April 23 2017
(Oregon Coast) – Volunteers for CoastWatch and other experts along the Oregon coast have been puzzled as of late by an abundance of filament-like objects strewn along the beaches, often in sizable piles. They are tiny – about one to two centimeters long – which makes those blobs of them a little more remarkable. (Photo above by Tiffany Boothe of Seaside Aquarium: a close-up of the cellophane worm casings that looke like filaments).
CoastWatch members – who comb the beaches with expert eyes to make observations - had been finding them for the last month or so, and were getting increasingly stumped. Until CoastWatch Volunteer Coordinator and scientist Fawn Custer popped up with an answer, that is.
They are the casings of the cellophane worm, a tiny critter with many rings around it, that lives just below the surface of the sand and is covered in a tube. Known as Spiochaetopterus costarum, the cellophane worms' casings get knocked off of them during high surf events and pile up on the shore. The creatures themselves disappear back beneath the surface, however. (Photo at right by Custer).
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It comes down to the creatures being taken by surprise by the way sand levels have built up over recent years, then suddenly getting bounced around when their new real estate suddenly turns out to be too close to a raucous surface.
"The last few years the beaches have been building up sand, but this year because of more storm surges, it's been scouring out more sand," Custer said. "They're always there anyway, just below the surface of the sand. But with the sand levels built higher up, and then more scouring out, they get exposed more."
The animals are a little less than an inch long and about the width of hair. The casings themselves are about one inch long as well. Once onshore they dry out into those filaments or fibers now being found.
"They feel like hair," she said. "They're very pliable. You can squeeze them."
Cellophane worms live just beyond the low tide line, where the tubes sit near or just above the surface of the sand and suck in their food, which is tiny bits of formerly living matter in the ocean. When the tubes come off, they grow another by secreting a kind of goo that eventually hardens back into another tube.
Why so many? Custer said the populations of them are just quite large. Those higher sand levels played a bad trick on them and left them vulnerable to this year's sudden shift in more scouring. Winter sand levels were much lower in the last decade, until about four years ago. During that time, you didn't see so many as they managed to keep ahead of the consistently lowering sand levels.
This year, they were so high up in the massive sand levels they just weren't prepared for all that storm action and more of them lost their casings. Where to stay in this area - Where to eat - Maps and Virtual Tours. More Oregon coast science.