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If You Notice This Freakish Creature Washed Up On The Sand, Experts Urge You Not To Get Too Close

Sep 3, 2020

Image: If You Notice This Freakish Creature Washed Up On The Sand, Experts Urge You Not To Get Too Close



Blue dragon (Glaucis Atlanticus) - wikipedia.com
 
Hunter Lane’s beach exploration gets far more exciting as he spies a flash of bright color in the sand according to this article from maternityweek.com. The electric blue creature looks like some kind of jellyfish: has he discovered a new species? The young man scoops it up to show his parents, unaware of the danger he’s carrying.
 
Image: S.Rohrlach/Getty Images
Given the creature’s striking color and strange shape, it’s not hard to see why it drew Hunter’s attention. The animal’s stunning blue hue cuts a stark contrast against golden sandy beaches. Indeed, outlandish creatures such as these must have astonished quite a few unsuspecting Texans when they began washing up on the state’s shores.
 
But it’s not just the alluring shade of one of these mystery lifeforms that interests beach-goers. Its shape, that looks something akin to a dragon, also arouses the curiosity of passers-by. Bizarre wing-like projections that end in darker tips protrude from the side of its body in several different places.
 
Just like Hunter, many people may be under the impression that these things are a species previously unknown to science. While this isn’t the case and experts are aware of these creatures, they are exceptionally rare. As a result, it’s important that visitors heed the advice of wildlife professionals regarding Texas’ beach invaders.
 
To be more specific, the Padre Island National Seashore (PINS) has issued a warning about the creatures. According to the organization, if you see any electric blue wildlife on beaches, you shouldn’t approach them. Stay away and definitely don’t touch them, because these spectacular visitors pose more of a threat than you might think.
 
Hunter didn’t get that message though, and had no idea what he’d found along the shore that day. The seven-year-old boy made his amazing discovery on one of the beaches that form part of Padre Island National Seashore. He was visiting the locale with his parents, Trey and Leah Lane, in May 2020 when he spotted the creatures.
 
In fact, Padre Island officials report that Hunter was one of the first people on the beach to find the rare animals. But what was he combing the beach for in the first place? Trey told CNN that same month that his son’s passion for aquatic animals led him to the discovery.
 
“Hunter loves sea creatures and thought he had found a blue button jellyfish,” Trey later informed TV news network CNN. It was an easy mistake to make, too. Blue button jellyfish not only share a similar color – hence their name – but also grow to roughly the same size as the mysterious creature Hunter found.
 
As a result, Hunter picked up the creature – thankfully using one of his toys – and took it to show his father. On the trip back, the inquisitive boy must have realized that he’d stumbled on something else entirely. “He proclaimed to me that he had discovered a new species,” Trey recalled.
 
Hunter must have been delighted by his find, and there was something about the creature that appealed to him. Leah recalled that her son “really wanted to touch it” because of its squishy-looking appearance. Even at his age, though, Hunter was well-informed enough to know that would have been a mistake.
 
Hunter wisely decided against petting the enchanting animal, which PINS later identified as the Glaucus atlanticus or blue dragon. Furthermore, it wasn’t actually a jellyfish at all, as Hunter had first assumed. Scientifically, the creatures are mollusks, which puts them in the same group as clams, octopuses and even common garden snails.
 
Creatures in the mollusk family are invertebrates, meaning they have soft bodies and no backbones. Some of them, such as snails, have evolved the use of shells to protect their vulnerable forms. Blue dragons, on the other hand, belong to a group of sea slugs which never develop shells called Nudibranchia, or “naked gills”.
 
The name is a reference to the fringed feelers or horn-like appendages that commonly grow on the nudibranch’s back. Although they look akin to protective spines or tentacles, in reality they’re external gills and used for breathing. These mollusks do have tentacles, though.
 
Actually, the nudibranch’s tentacles are called rhinophores, though they’re used in a similar way. Rhinophores commonly grow in pairs on a mollusk’s head and they act as sensory organs. That is to say, nudibranchs use them to feel for and detect potential food sources, which are generally responsible for their usually lurid pigmentation.
 
A blue dragon’s bright body color is typical of nudibranchs, which are generally vivid hues. Although there’s a few drabber specimens, their stunning colors are actually a result of their diet. You see, they’re often found among vibrant deep sea life such as coral and anemones, which serve as their snacks.
 
Alongside the many advantages the nudibranch’s diet provides, it allows them to blend into their surroundings. But don’t let their alluring pigments deceive you – the slugs are aggressive hunters. They’re predators that feast on prey lots of other creatures would rather avoid, and for good reason. That even includes their own species.
 
Considering the blue dragon’s voracious appetite and intimidating name, you might imagine them as deep-sea giants. If that’s the case, then prepare for a surprise, because blue dragons reach just three centimeters in length on average. But while the sea slug can’t breathe fire, it lives up to its namesake.
 
One reason blue dragons are draconic in nature as well as in name is the way they move. With the finger-like appendages on their sides, swimming slugs look like they’re flying through the water. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this, though, is that the blue dragons swim upside down.
 
According to Smithsonian Magazine, these elegant creatures have a stomach sac that fills with gas to assist their floating. The blue dragon’s bright colors are actually on their underside, so they flip over to clearly display them. Any predators passing from above will spot them and realize sea slug is off the menu.
 
Meanwhile, the blue dragon’s darker body portion conceals it from predators lurking below. Now, you’re probably wondering why creatures usually living in tropical waters were washing up on the beaches of Texas. Well, you’re not the only one, because they’re not native to the area. It made their appearance all the more puzzling.
 
