Ask the Aquarium: What Are Sea Squirts?
BY SHERRY WHITE
Special to The Pilot
Q. The kids found a hard, kind of rubbery clump of globules in the sound. When squeezed, the clump shoots out streams of water. Any idea what it is?
A. Sounds like their find is a cluster of sea squirts. The giveaway is the "clump" appearance and the ability to shoot streams of water like a water pistol.
Sea squirts are marine animals that, in general, live in colonies. In our area, they're usually flesh colored and often covered with a thin layer of mud or algae.
Clusters are commonly found attached to solid objects like rocks, shells, docks, pilings and debris; however, they can become dislodged and drift about. When disturbed, these oddities contract and shoot streams of water from their siphons - the behavior that earned them their name.
Sea squirts take in seawater through one siphon, strain it for plankton, then squirt it out their other siphon.
Depending on the species, sea squirts can grow from 1? inches to 12 inches in length, vary in color, and live seven to 30 years. Larger species are found in deeper water and can have tentacle-like appendages for catching food particles. Deep-ocean species can trap and digest small animals, including fish and jellyfish.
These filter feeders feel like semi-hard plastic. They frequently have wrinkled, knobby, vein-like exteriors, with shapes ranging from round and bell-shaped to cylindrical and oval.
Sizes vary depending on species. In our area, sea squirts are usually about the size of walnuts or dried prunes. Small worms, shrimp and other marine life often take refuge in the cluster's nooks and crannies.
Because sea squirts firmly affix themselves to solid structures, they're sitting ducks for hungry passersby. Snails, crustaceans and eels are common predators, as are some species of large fish.
The state operates three public aquariums: one in Pine Knoll Shores, another at Fort Fisher and a third on Roanoke Island. The aquariums are administered by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and are designed to inspire appreciation and conservation of North Carolina's aquatic environment.
For more information about the Aquariums, visit www.ncaquariums.com or call (800) 832-FISH.
Sherry White works for the public affairs office of the N.C. Aquariums.
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