British Columbia’s Stanley Park recently hosted a BioBlitz, a 24-hour event in which scientists and amateur nature lovers convene to catalogue as many different species as they can. While exploring one of the park's ponds, a blitzer spotted a blobby, brain-like substance wriggling in the water. Fortunately for everyone involved, the substance was not a disembodied brain. Instead, as Martha Perkins reports for the Vancouver Courier, it turns out to be a rarely seen colony comprised of thousands of tiny organisms.
The blob was discovered near the park’s “Lost Lagoon,” which certainly sounds like the sort of place where an elusive, brain-like creature would thrive. According to Peter Dockrill of Science Alert, the blob is a type of bryozoan, which begin life as a single invertebrate organism. But soon that single creature multiplies, reproducing asexually to form a jiggly mass that is bound together by a goopy protein substance.
In a video posted by the Courier, Celina Starnes of the Stanley Park Ecology Society described the weird creature as “kind of like a blob.”It has also been referred to as “a peeled giant lychee fruit that can grow to the size of a deflated basketball,” a “blob monster” and a “dragon booger.”
After the first bryozoan sighting in Stanley Park, others were spotted in the pond. The body of water serves as a holding pen that allows bacteria and other microbes to clear out pollutants to prevent contamination of the Lost Lagoon. This environment is perfect for the squishy blobs, which feed on plankton and algae. “What the bryozoans like is that there is little to no current and high nutrient levels,” Starnes told Perkins of the Courier.
Most bryozoans live in oceans, but the one in Stanley Park belongs to the Pectinatella magnifica species, which dwells in freshwater habitats. Prior to the discovery in British Columbia, P. magnifica was only known to exist east of the Mississippi River, according to Sarah Gibbens of National Geographic.
The blobs have a rich history, dating back 470 million years in the fossil record. But their presence in Stanley Park may be a disconcerting indicator of global warming. As Gibbens explains, the organisms that make up the bryozoan can only survive in waters warmer than 60 degrees Fahrenheit; it is possible that rising temperatures have allowed them to travel north.
It is also possible, however, that bryozoans have been in the area for a while. With their dishwater-brown color, the creatures are hard to spot in murky waters. And camouflage isn’t their only defense mechanism. As Starnes explained in her interview with Perkins, the organisms bind together so they are less vulnerable to predators, which do not find the large blobs particularly appetizing. Can’t say we blame them.