To be more specific, they’re usually found in the oceans around Australia, South Africa and Mozambique. Even so, it’s not the first time they’ve arrived on American shores. There have been similar reports of blue dragon sightings in recent years, as newspaper Florida Today reported. Apparently, there was a spate of them washing ashore in 2017.
 
The rare sea slugs surprised beach visitors at Cape Canaveral with their unexpected arrival. Florida Today reported that several people were either less wise or less fortunate than Hunter, though. Officials with Brevard County Ocean Rescue said some witnesses had touched the blue dragons and learned why their name was so apt.
 
Yet the enchanting color and appealing shape of the blue dragon have earned it other, less intimidating nicknames. Some people know it as the sea swallow or blue angel. However, these monikers only further conceal the slug’s more devilish qualities. Interestingly, while humans rarely see these creatures now, scientists discovered them centuries ago.
 
specimen wasn’t caught until almost a hundred years later, though. That achievement went to the crew of a famous expedition that set out from London, England, in 1872. The name of this much-vaunted vessel was the HMS Challenger.
 
The Challenger was turned into a seafaring laboratory designed to explore the ocean and catalogue what it found. The team’s journey turned up a massive 4,700 species previously unknown to science and they even took specimens. One such find was a 1.2cm blue dragon which scientists preserved with glycerine.
 
The Challenger’s blue dragon was donated to the National History Museum in England and it’s been there ever since. So what exactly makes these beautiful creatures potentially dangerous? Their garish color is a hint. To answer in full, we have to backtrack a little and look more closely at their feeding habits.
 
Remember when we said that blue dragons make some questionable digestive choices? Well, jellyfish and other venomous sea critters are below them on the food chain. Nudibranchs have developed a method of not only sustaining themselves, but also using their diet as a means of defense. Specifically, they eat the toxin of creatures many times their size.
 
Blue dragons target cnidarians such as the Portuguese man o’ war, which is often incorrectly mistaken for a jellyfish. In fact, each is a collection of lifeforms that live and act as one, collectively known as siphonophores. They do have something in common with their jelly counterparts, though. Men o’ war have an array of stinging tentacles.
 
These tentacles are one of their four lifeforms, and they’re coated with toxic nematocysts. The men o’ war use them to kill or stun prey. But a blue dragon isn’t deterred by this armory; it’s immune to the sting and just sees the tentacles as a potential meal. That’s where the slug’s flotation sac comes into play.
 
The blue dragon swims up to its prey and latches onto it with its feet. Then it feeds on the nematocysts, drinking up the toxin and absorbing it into its own body. The slug stores the biggest nematocysts in the ends of its “fingers,” more accurately described as cerata. In conjunction with its diet, this behavior gives the blue dragon its color.
 
These slugs use their borrowed toxin to defend themselves against predators, which comes with an added punch. Because the toxin is concentrated in one spot, it’s even more powerful than when the man o’ war employs it. And it’s the reason why you should avoid touching blue dragons: they can introduce you to a world of pain.
 
As a result of Hunter’s find on Padre Island, PINS put the boy’s photos up on its Facebook page in May 2020. It accompanied the pictures with a wise warning for those who might be tempted by these colorful creatures. It introduced them with the ominous words, “Here there be dragons.”
 
PINS continued, “Blue dragons are very small, generally only three centimeters. But don’t let their size fool you, they have a defense worthy of the name dragon.” It went on to say how visitors should look but definitely not touch. “If you see a dragon in the park, be amazed as they are a rare find, but also keep your distance!
 
Both Leah and Hunter admitted that touching the blue dragon was initially tempting. Hunter’s mom later told TV station KSAT, “Hunter really wanted to touch it. And I don’t blame him, I did too as they look very soft and squishy. But we discussed that since we have no clue what they are, we [had] better not.”
 
Leah continued, “After thinking about it, he even said, ‘He might be like the poison dart frog, mom, he is kind of brightly coloured, which is a warning.’ Smart kid.” But of course, there’s still the mystery of why the blue dragons have been arriving on Padre Island in the first place.
 
For one thing, Trey informed CNN that until now he hadn’t seen any blue dragons in the 30 years he’d been visiting Padre Island. He’s not the only person who has been discovering the stunning slugs for the first time, either. Jamie Kennedy, who works as a spokeswoman for PINS, said it was a new experience for her, too.
 
Kennedy revealed that she’s worked at PINS for two years and it’s her first time seeing blue dragons. There has been an increase in their appearances over recent years, though, as the PINS’ Facebook page proves. It uploaded some pictures of the sea slugs along with some info about them back in 2016.
 
“A lot of people are finding them lately,” Kennedy remarked. But while they’re certainly rare, she had a theory as to why so many of them were appearing across Padre Island. She thought a large group of them had become beached at once and scattered across the shore. Furthermore, other experts concurred.
 
According to KSAT, another PINS spokesperson agreed. They said, “A lot of people are finding them lately. That will often happen with animals that a bunch will wash up at the same time.” Another wildlife expert confirmed this, and elaborated on the subject in an interview with TV station KVEO in May 2020.
 
David Hicks from University of Texas Rio Grande Valley told KVEO it tended to be all or nothing with blue dragon sightings. The Director for the School of Marine Sciences said, “It’s pretty rare. We don’t see a lot of them but they are reported from Texas. That community of organisms… they kind of go around in masses of water. If you see one, you see 1,000 of them.”

 


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