Way, way back in 2004, Ad Council ran a series of television PSAs aimed at encouraging people to lose weight using subtle shifts to their daily routines. They were pretty clever, but mildly disturbing. In one, a couple in a grocery store discovers a disembodied double chin on the floor. Another shows a guy and his dog in the park, where they come across someone’s butt in the grass. Cute concept, but they remind me uncomfortably of a scene in Blue Velvet. I normally don’t dedicate a lot of time to pondering ads from thirteen years ago, but the first time I saw sea pork on the beach, I was instantly reminded of them.
Fleshy and pink, sea pork resembles a raw, skinless chicken breast. Its consistency, however, is much different. Squeeze it and it resists like a stone, but let it sit in your hand and it slowly conforms to the shape of your fingers. I was instantly fascinated. Animal? Vegetable? Mineral? What was this strange substance in the sand? Luckily, there was an expert nearby. I snapped a few photos and showed them to Dr. Bruce Saul of Augusta University, who regularly conducts fish surveys on the island. When he issued the verdict, “sea pork,” I was a little taken aback. Not only had I never heard of sea pork, but was admittedly grossed out by the name. Surely, I thought, there had to be a better way to describe such a thing.
In marine biology circles, sea pork is known as Aplidium stellatum. It belongs in the animal kingdom, in the family Polyclinidae. This is the same family that the sea squirt belongs to. A quick Google search for sea squirt images will reveal a plethora of brilliantly-colored, etherial creatures, roughly the shape of petite paint roller sponges. The sea pork is not nearly as striking, but reportedly comes in purple, red, green, yellow, white, and pink. Pink is the most common color on the shores of St. Catherines, but I've seen one each of the green and white persuasion as well. The lumps I find on the beach are actually the rubbery tunic - a cellulose-containing exoskeleton - of a colony of clones.
Sea pork begins life in egg form. When the egg hatches, out comes a tadpole-shaped larva. The larva swims around until it finds a suitable place to call home - usually a rock, dock, or shell just deep enough in the ocean to still be covered by water at low tide. There, it anchors itself and starts to metamorphose, becoming an animal called a zooid. All of these zooids are hermaphrodites. That means that they've each got an ovum and a testis, but sea pork has only one of each. That individual zooid will reproduce by budding (like yeast) again and again until there's a large cluster of zooids sharing the same tunic. Unlike a lot of sea creatures in the same family, the sea pork doesn't grow in any particular pattern or shape. One of the most interesting facts I came across was in a 2009 Cole and Lambert paper called Tunicata (Urochordata) of the Gulf of Mexico and published by Texas A&M. The paper says that, "Tunicates [named after the tunic they secrete] also contain a tubular heart that beats in one direction, stops, and starts beating in the opposite direction." The little zooids eat by filtering out tiny organisms in the seawater and are food, in turn, for stingrays and sea turtles (and apparently longnosed spider crabs too).
So curious was I about sea pork, that I brought home the next lump I found, put it on a plate in the kitchen and sort of let it sit. Gradually, water seeped out of it and filled the plate. Roommate number three was deeply disturbed by the vaguely meat-like substance sitting on the kitchen counter. I decided, after learning that the zooids vacate the tunic before it gets washed ashore, that I'd take a look at the inside of it. The inside is not much more remarkable than the outside, I'm afraid. Thankfully, it didn't smell like anything worse than briny seawater, even after a few days on the counter. Just another bizarre form of life washed ashore on an ever-surprising island beach. The underwater world is endlessly fascinating, even from the perspective of a landlubber like myself. I've found a sea cucumber and a few sea pansies, in addition to shrimp, predatory snails, and keyhole urchins. Wading ankle-deep in the warm Atlantic waters, looking for signs of life is a great cool-down from my afternoon jogs. If I can manage to keep those up, maybe someone will find my love handles in the sand.