You may have noticed, scattered around the shorelines of Marion County Lake, gelatinous— and perhaps vaguely brain-like— round blobs of various sizes, floating on or near the surface of the water.
In stark contrast to the quite dangerous blue-green algae blooms found in various water bodies during the warmer summer months— and which consist not of algae but rather bacteria called cyanobacteria— these blobs are colonies of harmless organisms of the species pectinetella magnifica, which belong to the phylum bryozoa, or “moss animals.”
For those unfamiliar with the term, a phylum is the second-most broad category of life after kingdom— such as plant or animal— that exists in nature.
They are classified with similar organisms according to the means by which they feed– a generally horseshoe-shaped, tentacle-like structure known as a lophophore, which helps them capture their food. Each individual member of the bryozoan colony filters microscopic plants known as phytoplankton—each of which only measures only about 1/1800th of an inch— from the surrounding water.
“They are not new to the lake,” said Isaac Hett, superintendent of Marion County Park and Lake. “They have been around a very long time.”
Nor are these creatures remotely new to the earth itself. According to the Kansas Geological Survey, fossils of bryozoans— of which a minimum of 3,500 living species and around 15,000 extinct species exist— have been been found in rocks dating back to about 470 million years. Within our state, they tend to be more commonly found in the eastern part.
Similarly to coral, bryozoans reproduce asexually, through a process known as budding, and all the members of a colony are clones of the founding member, known as an ancestrula. Most species tend to form either round, globular structures such as those found at the lake, or branching structures— the type quite frequently seen in fossils.
Most bryozoans are marine creatures, but a small number of species— somewhere between 20 and 100, according to various sources— are freshwater species, such as those found at the Marion County Lake.
A recent Facebook post by the Marion County Park and Lake Department had mentioned sightings of these colonies and advised of their harmlessness.
“I don’t think they’ve gone unnoticed as much as there had just been a lack of knowledge as to what they actually were,” Hett said.