A photo of Salpa fusiformis, with internal organs labeled. This year, salps… (Peter J. Bryant )
This summer, a pair of kayakers in Orange County came across some extremely odd-looking creatures — gelatinous inch-long blobs, so transparent you could see their hearts beating, strung together in long chains floating gently through the ocean waves.
The boaters had no clue what the things were, so they called a friend who might know: Peter Bryant, a former cancer researcher at UC Irvine who now maintains a catalog of flora and fauna in the area.
Bryant was stumped. His wildlife website Natural History of Orange County — which started as a chronicle of butterflies and now includes ferns, flowering plants, mammals, fungi, fish, lizards and more — didn’t include anything that looked like these odd animals.
Eventually, asking around, Bryant figured out that they were called salps. It didn’t take long to figure out why he had never seen them before. The last major influx in California occurred about 25 years ago.
Salps are a kind of animal known as a tunicate, which filters water to get its food. They’re glassy in appearance, with visible internal organs and a strange reproductive cycle that results in the long strings of individual organisms.
This summer’s salp explosion might be related to relatively warm ocean temperatures, which make waters hospitable to green algae that the salps like to eat. This year, Bryant said, the waves at some Southern California beaches have looked “like green foam” because of the large algal blooms. The salps, which feed on the algae, are following the chow.
Salps have “been regarded as really opportunistic animals that can respond to a bloom of algae much faster than any other herbivore,” Bryant said, adding that one scientific paper reported that the salp population can increase two and a half times in a single day. In April, seawater filters at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo got clogged up with salps, forcing Pacific Gas and Electric to curtail operations.
Ultimately, with the help of Joanne and Doug Schwartz, the kayakers who first asked him about the animals, Bryant identified and put together Web pages about the species Salpa fusiformis, Cyclosalpa affinis and Thalia rhomboides for his natural history site.
He also put together a page about pyrosomes, another tunicate spotted in the area this year.
“We really do live in a biodiversity hot spot,” said Bryant, who is now monitoring bivalves, double-shelled mollusks, around Newport Bay. “I’ve been interested in documenting that as much as possible. Maybe people will care more about it if they know more about it.”
But if you’re hoping to see a salp this year, Bryant said, you’re probably out of luck. The creatures have already gone away.