What the heck is this thing? A Salp of course!
January 23, 2014 7:30 AM   Subscribe

Pictures have been going around of a small jelly like creature a fisherman pulled into his boat off New Zealand. The creature has been identified as a salp most likely Thetys vagina Salps may look like jellyfish but they are more closely related to vertebrates.

Salps may even have a role to play in mitigating climate change by consuming ocean carbon during bloom phases and dropping that carbon to the ocean floor when the population crashes. So lets hear it for the lowly salp.

Salps are closely related to Pyrosomes which can form large free swimming tubes in the oceans.

Someone may need to page Ed Harris.
posted by The Violet Cypher (27 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Also a youtube video of a 30 foot pyrosome and some salp chains taken by divers.
posted by The Violet Cypher at 7:50 AM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are huge tubes in the ocean. I'm just... I'm taking that in. There's literally all sorts of stuff in there isn't there? "If you can imagine it, there is a sea creature of it."
posted by aesop at 8:00 AM on January 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

right, who named that thing
posted by angrycat at 8:05 AM on January 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

posted by arto at 8:11 AM on January 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

That salp tube is the coolest thing I have seen in a long time.

Now, how good are they at forming the Sydney Opera House?
posted by alynnk at 8:16 AM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I do believe it may be named after the greek goddess Thetis who became a water nymph. As to the rest it is a 30 centimeter hollow band of muscle and sailors were often at sea for a long time.
posted by The Violet Cypher at 8:18 AM on January 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

posted by dhruva at 8:20 AM on January 23, 2014

The headline calling it bizarre strikes me as slightly unkind. I mean, it's unusual! striking! fascinating! It's just doing it's spineless thing and here we are calling it weird.

(my daughter drew a cartoon version of a Grimpoteuthis (dumbo octopus) and I have it as my phone wallpaper! I love how the sea has so many totally different varieties of animals!)
posted by vespabelle at 8:24 AM on January 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

The headlines at the bottom of the article all read MYSTERIOUS SEA MONSTER identified, and if you click the links you find no monsters or mystery but some large and/or decayed specimens of perfectly natural creatures. Time was I would be irritated by this, but on a glum winter day like today it seems like it would be fun to work the Not At All Mysterious Sea Monster beat.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:48 AM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sinking fecal pellets and bodies of salps carry carbon to the sea floor, and salps are abundant enough to have an effect on the ocean's biological pump. Consequently, large changes in their abundance or distribution may alter the ocean's carbon cycle, and potentially play a role in climate change.

Hey right on problem solved eh guys.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:52 AM on January 23, 2014

vagina just means "sheath", ya bunch of animals.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 8:52 AM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thetys vagina

Nope, thetys NOT vagina.
posted by louche mustachio at 8:59 AM on January 23, 2014 [13 favorites]

There are huge tubes in the ocean.

The ocean is a series of disgusting tubes.
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:12 AM on January 23, 2014 [7 favorites]

In scientific parlance any tube or hole leading into the interior of an animal is likely to be referred to as a vagina, just as any lip-like structures around that hole are likely to be referred to as labia, regardless of their location on the animal. It comes from the Latin meaning of the word, not the English one. (Granted, that doesn't stop us from snickering a bit anyway; most scientists have the minds of eight-year-olds.)

It seems a bit odd to me that this is such news. Salps don't get as much press as jellyfish, but they're hardly unknown. Their claim to fame, as has been mentioned, is that they are a member of the subphylum Tunicata, the most primitive living example of the phylum Chordata, which is the same phylum that vertebrates and humans are in. That is to say, they most closely resemble what we think the common ancestor of all Chordates looked like.

They have a very simple central nervous system arranged around a notochord, which is a bit like (and the predecessor of) a simplified spinal column. Interestingly, only the larvae have this; when they mature into the adult reproductive form (which in most tunicates is sessile, i.e. immobile) they lose it, along with most of their organs except for the gonads.

Many people who live near the ocean will be familiar with salps' cousins, the tunicates. These are sessile when adult, and anchor themselves to the substrate. If you don't know what you're looking at, you might mistake them for a kind of coral or algae. They are covered in a thick, leathery armor (the "tunic") and aren't much to look at. If you hang out on rocky coastal shores though and do a little snorkeling or diving just below the intertidal zone, you're likely to see quite a lot of them once you start looking.
posted by Scientist at 9:20 AM on January 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

There are just way too many good band names in these articles:

Thetys Vagina
Zooid Axes
Planktonic Tunicates
Pegea Confederata...
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:38 AM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are huge tubes in the ocean.

The ocean is a series of disgusting tubes.
posted by Atom Eyes at 12:12 PM on January 23 [2 favorites +] [!]

