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Collecting seashells on the beaches of Sanibel, Captiva and the world

Sanibel Sea Squirt Spectacle

Posted by on Sep 17, 2014 in Sandy-Skinned Sea Squirt Tunicate, Sea Squirt, Tunicate | 18 comments

Blind Pass Sanibel beach covered in sea squirts

As I walked down the beach path from the parking lot at Blind Pass Sanibel (Turner Beach) to get a glimpse of what treasures would be left on the beach after 2 days of nice west winds coming off the Gulf Of Mexico…. I stopped in my tracks when I saw the beach covered in brown “Beach Bling“. My first instinct was to laugh. I was reminded of the funniest scene EVER in the movie Caddy Shack… you know it…. “Doooooodie!”

Sea Squirt Tunicates cover Sanibel beach

My second thought was “Cool! SEA SQUIRTS!”. So no, it wasn’t “doodie” or “turd balls” as someone called them but at first sight they sure do look like it heehee. They are SANDY-SKINNED TUNICATES (Molgula occidentalis) commonly called SEA SQUIRTS because they squirt out sea water when you touch or squeeze them. FYI- They won’t hurt you!

Sandy Skinned tunicate sea squirt

SEA SQUIRTS are common to see in our waters of SW Florida but this was very unusual to see the masses like this…. even after high west winds. Of course we normally see masses of shells littering the beach after a good west blow but Mother Nature always has a way of teaching us to always expect the unexpected. This is what keeps me beach combing! I loooooove to see and learn about new things that wash up on our beaches because we get a peek at what’s on the bottom of the Gulf Of Mexico and in our estuaries. These are in the same family as SEA PORK- they are both TUNICATES. Even though this may not be as pretty as one of our Sanibel seashells, TUNICATES are important creatures for our natural waters… theY are tasty treats for TULIPS SHELLS, STINGRAYS and SEA TURTLES.

Sandy-skinned tunicates Molgula occidentalis

Speaking of pretty Sanibel shells, I combed through the spectacle of SQUIRTS just as a few other “unafraid” beach combers did…

sifting through beach drift sea squirts Sanibel Island Flordia

… to find a few lovely treasures. Yes! I found a gorgeous double FALSE ANGEL WING and a sweet juvie STIFF PEN SHELL among the SQUIRTS.

false angel wing, pen shell and sea squirts

Ooooooh and I found a pretty purple SEA WHIP… with a bonus!

one-tooth simnia, sea whip, false angel wing, sea squirts

There was a dried ONE-TOOTH SIMNIA attached to it.

One-tooth simnia on sea whip

Before I answer some of those questions you have about the TUNICATES, you can see for yourself what it looked like on the beach since …. I have video so you can see the SEA SQUIRT squirt! I said some obvious and stuff so I got embarrassed and had to make fun of myself- so ignore the “Duuuhh”. I was in a mood, I guess – eeeek! LOL 

Cool, huh? I’m glad we don’t have smell-a-vision yet because, yes… it was stinky. Some of them were in the sun too long so they were dried out and smelly- just like what happened to STARFISH and MOLLUSKS when they start to decay. It’s just what happens in nature. And no, TUNICATES are not something that is left over from an oil spill. I have seen lots of SEA SQUIRTS on Sanibel after different storms like this past April when my friend Lori and her daughter Hayley came to visit. Hayley loved to pick through all of that Beach Bling but especially loved the little SEA SQUIRTS.

Hayley with sea squirt tunicates

sea squirt tunicate at gulf side city park sanibel

Of the 5 years I’ve been documenting Blind Pass, I’ve never seen them in mass quantities like this there- only on the mid to east end of Sanibel… but then I’ve never experienced such a long spell of constant east winds during the summer before either. My theory? And remember, I’m no scientist! But I have read that TUNICATES are filter feeders and the Molgula occidentals habitat is inside decaying mangrove roots or on a vertical bank of roots and sediments. To me, that sounds like the Pine Island Sound side of Blind Pass which makes sense because if you think about it… for over 2 months of constant east wind, they were probably pushed around from the sound side towards the mouth of Blind Pass then bottle-necked through it to the Gulf from the sound. Then finally the west winds came and their light and “watery” bodies get tossed back in that same area on the beach. Dunno, but does that make sense? Its exactly how different beds of shells get tossed back on the beach. We see that all the time!

But one last fun fact to leave you with… TUNICATES have a lot in common with humans. Yep! During early development of both humans and TUNICATES, we both have a rigid notochord (early stages of of a spinal cord!) and a hollow nerve cord. So that means TUNICATES are more closely related to humans than to a STARFISH or SEA URCHIN. Food for thought, huh? LOL

Sanibel beach with strandings of Sandy skinned tunicates

I have been in close contact with research scientist Dr. Richard Bartleson at the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation Marine Lab (who gave me the positive identification of SANDY-SKINNED TUNICATE) to learn more about them and where they may have come from. So when I know more, I will add to this post.

 

 

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