Come Sail Away…

The object in this photo is not an oddly-shaped bit of blue plastic.

Several of these have washed up on our beaches in the past few weeks, the result of winds blowing them out of their normal range to the south.  My boss said it was the first time she’d ever seen them here.  This creature is a by-the-wind sailor, or Velella velella, a member of the same phylum of animals as jellyfish and anemones.  The flap sticking up is exactly what the name suggests: a sail.  It lives on the surface of the ocean and drifts wherever the wind takes it, dangling long tentacles down into the water to catch food.

Until these washed up here I had no idea animals like this even existed.

When I looked up Velella on Wikipedia I discovered the existence of a whole community of strange animals adapted for life on the surface of the Earth’s oceans, at the interface of water and air.  There is a predatory snail that floats upside-down at the surface by building itself a raft of chitin and air bubbles.  There is a blue-and-white sea slug with crazy branching appendages that skates on surface tension like a water strider insect.  This is madness.  Sometimes the raw magnificent power of natural selection acting over time takes my breath away.

The best thing about studying natural history is that you never get jaded…

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3 thoughts on “Come Sail Away…”

  1. We get all these washed up on our beaches (east coast of Australia) – usually together en masse, so if you see one you are likely to see all of them – from the deep ocean after storms. They often come in with portuguese men’o’war (or bluebottles), which are the same colour. The first time I saw a glaucus I was blown away – they are so magically silver and blue. It was all crumpled up on the sand, so I put it in a dead bivalve shell with sea water and it unfolded in all its glory.

    Apparently the blue colour of all these animals so vivid to us on the sand makes them more or less invisible in the deep ocean when looked at by predators from underneath – it blends them with the blue sky so that they are camouflaged.

    And Velella have right- or left-handed sails, so they get swept by currents in certain directions – see http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/animals/AnimalDetails.aspx?enc=VsGX+Lst7QbsYfiv29EAGQ==one way

    Fabulous animals!

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