Strange ‘Pancake-Batter’ Creatures Are Scaring Swimmers In Maine

As water temperatures rise, so will the population of sea squirts in Maine.

Image of the coastline at Eastport in Maine
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As water temperatures rise, so will the population of sea squirts in Maine.

There’s nothing quite like taking a dip in the ocean. The water is warm as you float along minding your own business. This until you see what looks like pancake-batter creatures invading your space.

It sounds like something out of a bad B-grade horror movie. However, for those who enjoy a dip in the Gulf of Maine, this is no laughing matter. These creatures do exist and they are invading the waters in Maine thanks to an increase in water temperatures this year.

According to Fox News, the creatures are called tunicates, or “sea squirts,” and have the appearance of pancake batter. While the common name may be cute, these “jelly-like marine invertebrate” animals are actually multiplying at such a rate this year, thanks to warmer waters, that University of New Hampshire (UNH) researchers think they could lead to a “giant-sized problem.”

One variety of sea squirts, didemnum vexillum, has multiplied considerably recently, according to Larry Harris’ study site at a pier at Estes head in Eastport.

“They are having a banner year this year,” Larry Harris, a zoology professor at UNH, told the Bangor Daily News. “They are out there competing with the seaweeds and [other organisms] on the bottom.”

For swimmers, though, the abundance of them this year can be a frightening experience.

“Those pilings are scary to swim around,” Harris said. “This year they seem to be doing very, very well.”

Sea squirts are only small creatures, measuring in at around two inches each. However, they like to cluster together on the ocean floor. Using a “glue-like substance,” these creatures attach themselves to a variety of different surfaces on the ocean floor.

“Like many invasive species, once they’ve settled in an area, it’s tough to get rid of them,” UHN revealed.

The creatures have been spotted in the Gulf of Maine since the 1980s. However, with temperatures rising, they have started to multiply quickly.

“They are becoming more dominant in many ecosystems on the midcoast for sure — especially on lines, docks, pipes, and buoys left in the water for any period of time,” Rhian Waller, an associate professor at Darling Marine Center, told Bangor Daily News.

“They basically spread in an ecosystem. The larvae settle fast and grow fast, so [they] exclude other organisms, using up all the space for other organisms to settle.”

Considered an invasive species, now that the sea squirts have moved in, it might be hard to bring down numbers. Harris suggests that sea squirts don’t like fresh water and will dry out in the sun if they are attached to items that can be removed from the water, such as oyster crates. However, if the creatures are tethered to static structures such as rocks and coral reefs, it is very hard to deal with them. Crabs and urchins will eat sea squirts. At the moment, though, there appear to be too many sea squirts for the current population of crabs and urchins to deal with.