Deep in the oceans of the southern hemisphere exist 60-foot long tubular creatures that undulate through the water. They’re called pyrosomes, and they’re basically the ocean’s Borg.
A pyrosome is actually a colony of zooids, a kind of marine invertebrates only about half an inch long. It’s how these individual organisms Voltron into a giant pyrosome that is both fascinating and creepy.
Think of the Borg, an alien race of cyborg drones bent on assimilating other species into its hive-mind with the goal “achieving perfection.” A pyrosome is like the Borg if you took out the malicious intent and added cloning. One pyrosome isn’t made of hundreds of thousands of individual organisms latching onto or binding together. One pyrosome is actually a long collection of clones, and each clone is capable of cloning itself again to add more mass to the colony. And while the Borg connects through a hive-mind, the clones that make up the pyrosome colony actually share body tissues.
This means the colony doesn’t live in a menacing spaceship, it is the ship.
A pyrosome colony is shaped like a giant tube, closed to a point on one end (this is the front end) and open on the other end (the back end), sometimes with a tail poking out. The walls of this tube are the colony — the individuals (clones) are embedded in a gelatinous material. Their mouths face outwards from the tube, giving them easy access to take in water. They pass that water through their “stomachs” to filter out anything edible, namely plankton, then squirt the filtered water out their other side into the space within the tube. They are nature’s oddest-looking filter feeders.
This action of sucking in and spitting out water not only helps the colony keep its shape, it’s how the colony moves. You can think about it like a pulsing jet. A jet generates propulsive force by directing the power of an explosion in the opposite direction of motion. Now replace the explosion with water. If a single organism takes in water and spits it out, the force of that spitting will move the organism forward in fits and starts; it will only move when it’s spitting water. But the pyrosome’s impressive population means members are always taking in and spitting out water. This azure tube is constantly moving, albeit extremely slowly.
So while they look completely terrifying, pyrosomes are innocuous and delicate; a gentle wave carries enough force to tear one apart. They’re also exceedingly rare, earning the nickname of unicorns of the sea. And, thankfully, they’re also highly unlikely to try and assimilate you into their colony should you find yourself swimming too close to one.
IMAGE: Mr. Roger Fenwick