Everyone stop guessing: Weird blob in Nova Scotia is a bryozoan colony

On September 30, a story appeared in a local paper about a strange “creature” or something found on a lake shore in Nova Scotia, Canada. Speculation erupted as it always does about what the thing was. Finally, we have an answer to the identify of the ‘Very strange’ thing found in Yarmouth County lake.

It was found on Doctors Lake in Hebron on Thursday, Sept. 29 and the long-time residents who discovered it said they’d never seen anything like it.

Nick Nickerson said he and his wife, Joan, found it near the water’s edge on a private beach.

It was about 12-and-a-half inches long, he said, was “quite firm, transparent … Very, very strange.”

Here is the photo

The first speculative guess was by Nickerson: a “jellified leech”. It has that streamlined shape with what appears to be a canal through the middle. We can reject the idea of a leech, though, because no leech grows this big or is transparent.

The second popular guess with Internet commentators was that it was a mound of frog eggs in jelly. We only had this one picture to go from but there were no eggs apparent. Frog egg jelly isn’t as firm as described here and it appears uniform instead of as round individual eggs. Besides, it’s Canada in late September. There are no frogs laying eggs right now.

Other guesses were salps or tunicates. But these are only found in salt water. Another guess was a bryozoan colony. DING DING DING! Right answer!

When the paper sought an informed opinion, they got an answer

A biologist with the Department of Natural Resources identified it as a bryozoan colony.

“They almost always wrap themselves up around sticks (as in this case), but sometimes they are free-floating,” said Duncan Bayne, DNR regional biologist in Tusket. “The gelatinous mass is made up of thousands of individual ‘animalcules.’ A frequently common name is ‘moss animalcules.’”

“This species may be pectinatella magnifica, but it’s impossible to say without a look at the zooids,” Bayne said. “They are generally considered an indicator of good water quality, but there may be some that can tolerate siltier conditions.”

The news outlets typically choose to go straight ahead with posts about strange creatures before reaching out to biologists to find the answer. However, Bayne’s response could have been more reader-friendly. Most people have never ever heard of a bryozoan and do not know what that means let alone “animalcule” and “zooids”. It would have been more helpful to relate this information in a more non-technical way. Here goes.

Bryozoans are tiny organisms that collect into a colony in freshwater. In some species, like Pectinatella magnifica, the colony of individuals (zooids) is bound together and forms a gelatinous mass, sometimes floating and sometimes attached to objects, like stems or wood. They feed by filtering food particles out of the water with tiny hair-like strands. They are known in Canadian waters and usually indicate good water quality, but the large masses may clog drains and pipes. They are not dangerous.

Source: EOL

Local stories about weird creatures are guaranteed web hits. Circulated on social media, this open-ended framing invites everyone to throw in their opinion about what it is based on their personal knowledge, even if they know nothing about zoology. But how many people are going to be that knowledgable about freshwater biology and species in a particular area? Not many. So social media threads spread misinformation as people assume unchecked guesses are the correct interpretation. Most people will not see the better conclusion as their interest in the story as already passed. That’s a shame because it was a good opportunity for people to learn something new.

After I saw this story, I put out word to those I thought might have an educated opinion. Even though I suspected bryozoan, I know from past guessing that I need to have more than a hunch because I’m likely wrong. So, I was glad to have confirmation from an expert on this.

If you find something weird, first, take more than just one photo. Second, seek out a local environmental or biological expert. Just because you don’t know what it is does not mean that it’s unknown. Let’s not play guessing games with real life news.

  8 comments for “Everyone stop guessing: Weird blob in Nova Scotia is a bryozoan colony

  1. Massachusetts
    October 11, 2016 at 11:15 AM

    So Sharon, in your informed opinion, an expert should be consulted first, and the correct answer broadcasted, and shared on social media, rather than speculation?

    I guess they think they’ll get bigger ratings and clicks if they make it sound like a strange creature is on the loose.

    Is their any room for a “guess what this is” contest before the answer is given?

  2. Bob Jase
    October 11, 2016 at 1:04 PM

    But did the bryozoan ever own a Roman sword?

  3. idoubtit
    October 11, 2016 at 1:12 PM

    I laughed. 😀

  4. Matt
    October 12, 2016 at 12:05 PM

    Bryozoans… Can’t these actual animals still be fascinating in their strangeness and adaptations? Shame that it’s so common to skew towards fantasy.

  5. idoubtit
    October 12, 2016 at 12:37 PM

    My college paleontology prof was fascinated with bryozoans. Mostly long dead ones. It’s how I know about them.

  6. Ronald H. Pine
    October 12, 2016 at 9:04 PM

    Bryozoan “colonies” are not made up of individual animals that come together and clump together. Each “colony” is actually a single individual living creature with tissue continuity and identical genetic makeup throughout and that grew from a single primordium. It is no more a “colony” than a banyan tree or a strawberry plant with runners is a “colony.” It is a single individual organism and is, as such, the basic evolutionary unit. It simply has repetition of aggregates of organs. It’s nothing like, say, a colony of bats, which consists of physically separated individual entities, each with its own genetic makeup and having grown from its own separate zygote, and the misleadng term “colony” should never have been applied to bryozoans in the first place. Similarly, “colonial” corals, Portuguese Men-o-War (or whatever the plural should be) are not colonies, in spite of what textbooks will tell you. Neither are the unicellular organisms of the genera Volvox or Eudorina, because they have interconneting strands of “protoplasm,” and thus continuity of living material. I published on this years ago, but because it was just an abstract in a low circulation journal, it’s been ignored. I may get around to saying more in the literature one of these days.

  7. Bob Jase
    October 13, 2016 at 4:24 PM

    Sounds fascinating – no sarcasm.

  8. Russian Skeptic
    November 7, 2016 at 11:01 AM

    Why, it really looks Ediacaran!

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