Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Unidentified Marine Organism?

  • Bonnethead Shark
    Bonnethead Shark
    This UFO is the carcass of a bonnethead shark (Sphyrna tiburo) on a Flordia beach. Bonnetheads, which range 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 submitted by Kimberly Carroll.
  • Bryozoan Colony
    Bryozoan Colony
    This freshwater bryozoan was found in the lake in City Center at Oyster Point (Newport News). 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.
  • Cannonball Jellyfish (Stomolophus melagris)
    Cannonball Jellyfish (Stomolophus melagris)
    Cannonball jellyfish 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.
  • Crayfish Tower
    Crayfish Tower
    This UFO is a mud chimney built by a crayfish, a freshwater crustacean. Crayfish have gills that must be kept wet, so they burrow into the soil to a point near the water table. There are many species of crayfish in the mid-Atlantic. It is thus nearly impossible to tell which species made this chimney.
  • Florida Pompano
    Florida Pompano
    Trachinotus carolinus is a common visitor to lower Chesapeake Bay during summer and fall, usually along sandy beaches, around inlets, and in brackish-water bays. They move with the tide, feeding on clams, shrimps, crabs, and mussels. This fish is about 6" long.
    Photo submitted by Mr. David Shields
  • Ghost Crab Burrow
    Ghost Crab Burrow
    These burrows, common on mid-Atlantic beaches, are made by ghost crabs (Ocypode spp.). The burrows can reach 4 feet deep.
    Photo courtesy David Malmquist.
  • 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. It has escaped cultivation and is now found in many coastal sand dunes.
    Photo submitted by Vivian Carpenter.
  • Leatherjack (Oligoplites saurus)
    Leatherjack (Oligoplites saurus)
    These are leatherjacks, rare visitors to lower Chesapeake Bay during summer and fall. Care is needed when handling these fish as they have a venomous spine near the anal fin. Maximum adult size is 1 ft.
    Photo submitted by Paul Coote.
  • Mantis Shrimp (Squilla empusa)
    Mantis Shrimp (Squilla empusa)
    The mantis shrimp is a shrimp-like crustacean that can grow 8-10" long. These nocturnal creatures inhabit the middle to lower Bay, emerging from burrows at night to hunt for fish, crabs, and shrimp. Avoid handling, as their sharp and powerful claws can inflict a serious wound.
    Photo by Jim Robinson.
  • Oyster Toadfish (Opsanus tau)
    Oyster Toadfish (Opsanus tau)
    This fish washed up near Buckroe Beach. Oyster toadfish are a native near-shore 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.
    Photo submitted by Jim Robinson.
  • 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 2008. Large waves can dislodge these animals from the sandy bottoms they typically inhabit. Touching their fiberglass-like "spicules" can cause an itch.
  • 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.
    Photo by Randy Webster.
  • Serpulid Worms
    Serpulid Worms
    This UFO is a colony of 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.
    Photo submitted by Mr. Chip Powell.
  • 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. View the previous picture for a local look-alike, the oyster toadfish.
    Photo courtesy of Eric Hilton.
  • Summer Flounder Jaw
    Summer Flounder Jaw
    This UFO is the lower jaw of a summer flounder, Paralichthys dentatus. The jaw is ~ 2” L x 1-3/4” W x 1” H. The species name "dentatus" refers to the creature's intimidating teeth. Like other flounders, this species conceals itself with sand to feed on shrimps, fishes, and squids.
    Photo submitted by James Belsha.
  • 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 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.
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).

For fuller descriptions, visit the UFO set on the VIMS Flickr page.

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 [[vimspr,UFOs at VIMS]].