Invasion of the Sea Pickles

by Kris Mainland White

Photo Courtesy of David L. Valentine. This June 15, 2010, photo provided by the University of California Santa Barbara shows pyrosomes — cucumber-shaped, gelatinous organisms pulled up after a deep cast in the vicinity of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

I’ve lived along the California shore my entire life, and have seen my share of sea creatures, but I must say, this jelly like, candy cane shaped, floating pink creature is new to me. I saw these chubby gummy worms floating off Refugio, out at Catalina, and my sightings culminated in July with thousands of them floating in lines off Goleta Beach and washing up on the beach.

My friend and co-observer, Barbara, sent over an article: sea pickle. Perfect name. Scientifically, they are pyrosomes, and each tube is not one but hundreds or even thousands of plankton-eating little creatures named zooids. They filter that and even tinier food from the water that flows through their tube colony. Sea pickles typically stay down deep in the water column then ascend to the surface at dark to feed. Then back down to complete their vertical feeding pattern.

The tint of the sea pickle reflects their diet with a lot of pinkish ones around Gaviota. Adding to their cool features- they are asexual creatures that reproduce by cloning. They are also bioluminescent, glowing when touched. And you can touch them. While they seem like a jellyfish, they don’t sting or bite. Sea pickles around our coast seem perhaps an average of a few inches inches long with a few larger outliers. But startled divers in New Zealand came across a 26 foot specimen!

Once known known to inhabit tropical waters further south, the mass invasion of the sea pickles has stretched along California to Oregon as far north as Sitka, Alaska. The scientists are puzzled. Oceanographers who’d never even seen one until recently wonder- Is the water warming? Have they acclimated to cooler waters?

Though harmless, a massive die off can create dead zones on the sea floor, with decomposition sucking oxygen from the water. This kills and displaces other inhabitants down there, like crabs. Up in Alaska, getting them out of fishing nets is a major problem for an important industry when their massive presence clogs fishing nets. Lucky enough, fish, sea turtles, sea birds, anemones, crabs and urchins have all been observed feeding on sea pickles, although humans should not. It may help balance the population as it appears our new ocean inhabitant is doing quite well here and not in a hurry to go anywhere… if it could.

Photo Courtesy of Jan Olivas : Recent pyrosomes on our local beach
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