as well. Tiny but spectacularly beautiful creatures like tunicates, zoanthids, tubeworms and mussels sometimes show up as small colonies living on this stuff.

Zoanthids are kind of like anemones, and they live in groups and clusters on objects in the ocean. They can connect to each other and form colonies via a sheet of tissue at the bottom of each individual. The photo above shows Orange Zoanthids.

They're rather neurotic, you might say. Boothe said if they get disturbed or threatened somehow they will contract their tentacles and then it takes sometimes hours to calm the hell down and expand these appendages once more.

Various types of tunicates are another little critter found on rope debris lying beneath the Oregon or Washington coast. The photo at the very top is not only an elegant, beautiful study in marine life, but it manages to look a bit like interstellar formations captured in the galaxy by major telescopes.

Boothe explains what you're seeing.

“Among the three species of tunicates which settled on the lost rope was this stalked tunicate,” Boothe said. “Stalked tunicates are often seen in local tidepools, however they are usually mistaken for some sort of kelp or seaweed.”

Above: three different types of tunicates on one rope

Tunicates belong to the same phylum as vertebrates, and they include things like salps – which are trippy little see-through creatures sometimes found on Oregon's coast or the Washington coastline. These tunicates are tinier. Adults don't have a backbone, but as larvae they begin life with a tail, a nerve chord and something called a notochord, which is a bit like a backbone. While not made of any kind of bone, it does stiffen their body and functions like a backbone.

Here's a weird fact: because of that brief part of their lives with a kind of backbone, they're considered closer relatives to humans than fish.

The rope photo here shows all kinds of creatures in residence: mussels, tubeworms, zoanthids and tunicates. This particular example washed up at Seaside in the early 2010's.

The California mussel begins life as a free-swimming form of plankton – that tiny, yummy treat that everything in the ocean survives on in some way, including whales. For the first few months of their lives, Boothe said, they float aimlessly along the ocean's currents and feed on phytoplankton (the form of plankton that is made of nearly microscopic plants).

As it ages, it rather abruptly forms a shell and then sinks to the ocean floor, where it starts traveling on a single foot. It's enough of an outlier in the animal kingdom that computer simulations trying to guess at what alien life on other planets might be like have included creatures a bit like this.

Eventually, the mussel attaches itself to some hard surface by a liquid adhesive traveling down this foot-like appendage, and the cold of sea water does the rest of the job hardening it. They've been known to live in the same spot for 20 years.

Tubeworms are generally marine worms found swimming inside of a tube, which is created by secreting a calcium substance that makes a hardened structure around their bodies. But some others, like the ones seen in the photos from the Seaside Aquarium, have a more flexible see-through structure that's akin to a human fingernail.

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