Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Unidentified Marine Organism?

  • Florida Pompano
    Florida Pompano
    Trachinotus carolinus is a common visitor to lower Chesapeake Bay during summer and autumn, usually along sandy beaches, around inlets, and in brackish-water bays. These fish move with the tide, feeding on clams, shrimps, crabs, and mussels. This fish is about 6 inches long.
    Photo submitted by Mr. David Shields
  • Potato Sponge (Craniella spp)
    Potato Sponge (Craniella spp)
    Large numbers of these can wash ashore following storms, after large waves dislodge them from the sandy bottoms they typically inhabit. These sponges can grow as large as a soccer ball. Touching their fiberglass-like "spicules" can cause an itch.
  • Potato Sponges
    Potato Sponges
    Potato sponges (grey blobs) litter Buckroe Beach following Tropical Storm Hanna in September 2008. Large waves can dislodge these animals from the sandy bottoms they typically inhabit. Touching their fiberglass-like "spicules" can cause an itch.
  • Bryozoan Colony
    Bryozoan Colony
    This freshwater bryozoan was photographed in the lake in City Center at Oyster Point (Newport News) by Mr. Charles Schmuck. Bryozoans are colonial filter feeders that live mostly in seawater. This colony is about 4 feet in diameter. See {{}}.
    Photo submitted by Mr. Charles Schmuck.
  • Serpulid Worms
    Serpulid Worms
    This UFO is a colony of marine serpulid polychaete worms. Serpulids build a calcerous tube from which they extend a spiral-shaped appendage to filter food. They colonize a variety of hard surfaces including rocks, shells, and this propeller. Their presence in the Rappahannock River may be due to several years of low rainfall and the resulting increase in salinity.
    Photo submitted by Mr. Chip Powell.
  • Indian Blanket or Firewheel
    Indian Blanket or Firewheel
    This UFO (Gaillardia pulchella) from Ft. Monroe is a short-lived perennial herb in the sunflower family that has been introduced into Virginia from the southern US. Because of its daisy-like flowers and ability to grow in dry, sandy soils, it has been planted throughout the coastal areas of the mid-Atlantic. It has escaped cultivation and is now found in many coastal sand dunes.
    Photo courtesy Vivian Carpenter.
  • Bonnethead Shark
    Bonnethead Shark
    This UFO, submitted by Kimberly Carroll of Ponte Vedra, FL, is the carcass of a bonnethead shark (Sphyrna tiburo). Bonnetheads, whose Atlantic range reaches from New England to Argentina, are occasional summer visitors to Chesapeake Bay. They feed at night on crabs and shrimps in shallow grass flats.
    Photo by Kimberly Carroll.
  • Sun sponge
    Sun sponge
    The sun sponge (Hymeniacidon heliophila) has glassy spicules that are spiny on one end and clublike on the other. It is commonly observed in the shallow waters of the lower Bay. Bowerbank's sponge, Halichondria bowerbanki, is similar but has spicules with two spiny ends.
    Photo by Sally Upton.
  • Cannonball Jellyfish
    Cannonball Jellyfish
    Local resident Phil Alexander described a school of creatures that were a “cross between a jellyfish and an anemone." These are cannonball jellyfish, Stomolophus melagris. Unlike most plankton, which drift with the currents, these jellies can move rapidly by contracting their bell. They grow to 8” around, and occur most frequently off the Carolinas and southward.
    Photo by Aimee Halvorson of the VIMS Trawl Survey.
  • Leatherjack
    This photo, submitted by Paul Coote from Tybee Island Georgia, shows two leatherjacks (Oligoplites saurus). Care is needed when handling these fish as they have a venomous spine near the anal fin. The leatherjack is a rare visitor to lower Chesapeake Bay during summer and fall. Maximum adult size is 1 ft.
    Photo courtesy of Paul Coote
  • Summer Flounder Jaw
    Summer Flounder Jaw
    This UFO, submitted by James Belsha of Newport News, is the lower jaw of a summer flounder, Paralichthys dentatus. The jaw is ~ 2” long x 1-3/4” wide x 1” high. The species name "dentatus" refers to the creature's intimidating teeth. Like other flounders, this species conceals itself with sand and feeds on unsuspecting shrimps, fishes, and squids.
    James Belsha
  • Mantis Shrimp
    Mantis Shrimp
    The mantis shrimp (Squilla empusa) is a shrimp-like crustacean that can grow 8 to 10 inches long. These nocturnal creatures inhabit the middle to lower Bay, from the shoreline to deep waters. They emerge from their burrows at night to hunt for fish, crabs, and shrimp. Avoid handling these creatures, as their sharp and powerful claws can inflict a serious wound.
    Photo by Jim Robinson.
  • Oyster Toadfish
    Oyster Toadfish
    This oyster toadfish (Opsanus tau) washed up near Buckroe Beach. Oyster toadfish are a native near-shore fish species. They resemble snakeheads but can be distinguished by their rounded teeth, broader head, fleshy cheeks, and the position of the eyes atop the head. Oyster toads are common in the Bay, using their strong, blunt teeth and powerful jaw muscles to feed on crabs and other crustaceans. Scroll to view a snakehead. For more information, visit
    Photo courtesy of Jim Robinson.
  • Northern Snakehead
    Northern Snakehead
    Channa argus is a native of China that has been released into the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Snakeheads are voracious predators that can grow almost 3 feet long. Snakeheads can disrupt aquatic ecosystems through predation, displacement, and competition for food; transmit parasites or diseases; and impact local economies. View the previous picture for a local look-alike, the oyster toadfish. For more information, visit
    Photo courtesy of Eric Hilton.
  • Ray Feeding Pits
    Ray Feeding Pits
    These depressions mark where rays have used their wings to remove sediments from the seafloor in order to feed on burrowing molluscs and other organisms.
    Randy Webster
  • Crayfish Tower
    Crayfish Tower
    This is a mud chimney built by a crayfish (aka crawfish, crawdad), a freshwater crustacean. Crayfish have gills that must be kept wet, so they burrow into the soil to a point near the water table. This chimney may be from a newly built burrow, or from sediment that the crayfish removed from an earlier burrow after a rainstorm or flood. The more sediment the crayfish needs to remove, the larger the chimney that it will form. After a few weeks the chimneys themselves may erode away. There are at least three genera and many species of crayfish in the mid-Atlantic. It is thus nearly impossible to identify which species made this chimney.
  • Ghost crab burrow
    Ghost crab burrow
    These burrows, common on barrier-island beaches along the Atlantic seaboard, are made by ghost crabs (Ocypode spp.). The burrows can reach four feet deep.
    Photo courtesy David Malmquist.
I've encountered an unfamiliar marine organism on the beach or in the water. How can I find out what it is?

The images in the photo slideshow above illustrate some of the more common "UFOs" (unidentified fishy organisms) submitted to VIMS for identification (click the arrows to move through the photoset).

If you have found an unfamiliar marine organism on the beach or in the water, and would like our help in providing an identification, please e-mail  a description (location, size, shape, color, behavior, etc.) and a digital photo if you have one, to [[davem,UFOs at VIMS]].