So is the internet.
posted by Gungho at 9:58 AM on January 23, 2014

On reflection, maybe my viewpoint as an ecologist-in-training makes me feel like a lot more people know about salps than actually do. You're likely to have heard about them if you're the kind of person who watches nature documentaries, works on a fishing boat (with nets, I mean), or has taken a freshman Biology course at University. That's really a pretty small slice of the population though. I can definitely see a sport fisherman like this guy running across one of these things, being a bit startled and fascinated by it, and sending the pictures off to a scientist friend to find out what it is.

Especially since the specimen he caught is one of the more interesting-looking ones; usually salps look a bit more like this, and would probably be mistaken for a jellyfish. The bilateral symmetry on Thetys vagina (or Salpa maggiore, they look similar) is more obvious though than on most salps, which is a dead giveaway that it's not a jelly. So I can definitely forgive the fisherman for not knowing what it was that he caught, and good on him for taking an interest and having it identified for the edification of him and his sons.

Still though, I'm not sure why it made the news. If somebody brought one of these by my lab I probably wouldn't be able to tell them the species (I'd probably tell them to talk to the guy down the hall who works on oysters, if they wanted that) but I would definitely be able to give them a cheery "Hey, that's a salp! And a rather pretty one, too, as far as salps go!" followed by a brief exposition on some of the more interesting points about salps and some pointers for where they can find out more information if they wanted it. Then I would just send them happily on their way. I definitely wouldn't call the newspapers.

Salps are neat, and you don't see them every day unless you work out in the deep ocean, but they're a dime a dozen. Under the right conditions you can find them by the billions, linked up in huge lines or sheets. You could take a ship out to the Arctic or Antarctic oceans during one of the seasonal algal blooms, scoop them up in a net all day long until your boat sank under the weight, and not even make a dent in the population. They're explosive breeders under the right conditions, well-known to science and pretty well-understood. I mean heck, I dissected one during my first semester as a biology undergrad.

As an aside, they're definitely of interest to science. They seem to be responding to climate change in much the same way as jellies (by expanding their range into warmer waters, and increasing their population dramatically). Also, since they're filter feeders, they pick up bits of whatever else happens to be in the ocean with them when they drift through – meaning that if you examine their stomachs and tissues you can find out what the types and abundances of plankton are in the water, as well the densities of various chemical pollutants and anthropogenic debris. This, accompanied by their huge numbers, ease of capture, and the fact that it's easy to get permits to collect them, gives them potential as excellent indicators of climate change and ocean health. If there's anything newsworthy about this particular incident, it may be that this is a species that was not previously found as far north as this guy found his. I don't know, but I wouldn't be at all surprised.
posted by Scientist at 10:09 AM on January 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

"If you can imagine it, there is a sea creature of it."

The Ocean's Rule #34.
posted by Herodios at 11:10 AM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

vagina just means "sheath", ya bunch of animals.

As I learned as a tween in Catholic school in the mid-seventies, when I was simultaneously scandalized and awe-struck at the words that could be found in the big dictionary.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:18 AM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ahhh yes, the big dictionary. Kids today don't know the wonders that can be found in those depths. That was back in the days when the saying, " 'Sympathy' is a word found between 'shit' and 'syphilis' " meant something.

...30 foot pyrosome and some salp chains...

Holy sea cow!
I love youtube*--these kinds of things are fascinating to see.
*because I'm not going in the water!
posted by BlueHorse at 11:30 AM on January 23, 2014

sandettie light vessel automatic: vagina just means "sheath", ya bunch of animals.

How could anyone forget? "Scipio squinted in the dry North African breeze before his centurions.... He knew timing was everything...."
posted by filthy light thief at 11:50 AM on January 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

So, some salp-esque common ancestor of vertebrates started squirting calcium down her tube to sheath her nerve cells?

Much belated thanks!
posted by Renoroc at 12:50 PM on January 23, 2014

Like other salps, Thetys continuous pumps water through a mucous net to extract phytoplankton and other small particles.


*tangent: Is it me or are grammar, spelling and other errors, and nearly incomprehensible sentences, the norm now? Or is that not supposed to be "continuously"? Not to pick on this, it's ubiquitous. I feel like I've lost the ability to read or I have some kind of aphasia...
posted by Smedleyman at 1:26 PM on January 23, 2014

and this is why I won't swim in the ocean unless it's clear enough to see bottom....




posted by nakedmolerats at 2:02 PM on January 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

Pardon me while I go and add "to earn one's water wings" to the urban dictionary.


It's already there.
posted by sebastienbailard at 3:24 AM on January 24, 2014

Thanks for the great comments, Scientist.
For the record, I have done a couple of years of biology at uni and watched plenty of documentaries but never seen a salp before, although I do remember some chordate ancestors looking similar, perhaps I projected they were microscopic and were actually salp sized. Maybe they tend toward cooler climes, and that is why both me in Australia and the NZ fisherman in the OP were a bit surprised.
Most of our ocean bio training in Oz is about the littoral and consists of a day looking in rock pools, so I'm not surprised we over look critters common in off-shore waters.
posted by bystander at 6:12 AM on January 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Related post: Pyrosome and Salps
posted by homunculus at 6:12 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

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