Rare, Bizarre Creatures from the Deep: An Unexpected Nature Study

I grew up on the Oregon Coast in beautiful Bandon by the Sea. I spent many a day on the shoreline investigating the marine invertebrates under the rock crevices and walking the sandy beaches. My brothers and I longed for the minus tides, providing us the rare opportunity to go spelunking in the sea caves just off shore. These rocky islands are now protected areas for marine bird nesting habitat but back in the 70s, it was our playground.

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Dune geology features: foredune and deflation plain

Tracking Marine Debris

In all the years I have spent on the beach, I have found a diverse amount of debris and organisms in varying states of decay. I probably spend an equal amount of time sifting through the wrack on the high tide line as I do in wave zone digging in the sand looking for mole crabs.

I have found marine debris from Japan evidenced by the kanji script. An occasional flip flop or fishing net remnants are not uncommon. While immersing myself in marine biology courses at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology one summer, I even found several squid egg cases that washed ashore after a winter storm, providing my peers and I an opportunity to observe the development up close. Yet, once in a while, I am still surprised at what washes ashore.

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Walking along the ATV trail across the deflation plain

This past holiday weekend, my family and I enjoyed a leisurely walk on the beach near our home. Our goal was to field test a new marine debris app, a joint initiative between the NOAA Marine Debris Program and the Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative. The tracker app allows you to help make a difference by checking in when you find trash on our coastlines and waterways.*

We drove out to the North Spit and thereafter began our excursion through the deflation plain. We soon discovered, however, that there was too much standing water to stick to the trail that meandered through the wetland area. We thus walked along the ATV road until we reached the small foredune. Just a few feet up and over and we arrived on the sandy beach.

No sooner did we arrive at the shore and we immediately were captivated by the presence of a strange organic material that was strewn across the beach for miles. Upon first glance, it looked like a hard plastic tube resembling a sea cucumber. My first suspicion turned out to be incorrect, however. Upon returning home, I learned that what we had found were actually colonial tunicates. Fascinating!

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Planktonic salps, Pyrosoma atlanticum, strewn across the beach.

What are Tunicates?

This bizarre and rarely-seen creature is called a pyrosome, a species of pelagic colonial tunicates. Their scientific name, Pyrosoma atlanticum, is derived from the Greek words pyro meaning ‘fire’ and soma meaning ‘body’ which refers to the fact that they are known for bright displays of bioluminescence.

Pyrosoma atlanticum are one of the few pyrosomes that make it to the west coast of the U.S. The species found here are less than a foot but can get as long as 24 inches. Largely colorless, they can show up as pink, grayish or purple-green.

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A specimen of the colonial tunicate, Pyrosoma atlanticum 

These massive colonies of cloned creatures are related to a kind of jellyfish called a slap. A tunicate is a marine invertebrate animal, a member of the subphylum Tunicata, which is part of the Chordata, a phylum which includes all animals with dorsal nerve cords and notochords.

Each individual organism is about 1 cm long – less than a third of an inch. They are all connected by tissue and in turn form this colony that looks like a plastic tube. The recent winter storms have caused them to strand on the shores and have been found in all areas of the coast.

Usually found in temperate waters as low as 800 meters. The colony of animals is comprised of thousands of individual zooids and moves through the water column by the means of cilia (an organelle found in eukaryotic cells that project from the much larger cell body).

As they move through the water column, sometimes close to the surface and sometimes as far down as 2600 feet, they filter plankton out of the water for food. As it sucks water in, it then pushes it back out, thereby propelling it through the ocean. It does all this via one opening only, so it moves incredibly slow.

For more images of Pyrosoma, check out Bob Perry’s photographs. Included in his work are a few pseudoconchs (false shells) of the pelagic mollusk Corolla which we similarly found.zoologyIf you are interested in learning more about invertebrates with your students, I encourage you to look into the Amazing Animals curriculum unit I have written to introduce middle level students to zoology. This 10-week unit is full of inquiry-based activities and lesson plans fully outlined for you.

Due to our fascination with these rare creatures, we didn’t spend as much time with the debris tracking app as I had intended. We’ll give it a go another time.

Developing Map Skills in the Galapagos

I love when we can learn subjects by using real life examples, like using maps to work on geography. Whenever we travel, our first go to resource is a simple map, it helps us to get our bearings and to visualize the larger picture of how everything is connected.

My children have developed map skills to help with our vacation planning and to successfully find their way around the place we are visiting. To give you some ideas for learning on vacation, here are a few ways we reinforced map skills during our recent trip to South America.

To help us learn more about the many wonderful sites we would be visiting, we first used Google Earth to see the geological features such as the Andes Mountains where the Nazca Plate is sub-ducting under the South American Plate. We also viewed the Galápagos Islands and viewed the hotspot where new islands are forming.

We discussed the geological processes that are shaping the islands and how the plants and animals that live there are specifically adapted to life in this harsh environment. I shared with them the definition for endemic species and we talked about the species we were most looking forward to seeing ourselves.

This post contains affiliate links.

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To add some learning to your vacation, use your guide maps/road maps as a teaching tool. Show your kids how to use them and then encourage them to navigate while sightseeing. They’ll love it and won’t realize that they’re learning too!

A map is a visual representation of a place or of information about a place. The place could be small, like a room, or larger, like a house, neighborhood, city, state, country, planet, solar system, or galaxy. – North Star Geography, Lesson 1

North-Star-Geography

 

As a Brand Ambassador for Bright Ideas Press we have received a complimentary copy of North Star Geography in exchange for our honest insights about how this program is working in real life with our family.

While sightseeing in the Galápagos, Cristina – our interpretive guide, pulled out a bandana map at each island we visited to point out each of the surrounding islands. In time, the kids were able to correctly identify each of the islands themselves not only by their profile but by their geographical orientation as well. They were so captivated by this experience that a bandana map was their top souvenir choice.

Now that we are home, the kids are looking forward to creating an interactive map with My Maps, one of many mapping tools provided by Google Maps. They have already begun to flag the photos they wish to embed and have begun to brainstorm their storyline.

Tips for building map skills:

  • Help your children find maps before you depart on vacation.  Take some time to look over them prior to departure or while en route to get the “lay of the land” before you arrive.
  • Identify the map’s title, legend, compass rose, and scale.
  • Help your child identify two points on the map and ask them to determine the best path to travel between the locations.
  • Document your travels using a map.  At the end of each day, highlight the route you traveled and mark the things you did and saw along the way. Consider using My Maps to create an interactive map that you can share with friends and family.

geo-survey

Bright Ideas Press has created a survey to see what kinds of geography products homeschool moms most want. They need their feedback no later than Wednesday, Nov. 26.

As a thank you, you will receive a freebie code for an audio workshop at the end of the survey. It’s called History and Geography Through Literature, a $5.00 value.