Velella by the billions covered beaches today. Indigo streaks stained the sand along the six miles of beach I ran, and the fragrantly decaying organisms formed a greasy paste, creating a slipping hazard. I trudged through the purple tide, glancing at the cellophane-like floats and triangular sails of "by-the-wind sailors." (This is one case where a creature's scientific name, Velella velella, is more melodious and more fun to say than its common name.)
I paused in my run to participate in a JellyWatch citizen science project. The JellyWatch website is fun to peruse and a great resource for Haystack Rock visitors intrigued by mysterious gelatinous creatures blanketing beaches.
On the JellyWatch velella page, the video created by Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute does a good job of explaining to the general public the science of hydrozoans and algal symbionts, but it doesn't cover the fascinating concept of colonial organisms. In a colonial organism, each individual cell can carry out all of the functions necessary for life: each "cell" is essentially a separate organism.
Why should we care about colonial organisms like velella? Well, colonial organization was the first evolutionary step from single-celled creatures to multicellular animals--including us. It's pretty mind-blowing to think about a by-the-wind sailor not as a single animal but as a cluster of separate animals: a collection of miniature creatures that take on specialized functions and work together as a team aboard a tiny boat they build to drift the world's oceans.
As I performed my citizen science duty collecting data, I considered this: velella is a colonial organism suspended in evolutionary history between single-celled creatures that swarmed Earth's primordial seas and the multicellular beings that now probe the cosmic ocean beyond our sun.
The JellyWatch citizen science initiative, which aims to help scientists understand the global distribution of "right-handed" and "left-handed" velella specimens, is explained at the bottom of the JellyWatch velella page. Understanding the distinction between left-handed and right-handed sails demands a bit of brain work. Once I had the difference sorted out, I counted 41 left-handed velella before seeing a right-handed specimen.
After kneeling and crawling across the sand to note the handedness of these beached colonial creatures, I stood up to stretch my back and stare at the sky. For several seconds the world was washed in purple haze. Squinting at velella sailboats for prolonged periods can induce strange sensations.
"Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix
Purple Haze all in my brain, lately things don't seem the same, actin' funny but I don't know why 'scuse me while I kiss the sky.