August Sightings

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My Mom often remarked about the odd fact that there’s usually a wide range of opinions—and very adamant ones at that—about what kind of weather we’ve experienced over the past season. Unless things change radically over the next two weeks, this summer will be remembered as an outstanding one in the weather category. Not too hot, very little rain, and very low humidity … in my opinion.On top of that, the ocean has been clear and warm, with better than average surf in July and August. Last week’s tropical storm Bertha brought a convergence of four elements that we rarely see: overhead surf, no wind, warm water, and clear, sunny skies.

The long spacing between overhead sets made for an easy paddle out. Based on the reports at last Wednesday’s Surfrider event, Surf Movie Night at Guild Hall, surf conditions were outstanding everywhere: all the usual spots in Montauk, huge barrels at Georgica, Road G and Fly’s, and the ebb shoal off Moriches Inlet.

An unusual creature showed up on the heels of the big surf, possibly pushed ashore by the tropical storm as it passed the area. This was the clear, marble-size, jelly-like organism that glistened in the sunlight on the ocean wrack line. Masses of the harmless animals were felt by swimmers, prompting lots of questions over the weekend: What is this?

Some people noticed the comma-shaped, small purple-brown structure at one end of the clear jelly and were convinced they were fish eggs. Others suspected they were swimming among juvenile jellyfish. A few astute observers noticed that the individual jellies formed necklace-like chains in the water.

When these washed ashore last August, former South Fork Natural History Society executive director and one of the most knowledgeable naturalists on Long Island, Jim Ash, was the only person I contacted who knew exactly what it was: a salp.

Salps are a type of tunicate. Tunicates are a strange group of animals that are in the same phylum as fish, mammals and other vertebrates (bony animals) because their larvae have a notochord just as vertebrate embryos have. Mature salps are barrel-shaped, transparent, planktonic animals that have an opening at either end. One siphons water in by way of contracting muscle bands (visible) surrounding the organism. Microscopic food collects on an internal, mucous-covered structure before passing out the other end. This water-pumping action provides some degree of jet propulsion, and this is synchronized among the 28 or so individuals that comprise a chain of salps.

The two common orders found here are pelagic, warm water species that are usually offshore. Joe Warren of Stony Brook University studies salps, among other marine organisms and processes. He pointed out that he conducts plankton tows in Shinnecock Bay and in the ocean just outside the inlet every year. Most, but not all, August and September tows pick up salps.

Joe’s primary research interest is in ocean zooplankton ecology, and his interest in salps stems from the fact that they are a key predator of ocean zooplankton and are considered to be the fastest growing multicellular organisms in the world. Salps can exploit phytoplankton blooms and large masses of zooplankton by doubling their population in hours. Recent research indicates that salps are becoming more numerous in the waters surrounding Antarctica, and may be causing a reduction in krill populations, which could have a huge impact on marine mammals and penguins found there.

For more information about salps, including their unusual reproductive biology, check the column I wrote about them in last year’s August 29 issue.

A number of folks—Eric Salzman, Jim Ash, Juliana Duryea and Ceal Havemeyer—reported seeing their first Monarch butterflies of the year last week. During the course of a two-hour bike ride on Sunday, I spotted five of them. But this does not bode well for the species, which has apparently suffered a dramatic population decline.

Katydids started calling last week, and the fairly large raft of scoters, identified by Jim Ash as black scoters, that’s been drifting just off East Hampton’s ocean beaches last week is most likely a group that has gone through a complete molt and is unable to fly.

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