The East Coast of the United States has been getting some strange new visitors on its beaches. Originally thought to be a weird new variety of jellyfish, the tiny, clear blobs have a closer relationship to humans than to jellyfish. The gelatinous lumps appearing along the coast of New England have been identified as salps—small, blobby creatures that may play a protective role in climate change.
Salps, while thought to be dangerous by beachgoers, are actually harmless, according to Larry Madin, Executive VP and Director of Research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution of Massachusetts. They are in a taxonomy known as tunicates: creatures that have a primitive backbone which jellyfish lack. They create salp larva asexually in early stages of reproduction, in long chains of clones. Madin urges observers to understand the difference between the innocent salp and more menacing underwater critters, such as the Portuguese man-of-war or box jellies, which are highly dangerous to humans.
So, how can these gooey little ocean-dwellers help fight against climate change? The quick reproductive cycle of salps allows for large amounts of clones to take to the seas, hungry for large algae blooms. Algae consume carbon dioxide, which the salps then consume and process in to fecal pellets, which sink to the bottom of the ocean floor, taking the carbon with them and removing it from the carbon cycle. With the warming of the oceans, researchers are noticing that phytoplankton are becoming smaller. Salps can take on phytoplankton of this size, unlike larger creatures, such crustaceans. This is a hopeful fact and a pretty impressive example of how Mother Nature adapts, allowing some of her children to clean up the mess others have made.