Twigs, other debris get woven by the ocean itself into this mysterious tangled mess

A “beach tangleball” – a tangled clump of twigs, pine needles and other natural debris woven by ocean waves.
A “beach tangleball” – a tangled clump of twigs, pine needles and other natural debris woven by ocean waves. Cape Lookout National Seashore

It almost looks like the ocean’s version of a tumbleweed. Or maybe an especially messy bird nest.

Officials at the Cape Lookout National Seashore say the tangled clumps of twigs, pine needles and other natural debris are called “beach tangleballs.”

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In a post on the national seashore’s Facebook page, officials explained what the mess of tangled plant matter is and how it forms.

“The ocean weaves these balls out of various bits of plants such as pine needles and thin twigs. (Did you know that the ocean was so talented?)“ according to seashore officials.

The balls keep their shape even outside the water once they’ve been pushed up on the beach by the waves that helped weave them.

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Sometimes small animals can attach themselves to the bristly bundles.

“If you look closely at this one, you can see a small clam that had attached itself to the ball material before it came ashore,” seashore officials wrote. By the time the tangleball in the photo was brought to seashore officials it was too late to return the little clam to the ocean, officials added.

“If you find a fresh ball (recently arrived on the beach) with little critters attached, then yes, put them back in the water,” officials said.

Several people commented that they mistook the tangleball for bed head.

“I thought it was someone’s hair first thing in the morning,” Gill Deacon wrote.

“Amazing nature! At first I thought it was on top of someone’s head,” Linda Linsenbach wrote.

Others said they weren’t familiar with the balls on Carolina shores.

“Been seeing them a lot since Florence ... don’t remember ever seeing them before,” Brenda Peele Morse wrote.

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There’s an island off the North Carolina coast near Morehead City, Beaufort and the Rachel Carson Reserve that disappears and reappears with the tides and it’s home to sand dollars.

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News & Observer reporter Abbie Bennett is a charter member of the McClatchy Carolinas real-time team. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and has won awards for her investigative, politics and breaking news reporting.