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A Rundown of Jelly-Like Salps of Oregon, Washington Coasts

Published 04/01/21 at 5:55 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

A Rundown of Jelly-Like Salps of Oregon, Washington Coasts

(Manzanita, Oregon) – There’s a lot of translucent things lying around Oregon and Washington beaches. Stuff that looks like jellyfish, but may or may not be so. Any beach on the Oregon coast or Washington coastline can produce these at any minute, and sometimes in enormous expanses of a goo-covered beach. (All photos courtesy Seaside Aquarium. Above: the aquarium took a photo of a salp found on the beach on a backlit background)

One of the things that really looks like a kind of jellyfish is actually a salp: it’s sort’a see-through, it’s blobby, it’s gelatinous in a way, but most of all it is not a jellyfish.

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However, many kinds of jellyfish that wash up the Washington coast or Oregon coast do indeed look salp-like, and vice versa. Then there’s other little jellyfish-like critters, such as velella velella, which are something altogether different.

How to tell a salp from anything else? First, a jellyfish will have tentacles visible in one way or another, and they are more see-through than a salp. A salp is typified by a blob-like, largely featureless appearance, and it’s a cloudier kind of translucent – in general. Although some salps are definitely easier to see into, there is a kind of criss-cross pattern to some, or as in the case of the Thetys vagina salp pictured below, it’s got blob-like shapes inside.

Jellyfish retain a roundish appearance – some even look like coffee cup lids.

A Rundown of Jelly-Like Salps of Oregon, Washington Coasts
The salp known as Thetys vagina

According to Tiffany Boothe of Seaside Aquarium, there’s a lot of different kinds on the Washington coast or Oregon coast, but you mostly see three types.

“I know of 10 different species but there may be more,” she said. “I believe worldwide there are 50 species, 24 on the west coast, but most like warmer waters.”

“The most notable is Thetys vagina, mainly because of its large size which can be just over a foot long. The next two would be Salpa maxima and Salpa fusiformis. A keen eye observer may also come across Thalia democratica but this is a much smaller salp, only reaching about a half inch.”

To add more confusion, sometimes you may see tiny bubbles at the tideline that look out of place: those are comb jellies, sort of a jellyfish.

Boothe said Maxima gets up to 12 inches in length.

“They occur as either individuals or a connected colony,” she said. “The purple projections act kind of as a rudder.”

Sometimes salps are found still alive. Here, the aquarium put a Thalia democratica in a tank, making for a graceful, alien presence.

In their colonial state, Thetys salps don't have those rudders. Salps – just like the freaky pryosome form of salp found in recent years – can form colonies that are comprised of dozens to hundreds of them, reaching several yards long. Even more dramatic, they do this by cloning themselves: replicating dozens of versions of themselves and then forming that chain. This happens at one stage of the creature's life, and then single bodies eventually start breaking away.

Salps are filter feeders, able to filter up to 2.5 liters of water per hour, Boothe said. They eat plankton this way.

Boothe said salps are related to a jellyfish, although it genetically has more in common with fish and people than with jellies. Salps are palaegic, meaning they drift along in the ocean. Then under the right conditions, west winds send them onto beaches of the Washington and Oregon coasts.

“Salps are amazing animals, though in appearance they resemble jellyfish, they are more closely related to fish,” she said. “In order to understand the salp you must first understand the tunicate. Tunicates belong to the same phylum as vertebrates. Though as adults they do not have a backbone, developing larvae posses a tail, a dorsal nerve cord, and a dorsal stiffening structure (not composed of bone) called the notochord. Because of this tunicates are thought to be more closely related to vertebrates such as fish and people.”

That’s right: we’re related to this goofy little guys. Talk about strange relatives.

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