Not all blobs are created equal. 💩
Blobs of Fiction
First, let’s prime your mind with some recognizable blobs that don’t fit within strict taxonomic organization, at least on Earth!
Jabba the Hutt
Yep, that large creepy slug alien on Tatooine. Did you know that the Hutt species, like many molluscan gastropods on Earth, are hermaphrodites? Unlike gastropods, Hutts are apparently born with legs which fuse over time due to lack of use.
This is one of those classic Robin Williams ( 😭 ) movies based on the wacky scientist trope. Williams’ character’s life is a mess and what helps the protagonists defeat the antagonists? Just a sentient mass of flying rubber goo.
I remember loving this movie as a kid. It all made sense! After trying to read the plot after all these years, I realized it’s just better to watch.
Who doesn’t love Pokémon?? Ditto throws in a little uncertainty, as this amorphous purple (or pink) blob can transform into any object. You never know when you might catch a Ditto in Pokémon Go! In other renditions like the TV show, you can tell if a Pokémon is actually a Ditto in disguise, as the Pokémon has two beady eyes.
A Boy and his Blob
Think way back to the 90’s, when the original Nintendo was the best console money could buy. Super Mario Brothers was all the rage on NES! I also played the lesser-known A Boy and his Blob. In this game, you feed the blob jellybeans and he morphs into different shapes, which turned out to be very handy for making your way through Blobolonia.
Blobs of Non-Fiction
First, a couple of terms:
Fixative: the fluid a specimen is placed in originally or has been injected into the specimen, which stops decay and deterioration
Preservative: the fluid a specimen is kept in for long-term storage, which may or may not be the same as the fixative
The process of preservation for long-term storage has a tendency to cause biological specimens in natural history collections to lose their natural shape and color. Ethanol is the fluid of choice for most collections, including ours, because it is safer to handle and is better for preserving DNA, but in some cases specimens were fixed or are still preserved formalin, as formalin tends to make soft-bodied specimens rubbery and hard-bodied specimens brittle, and in general is not the healthiest of substances to handle.
Both ethanol and formalin dulls color, and many specimens end up looking brown or bleached. In addition, most soft bodied animals will also lose their shape after fixation, and become, for lack of a better word, blobby. As stewards of a major natural history research collection, we do our utmost to preserve animals in a proper manner, so they can be studied, while representing their living form. Research collections have wonderful and myriad uses, whether it be for historic reference, species discovery and description, or as teaching tools. We never cease to be amazed by the questions that can be addressed with these specimens.
Biologists have a systematic way in which they organize and categorize specimens, called taxonomy. We have arranged the Non-molluscan Invertebrate collection by phylum, in a manner that allows one to literally walk past the Tree of Life. Did the term “phylum” cause a few dusty brain cells to twitch? Think King Phillip Came Over From Green Spain: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.
The eukaryotic phyla (another reach back to Biology class!) took millions and millions of years to diverge and become distinct from the prokaryotes – Bacteria and Archaea. Mutations resulted in new species, which could take advantage of new niches in which to colonize.
The simple cladogram below shows some of the major phyla in the animal kingdom, and how they are related through morphological characteristics. It will be handy to refer to throughout this lesson in blobology.
The ocean gifted us with real blobs!
Blobs of NMI
Below are some specimens from the Non-Molluscan Invertebrate collection, at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Most blob-like animals are invertebrates!
As squishy as this sponge may look, I would not recommend touching it! PSA, most sea sponges be good candidates for dishes or bodies. All sea sponges have specialized cells (called spicules) that give them their structure. Sponges are a very basic life form, and have no tissues or organs, simply filtering the water for food. They make great homes for communities of other animals. You might find crabs, worms, and starfish living in and on one sponge.
While sponges seem pretty basic, they can be elaborate like this glass sponge, given as a Chinese wedding gift.
The jellyfish, a brainless nomad. They aren’t completely helpless, however. Jellies and other members of the Phylum Cnidaria (which includes sea anemones and coral) have nerve nets. This is so they can sense their environment. Small stinging cells called cnidae (nematocysts) are used to subdue small fish and other inverts that get caught in their tentacles. Sometimes, people get stung – but the jellyfish doesn’t do it on purpose! I fact, they really don’t have much control over where their tentacles go.
This is a freshwater bryozoan of the species Pectinatella magnifica. It’s a cool animal that grows in enormous blobs attached to a stick or rock – every once in a while the internet goes wild over giant blobs washing up along a lake. You can’t really appreciate it’s structure looking at it from afar, but up close, it’s made up of a colony of tiny tentacled animals, which filter nutrients from the water. [Bryozoa is not represented in the tree above, if it were it would be somewhere near Rotifera.]
It may not look like it, but sea cucumbers are related to starfish and sea urchins. They serve a very important purpose in the ocean by cruising the sea floor, scooping up sediment, filtering out small food particles, and pooping out clean sand!
The one you see here is the species Botryllus schlosseri, a type of colonial sea squirt (there are also solitary squirts). It’s hard to believe it, but sea squirts (AKA tunicates, because they are in the Subphylum Tunicata) are closely related to humans! One of the defining characteristics of Phylum Chordata is the presence of a notochord (cartilaginous skeletal rod), which precedes a spinal cord in most chordates (not including the tunicate). In the human developmental stage, we also have a notochord!
Sea sponges and tunicates are easily mistaken for one another. John Steinbeck expresses this in one of his books:
Blobs of Vertebrate Chordates
There are even fish blobs!
If you don’t already know this guy, do you even internet? This is Mr. Blobby, a fish of the species Psychrolutes microporos. Blobfish (family Psychrolutidae) typically live in the deep ocean, where there is little to no light and lots of pressure. This means when brought to the surface (with relatively little pressure), the animal deflates to look like a blob.