South Carolina

Ew! Brain-like blobs washing up on Hilton Head beaches. What are they?

See a tunicate in action underwater

Tunicates, also known as urochordata, tunicata (and by the common names of urochordates, sea squirts, and sea pork) are underwater sac-like filter feeders with incurrent and excurrent siphons, and are part of the phylum Chordata.
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Tunicates, also known as urochordata, tunicata (and by the common names of urochordates, sea squirts, and sea pork) are underwater sac-like filter feeders with incurrent and excurrent siphons, and are part of the phylum Chordata.

You never know what you’re going to discover on Hilton Head beaches.

Some days, the beaches are cluttered with hundreds of dead jellyfish.

Most days, if you look hard enough, you’ll find ghost shrimp poo scattered in tiny, neat piles near the low tide line.

The other day, something much more disgusting washed up on the shore when I was running on Tower Beach — more than a dozen brain-like, pink and orange blobs.

The blobs were slimy— and when I looked closer, some of them were actually moving, as if they were breathing in and out. They looked like a human organ of some sort.

So I did some Googling and reached out to an expert to find out what they were.

What are they exactly?

seapork2.jpg

Their name is actually just as disgusting as they look: sea pork.

Sea pork is a member of the sea squirt (lol) family and is one of the most “evolved of all marine invertebrates” that basically act like natural water filters, pumping out nutrients.

The individual blobs are actually a whole colony of animals working as one to filter water and get food, according to Carlos Chacon, manager of natural history at the Coastal Discovery Museum.

Sea pork wash ashore in large quantities, usually after big storms, Chacon added. So if you see a bunch of them at the beach, it’s likely that seas were rough that day.

Related to humans?

Sea squirts have a primitive brain that helps them navigate through the water, and then the blobs attach to something permanent like a rock or the bottom of a boat. Once they find a permanent resting place, they literally start eating their own brain, according to Psychology Today. Sea pork species are actually related to humans, distantly. They have a nerve similar to the human spinal chord.

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Cognitive scientist Sian Beilock said humans can actually learn a lot about the importance of constant movement from sea squirts. Like sea squirts, human brains function best with lots of movement and activity.

Sea pork is not specifically native to Hilton Head and can be found anywhere along the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Tybee Island Marine Center. Social media posts show people discovering sea pork on beaches in Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina.

Can you touch it?



Sea Pork got its name because when it dies, it turns a pale, clearish-white color, resembling pork lard, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife.

Sea Pork can come in a variety of sizes and colors including pink, purple, black, and even orange, according to the Sanibel Sea School.

But sea squirts/ sea pork can actually cause problems, according to scientists at the University of Florida. While they play an important role in the ecosystem by filtering out plankton, they can spread quickly and invade an area, sometimes harming seafood suppsuc h as oysters and scallops.

Oceanus Magazine described sea squirts as a “horror movie” creature for the way it traps and smothers its prey like shellfish.

But they can’t hurt you, according to experts.

“People shouldn’t worry about touching them, although they are kind of unpleasant and gooey. They aren’t going to sting you,” Dr. Jose Leal of the of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, told the Sanibel-Captiva Islander newspaper.

However, it’s usually best to just leave wildlife alone, particularly when it looks like a brain.

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