William Feather believed that the “one way to get the most out of life is to look upon it as an adventure.” Mr. Feather was a 20th-century author who wrote and published the book The Business of Life.
He was not alone in his pursuit of and appreciation for adventure. A more contemporary writer, Grey Graham, would likely agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Feather. Grey is an 8-year-old third-grade student and first-rate writer from Pennsylvania who pens and publishes the online blog greysadventures.blogspot.com. In it, he chronicles in words, pictures and videos his escapades to find, catch and identify creatures that call Martha’s Vineyard home, and teach others about his finds.
He might just be the next-generation All Outdoors writer, but luckily I won’t have the competition for a few years.
I met Grey after he came to Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary with a photo of a mystery marine creature. Grey is very conscientious and practices catch and release, so the photo and the description was all we had to go on.
His animal was approximately four inches long, had two siphons on the top, was covered in algae, and had a holdfast that attached it to a dock piling. After hearing the description and looking at a few resources, we identified the creature as a sea squirt, or tunicate, likely Styela clava.
Tunicates, or sea squirts, are quite an interesting organism and might even be considered long-lost cousins to us humans. Biologists classify them in the scientific class Ascidian, a class that resides in the phylum chordate. As chordates are pretty much by definition “animals that have backbones,” one wonders how in the world the invertebrate sea squirt found its way into this phylum.
Blame it on their larvae. Sea squirt larvae have a notochord during their development. Notochords are a precursor to vertebrates, and thus are responsible for the creature’s inclusion in the phylum chordate.
The particular species of sea squirt found by Grey is also known as the Asian stalked sea squirt, clubbed tunicate, or leathery sea squirt, and is (like Grey) not a native Vineyarder. As its name implies, it is an Asian species, one that has become an invader and nuisance around the world.
Its story of dominance in this country starts in California, where it was first found in 1920. This tunicate appeared on the East Coast in Long Island Sound around 1973, and by 1988, it had spread north to Canada and east to Maryland.
By virtue of its prolific breeding and success as a fouling organism, this little squirt has been able to get a foothold in almost every ocean on the planet. The most common method of transport has been on the hulls of boats. Military ships used during the Korean War have been blamed for increasing the epidemic of this invasion in American and European waters.
Shellfish beds, especially those of oysters and mussels, have also played a role in its dispersal, since shellfish are transported and spread into different water bodies. Once established, watch out, since these sea squirts have been known to reach densities of up to 1,500 individuals per single square meter!
Perhaps we can borrow a recipe from the Koreans, who eat this tunicate in soup or in a dish called mideodok-chim (steamed vegetables and sea squirt) to reduce its growing population.
Now that would be quite an adventure in eating! And why not? The adventurous among us know that, as Helen Keller said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Words that Grey and myself — and, apparently, the adventurous sea squirts that found their way across the world — would heartily embrace.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.