A marine mystery for the uninitiated

sea pork IMG_0159_1©Maria de Bruyn resFor my friends who know me as a staunch vegetarian, it might come as a surprise that I have become fascinated with sea pork (Aplidium stellatum). It is one of the most colorful yet odd forms of sea life I have personally encountered.

My introduction to this interesting creature occurred on Topsail Island in May 2013, where I found two specimens on the beach.

Sea pork IMG_7631© Maria de Bruynres sea pork IMG_7029© Maria de Bruyn

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Then, on 19 January this year, I saw some sea pork again – oodles and oodles of it, actually, accompanied by sea liver as well!

So what is sea pork, you might ask? Each blob or globule is a tunicate: an invertebrate animal that can be one individual or a collection of individuals that reproduce to form colonies measuring an inch or more in height. The larvae look a bit like tadpoles until they join to create the colonies, living in water-filled sac-like structures that are rubbery or cartilaginous to the touch.

sea pork IMG_0152_1©Maria de Bruyn ressea pork IMG_0161_1©Maria de Bruyn resThese creatures are marine filter feeders. The sacs have two tubular siphons, through which water is drawn in and expelled during feeding and respiration. The zooids extract nutrients from the water.

What are zooids? These are the reddish-colored individuals that form a colony. You can see them in circular groups under the sac’s tunic, which varies in color, including creamy pinks, orange, green, red, lavender, deep purple and black. The colonies can become large, spreading 12 inches or more and weighing up to 10 pounds.

sea pork IMG_0153_1©Maria de Bruyn res sea pork IMG_0154_1©Maria de Bruyn res
Sea pork was given this name because the rubbery tunic bleaches to white, resembling salt pork or fatback, after the colony dies. While alive, sea pork is eaten by bottom-dwelling fish, sharks and skates.

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Apparently other creatures also find a home on sea pork, including barnacles and sea whips (Leptogorgia).

Sea pork with barnacle IMG_0141_1©Maria de Bruyn ressea pork and sea whip IMG_0126_1©Maria de Bruyn resSea liver (Eudistoma hepaticum) looks similar to sea pork, but the tunic is softer. It is said to feel slimy in comparison to sea pork but the consistency seemed the same to me.

sea liver IMG_0186_1©Maria de Bruyn ressea pork IMG_0147_1©Maria de Bruyn resHowever, the difference may be more apparent when they are in their natural habitat, fastened to the sea floor or some other substrate rather than torn loose from their underground homes and cast ashore.

I spent some time throwing live sea pork back into the ocean until I came on a stretch of beach that was covered with these blobs; I hoped the tide would come in and carry the creatures back to their watery homes where they might continue their colonial lives.


unknown alga IMG_0177_1©Maria de Bruyn resI now have a query in to a Smithsonian marine botanist for help in identifying this organism. A scientist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences ruled it out as a marine invertebrate and said he and colleagues surmised it is a marine alga. Suggested IDs are welcome!


The squatter family: those cute – and seemingly precocious – little Carolina chickadees!

Carolina chickadee IMG_3138©Maria de BruynresI have two bird boxes in my yard designed to attract brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla). While I do have these birds at my feeders, they have not deigned to create nests in the boxes; one is still empty and the other was occupied by a family of squatters – darling little Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis). I don’t know if this pair had had kids together before, but sometimes these birds retain their bonds for several years.

In addition to the nuthatch boxes, I have five bluebird boxes and cCarolina chickadee eggs IMG_4429©Maria de Bruynhickadees had begun nests in two others. It is not uncommon for them to begin a couple nests and then finally settle on one. On 12 April, I discovered that Mom had laid five white with brown-specked eggs in a nice soft nest made of moss, soft grasses and some down, even using a bit of pillow stuffing I had left out for interested nest-builders.

Ten days later, 22 April, I opened the box to see if everything was ok and surprised her sitting on the nest. (I had tapped on the box beforehand in case she would want to leave for a bit; didn’t happen!) She gazed at me in alarm and then began dipping her head and beating her wings against the nest; this is called a snake display to warn off predators.

Carolina chickadee IMG_4623©Maria de BruynCarolina chickadee IMG_4624©Maria de Bruynres

Carolina chickadee nestlings IMG_4680©Maria de BruynresTwo days later, I opened the box and discovered the eggs had hatched – I think she had been brooding them two days earlier since the babies didn’t seem quite as naked as I expected. That would mean they hatched after only about 10 days (and the average seems to be 12-15 days of incubation according to websites).

Both parents take on feeding their offspring. In warmer weather, they search for insects among foliage and under tree bark, sometimes hanging upside down to get a meal. This pair also visited the nearby feeders, obviously intent on teaching their young that suet, dried meal worms and seeds are also good to eat.

carolina chickadee IMG_6507©Maria de BruynCarolina chickadee IMG_3021©Maria de Bruyncarolina chickadee IMG_6378©Maria de Bruyn

Carolina chickadee IMG_3129©Maria de Bruyncarolina chickadee IMG_6702©Maria de Bruyn

Like the nuthatches and robins, the parents were also fastidious about cleaning the nest; and these almost full-grown young seemed to be pooping a lot!

Carolina chickadee IMG_6420©Maria de BruynCarolina chickadee IMG_6430©Maria de Bruynrescarolina chickadee IMG_6380©Maria de Bruyn
The young usually fledge about 16-19 days after hatching. If these birdlets had hatched on 22 April, I figured they would be ready to leave the nest around 7 May. Despite being sick with an infection that was keeping me mostly supine, I couldn’t let the opportunity for observation go by. So on the 5th of May, I roused myself for a sit-down in the yard in the early afternoon. I first waited until the parents had both left and carefully lifted the bird box door to see a bright-eyed, pretty much full-grown chick staring at me. S/he scooted back and it looked like there were only two others – so the other two siblings had already fledged. This did seem to be a very precocious family!

Carolina chickadee nestling IMG_4820©Maria de BruynresCarolina chickadee nestling IMG_4824©Maria de Bruynres

Carolina chickadee IMG_6407©Maria de BruynThis might be one of the chicks that fledged earlier. When a fledgling is begging for food, it quivers its wings rapidly. Females also do this before the young leave the nest when they want the male to feed them.

Because I was feeling fairly ill, I had to stop watching the parents go to and fro after a couple hours. On 6 May, I ventured outside in the early afternoon, hoping against hope that I might just be lucky enough to see the last chicks fledge. And I did!

Each chickcarolina chickadee IMG_6817©Maria de Bruyn spent time looking out of the box before venturing out. One took a flying leap and swerved up into a tree.




No. 2 spent some time calling (the parents were still coming in regularly with meals!), then launched itself and landed on some nearby branches.

carolina chickadee IMG_6810©Maria de Bruyncarolina chickadee IMG_6831©Maria de Bruyn

No. 3 spent time flexing its wings before venturing forth.

carolina chickadee IMG_6894©Maria de Bruyncarolina chickadee IMG_6939©Maria de Bruyn
I did check the box to be sure they were all out and then watched as the parents called to them as they flitted about the various trees behind the nest box. If I’d felt better, I would have stayed to observe a bit longer but I was pretty satisfied with having seen the fledging!.

carolina chickadee IMG_6951©Maria de Bruynres

The next morning, a pair of Carolina wrens was already bringing in twigs and placing them atop the chicarolina chickadee IMG_7357©Maria de Bruynresckadees’ nest (after removing some remaining fecal matter). One chickadee ventured back to peer into the box but the wren pair loudly chased the original owner away.




All in all, some very cool days, with some mental delight balancing out the physical distress for me.

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And for those who want more details on chickadees’ lives, see: