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Tangled ‘Cord’ Mistaken for Litter Is Actually a Sea Creature

Along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico, beachgoers mistake sea whip coral for discarded junk

Sea whip coral can come in a variety of colors, from vivid reds and oranges, yellows to rich violets and can grow up to three feet long. (mwms1916 via Flickr under (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) )
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Walking along the beach, one might find sand dollars and seashells scattered among litter from beachgoers. In some cases, you might observe twisted tendrils that resemble a washed-up extension cord along the shoreline. On February 1, the Padre Island National Seashore official Facebook page shared a post explaining that the tangled "rope" one might discover is not trash, but sea whip coral, reports Dawson White for the Miami Herald.

The Facebook post was shared by Rebekah Claussen, a National Park Service (NPS) guide at the Padre Island National Seashore, who took the vibrant washed-up coral photo, reports Mindy Weisberger for Live Science. Beachgoers often mistake the sea whip coral as waste, and the NPS receives countless inquiries about what the 'rope' like jumble is, the Facebook post explains.

Sea whip coral grow up to three feet long and can come in various colors—from vivid reds, oranges, and yellows to rich violets, the Miami Herald reports. Growing along the sea whip's cable-like form are tiny colonies of polyps that feed on plankton and give the coral structural support, Live Science reports. Although corals resemble plants, they are considered animals because they do not make their food as plants do. Coral is also classified under the same phylum, Cnidaria, as sea anemones and jellyfish.

There are various types of sea whip coral, and they can be found all along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. The one found by Claussen is Leptogorgia virgulate or colorful sea whip. L. virgulate lives near the shore and often gets washed up, Live Science reports.

"To my knowledge, the reason that the coral has washed up is that it has broken off and therefore no longer alive," Claussen tells Live Science. "I'm not sure that you would be able to tell even if it was alive. We recommend just leaving the sea whip on the beach because it is natural and will decompose and help the island."

After explaining what the coral was, commenters were thrilled to find out that the mystery was solved. "At first, I thought it was masses of discarded fishing line, and I was pretty upset by that. And, then, I became informed. So cool!" one person commented, the Miami Herald reports.

It is no surprise that an individual might mistake the sea whip coral for trash. Billions of pounds of trash enter the ocean every year, and marine debris often washes ashore. But the coral actually benefits the shoreline: when washed up, itl breaks down and can help build up the dunes, the Miami Herald reports.

"So the next time you're out for a stroll on the beach, look for the sea whip, and remember, it's not trash!" NPS writes in the Facebook post.

About Elizabeth Gamillo
Elizabeth Gamillo

Elizabeth Gamillo is a science journalist based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has written for Science magazine as their 2018 AAAS Diverse Voices in Science Journalism Intern.

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