Why This Freshwater 'Blob' Is Going Viral

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Despite their bizarre appearance, bryozoan colonies do not pose any serious threat to humans or ecosystems. . (Photo: Jomegat/Creative Commons 3.0)

After hundreds of millions of years of existence here on Earth, bryozoans are finally getting their moment in the spotlight.

The brain-shaped blob, composed of thousands or even millions of smaller creatures called zooids, went viral around the world last week after Celina Starnes from the Stanley Park Ecology Society chanced across one in Lost Lagoon, Vancouver. A video below showing her reaching down to pick up and examine the bizarre, gelatinous species quickly racked up more than half a million views.

A Strange Blob

“It’s kind of like three-day-old Jello — a bit firm but gelatinous,” she said.

Starnes reaction was quite similar to my own perplexed/alarmed sentiments when my father-in-law pulled one up while fishing in central New York last summer. As you can see in the picture below, we quipped at the time that the sticks and other strange features made the thing look like some kind of gooey, otherworldly dog.

A bryozoan colony can include hundreds to thousands of tiny, gooey organisms called zooids.
A bryozoan colony can include hundreds to thousands of tiny, gooey organisms called zooids. (Photo: Michael dEstries)

Harmless to Humans

Fortunately, like other bizarre zooid colonies we've profiled before, bryozoans are harmless to humans. For the 500 million years or so they've floated around the planet, their chief purpose has been filtering nutrients from water and thriving in lakes and ponds in waters warmer than 60 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, their presence is often equated with good water quality.

Under the right conditions, bryozoan can double their numbers every four days and are capable of creating floating colonies approaching four feet in diameter. When cooler temperatures arrive, the colony dissolves and disperses floating reproductive statoblasts. These masses of cells can remain dormant for large periods of time, surviving both freezing and drying. Once favorable conditions return, the statoblasts germinate and the resulting zooids repeat the entire process all over again.

The species discovered in Vancouver, called P. magnifica, often attaches itself to submersed logs and other objects, but is also one of the few bryozoan that can survive in a free-floating state. Of the 3,500 living species known of bryozoan, only 50 thrive in freshwater.