What the heck is that?

The Magnificent bryozoan is one of the creepiest creatures at the lake. Photo by Kenneth Boone

Creepy Lake Martin creature is 500 million years old

Some animals are universally branded as “creepy.”

That’s certainly the case with the Magnificent bryozoan, which looks a lot like a translucent star of the classic 1958 horror movie aptly named The Blob. (The original blob was red.) If you haven’t seen The Blob, just imagine a misshapen brain.

Upping the creep factor is that this animal – or more properly these animals – live underwater and often appear as round, strange, hard-to-make-out shapes beneath the surface.

And they tend to be most obvious around Halloween in this part of the country.

But in fact, there’s nothing really creepy about the Magnificent bryozoan except its looks.

Bryozoans have been hanging around on Earth for quite some time: 500 million years. That’s roughly 495 million years longer than humans, give or take a million or two.

Scientists call the bryozoan colony pictured here Pectinatella magnifica.

Those who know about it – and most people, even those who live on Lake Martin, apparently do not – call it Magnificent bryozoan, a fancy name for a very basic life form.

Think of Magnificent bryozoan as a gelatinous condo. This structure is comprised of a large number of small invertebrate creatures living together in a roundish-shaped colony, much like the saltwater brain corals; however, bryozoans are not related to corals, though they do occupy a similar niche in the marine environment.

When you hold a Magnificent bryozoan, it feels like dense, heavy gelatin. The surface of the colony is divided into a number of “rosettes” that are quite visible to the naked eye and make it look brain-like. Magnificent bryozoan colonies can appear translucent white, but more often, they have a translucent brown color, and the colony is covered with a slimy coating.  If you bring it out of the water, it will likely smell very fishy.

Each rosette is made up of 10-18 individuals, which are hard to see without magnification. The colony breaks easily into smaller pieces, but it’s more substantial than you might think.

When dropped back into the water, a Magnificent bryozoan colony is slightly buoyant and will likely float, or at least hover in mid-water, until currents push it up against the bank.

The colony is made up mostly of water – close to 99 percent water.

Most of the time, Magnificent bryozoan colonies start on a branch or pipe or some other submerged object, and they grow out to several feet in diameter. This has caused problems where the colony starts near the opening of a water intake pipe and eventually chokes off the water flow.

Upping the creep factor a bit is the fact that colonies have been known to move over short distances by creeping along the structure to which they are attached.

These animals were once found only in warm, shady, slow-moving bodies of water east of the Mississippi River; however, they now have been spotted in the western states and in Europe, Canada and Asia. Outside of their native geography, they are sometimes considered an invasive species.

Magnificent bryozoan are ancient, primitive and simple animals. Individuals are called zooids. Each is shaped like a cup, with tiny tentacles on the cup’s rim. The tentacles are covered in hair-like structures called cilia, which collect free-floating phytoplankton and bring them into the cup, where they are consumed.

These animals can reproduce sexually and without the help of a partner by basically cloning itself.

But when the water temperature drops below 60 degrees, the colony disintegrates, the hard seed-like reproductive structures called “statoblasts” are released into the water. These free-floating statoblasts have tiny hooks that allow them to latch onto other objects or even birds and animals, which in turn can transfer the animals to new bodies of water.

The statoblasts can survive drying and freezing in a dormant state until they are deposited into water and the temperature warms enough for the zooids to hatch out and begin new colonies.

There are 19 recognized species of freshwater bryozoan species, and the Magnificent bryozoan forms the largest colonies of all.

These animals are completely harmless to people – forget about The Blob – and some saltwater species are even suspected to have properties that could help fight cancer in humans.

So if you see a translucent brown blob around the edge of the lake, don’t get too creeped out.