It is by no means the sort of thing that you would expect to run into in the downtown area of one of the most densely populated cities in North America. But in the summer of 2017, a group of Canadian amateur naturalists stumbled across a creature in a Vancouver park that took them completely by surprise. And not just because their discovery looked so downright strange.
Canada’s thriving wildlife is as diverse as the nation’s landscape. More than 70,000 different species of flora and fauna can be found across the country’s 20 different ecological zones. While some of the native plants and animals will be very familiar, there are other much stranger creatures out there. And maybe there are even more weird and wonderful examples waiting to be discovered.
This is due to the sheer size of Canada and the sparse nature of its civilization. The country covers almost four million square miles, and is home to some 35 million people. That means it has a population density of just a little more than ten people per square mile. To give you an idea of what that means, Canada’s immediate neighbor to the South – the U.S. – has a population density in excess of 90 people per square mile.
As a consequence of Canada’s low people-to-land ratio, there is an awful lot of space for critters to roam free. Although in more urbanized areas, such as Vancouver in British Columbia, where the human population density is higher, there is less space for animals. It is in places like that, where humankind has had the most impact on the natural environment, that there are more endangered species. Canada has 400 types of wildlife that are currently in danger of going extinct.
But that does not mean that there are no amazing discoveries waiting to be found in Canada’s cities. The green space of Stanley Park borders on Vancouver’s downtown area. The parkland there covers more than one and a half square miles, and – unlike a lot of similar spaces you will find in urban areas around the world – it was not created by an architect or team of landscapers.
Instead, Stanley Park has evolved over the years alongside Vancouver itself. A lot of the area is still covered in thick forest, much as it was two centuries ago. Some of the trees there are hundreds of years old, and stand around 250 feet tall. However, one of the most interesting parts of the park was constructed. And down the years it has come to be known as the Lost Lagoon.
The man-made lake was the work of British landscape architect Thomas Mawson, built over three years and finished in 1916. The Lost Lagoon gained its name because at low tide, it sometimes disappears completely. Mawson also designed a causeway to run alongside the lake. By the 1950s, visitors to Stanley Park were able to rent boats and explore the Lost Lagoon at their leisure. However, this activity was stopped in 1973 when the lake area became a bird sanctuary.
In 1995 the boathouse which used to run the rented rowboats was turned into a resource for naturalists. It is called the Lost Lagoon Nature House, and is run by the Stanley Park Ecology Society. And it is thanks to the work of this organization that an amazing discovery was made in August 2017. And the Lost Lagoon itself played an important part in the story as well.
The not-for profit Stanley Park Ecology Society was established in 1988 and its main aim is nature education and conservation work. It operates in collaboration with the park board in Vancouver local government to help connect communities and school children with their natural environment. And it was during one of the charity’s events that the strange discovery was made in Stanley Park.
The society’s last bioblitz took place in August 2017. Once the exclusive preserve of scientists, a bioblitz is an intensive biological field study of a defined area by a large group of individuals in a short space of time. In recent years, such events have become an easy and accessible way to introduce people to the biodiversity in their immediate locality. The aim of the event in Stanley Park was for volunteers to explore the area and record the species they found in a 24-hour period. But little did they know the weirdness they would uncover…
The participants in the bioblitz came across an outlandish creature that had never been seen before in Stanley Park. In fact, there has only been one instance of the species ever being found before in British Columbia. But it is not just the rarity of the animal that makes this story so intriguing, it is also the critter’s unnerving appearance.
Kathleen Stormont, fundraiser and press spokesperson for the Stanley Park Ecology Society, described the creature in question to the local newspaper, the Vancouver Courier. She said the find was, “kind of like three-day-old Jello – a bit firm but gelatinous.” But the charity worker had another, snappier description of the brain-like body as well.
You see, Stormont also likened the animal to a “chunk of goo.” And this is a vivid description that tells us a good deal about these two-foot-wide gelatinous blobs. Because of their amorphous appearance, it is often difficult to find them in their natural, watery habitat. But that did not stop bioblitz volunteers from spotting one bobbing near the causeway alongside the Lost Lagoon.
In fact, the creature that the bioblitzers recorded that day isn’t just one animal. It s a whole collection living together within the confines of the gelatinous goo that gives them their distinctive look. While they may collectively look like floating brains, the scientific name for the freshwater organisms is bryozoan, also known by its Latin name Pectinatella magnifica.
The bryozoan at Stanley Park was spotted in a filtration pool next to the Lost Lagoon, not in the main body of the water. Bryozoan have been living on the planet for millions of years, and it is likely the one found in Vancouver would be indistinguishable from one alive hundreds of thousands of years ago.
The bryozoan is a moss-like animal and its bonded mass of hundreds of different organisms sweep water for food. They then turn that nutrition into the jelly-like substance that binds them together. That core spreads as the colony grows. And there is a very good biological reason for the creatures to come together in such large numbers.
A single small creature would be easy prey for any aquatic animal that wanted a quick snack. But by joining together in large blobs the bryozoan has developed a great defense strategy. And in the filtration pond by the Lost Lagoon, one of its number had managed to find an environment that was perfect for it to thrive.
Bryozoans need a very specific type of watery habitat if they want to survive. First, there has to be hardly any current in the surrounding water. Second, there needs to be a good deal of nutrients in the H2O for the bryozoan to feed on. The filtration pond, which was built only as recently as 2005 to help remove pollutants from the causeway, is basically the perfect place for the weird creatures to live and grow.
However, the bioblitz find in the pond was not just limited to a single bryozoan. Once one had been discovered, the volunteers realized that the small body of water was actually teeming with the alien-looking animals. While the creatures are believed to have originated in the Mississippi region, they have been known to be on the march in recent years. Despite their menacing looks, however, bryozoans do not pose a threat to humans.
When the British Columbia weather got colder with the season turning, the blobs in Stanley Park started to die off. But nature lovers in Vancouver should not fear that they are gone for good. As bryozoan colonies die, they lay eggs in the water. And these will hang around until it warms up to provide the perfect conditions for the bryozoan to rise again. So while you may not have seen the weird brain-like bodies in real life this time round, if you travel to Stanley Park it is highly likely you will get the chance in the not-too-distant future.