Biological Mysteries

My interest in finding and identifying biological mysteries began while an undergraduate biology student. I was working as a volunteer intern with the Resources Management Division at the Gateway National Recreation Area on Sandy Hook. One hot and humid summer day a visitor came in to inquire about the identity of something strange they had found in a small freshwater pond in a remote area of the park. The pond was located in an area of the abandon Nike missile base and was aptly named Nike Pond.

They said while exploring the pond for bird species, they came across large round “jellylike things” floating in the water. They thought they may be some kind of Jellyfish, but noted they had a faint olive-green coloration. They asked if we knew what they were. As this was in the days before cell phone photos, we had nothing but a physical description to go by. They were further described as round with a rough texture and about the size of a grapefruit. They had a faint olive-green color on some, but others appeared to be clear or translucent. They were lighter than water as they freely were floating on the surface of the pond. None of the rangers had any idea as to what they were. It was decided that the following morning, myself and two rangers, would mount an expedition to the pond and see just what these mystery balls were.
The pond was very hard to reach. There had once been an access path leading from the abandon Nike base to the pond, but it was long overgrown and filled with copious growths of poison ivy. As we carefully made our way to the pond, we were forced to bushwhack the old trail from its start to the edge of the pond. The heat and humidity were oppressive as the sky darkened with the approach of a thunderstorm.

Just as we reached the edge of the pond, we were swarmed by huge salt marsh mosquitoes. Aedes sollicitans are well known for their nasty bite and for being carriers of deadly equine encephalitis. They are easy to identify by the district bands on their legs and prestigious size. They have been referred to by locals with the tongue-in-cheek name of the New Jersey Sate Bird. These guys were surely pushing the record size, each leaving numerous bites that raised welts the size of a nickel. The itch from each bite was maddening, but we managed to grab a few samples of the mystery ball, place them in a zip-lock bag, and make a hasty retreat to nurse our wounds.

On the way in, we thought we would surely know what they were as soon as we saw them. This was not the case. They were exactly as the birders had described and none of us had ever seen them before. We took them back to the lab and started to examine them.

It turns out they were a freshwater species of Bryozoan, commonly known as the moss animals. Rather rare to our area, they were well known in other areas. The entire adventure, sans the mosquitoes, was very interesting and piqued my interest in the field identifying of biological mysteries.

Perhaps the greatest biological mystery of the Jersey Shore revolves around the 1916 shark attack. Though many have written on the subject, not seem to answer with satisfaction the basic questions. How many sharks were involved? What species? What caused it? Will it happen again. Thus, is the purpose of this blog.

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