If you’re of a certain age and watched a certain TV show you know the word and what it means: small, voracious, constantly-multiplying, creatures that take over everything and scare the crap out of everyone because of the trouble they can cause. But also in a way cuddly and likeable.
That was my first thought when I saw this blob attached to the strap of a old backpack that’d been abandoned long ago in the Merrimack River.
One of my friends along on the monthly trash paddle trip with the Appalachian Mountain Club had fished it out of the water. She was in a kayak, with limited space, and I was in my canoe, AKA the trash barge, so she tossed it in.
No, I didn’t scream. I am a reasoning human being after all. I am not a Klingon, in whom, you may recall, the mere presence of a tribble produced a convulsive, shrieking reaction.
I just eyed it carefully for a while. It didn’t move, it didn’t multiply. Didn’t make a sound. So far so good. But it was still a creepy looking unknown thing, a brown, slimy glob, sitting there in the boat with me. I wasn’t thinking cuddly and likeable, more like scary.
And the question amongst us, as we paddled along looking for more trash, was obvious: What was it? Now aware of them and on the lookout, we spotted more, just under the surface of the water, usually attached to the submerged branches of downed tree limbs, looking like partially inflated, dirty white plastic bags about half the size of a soccer ball.
“Tuna cakes,” someone said, describing them as a living mass of small invertebrate organisms. That may be their nickname, but not that I could find in my research. Try looking that up on the internet sometime. I did when I got home later on, and came up with a lot of fish recipes.
Fortunately, I got a clarifying email a day or so later. Someone had done some proper research and let the rest of us know what she’d found out.
We had come across the magnificent bryozoan (Pectinatella magnifica), a family of small filter feeding invertebrates that live as colonies in aquatic habitats. And even more comforting, they actually belong where we found them.
Most bryozoans live in salt water environments, but this one lives in fresh water and is native to North America, usually found in the calm water of rivers and reservoirs east of the Mississippi. The colonies can get to more than two feet across and are usually attached to something underwater but are sometimes found free floating.
And, just like those tribbles could clog the warp drive, bryozoan have been known to stop up drains and water pipes.
Wondering what ever happened to the tribbles?
Here it is, from 1967’s Star Trek: The Trouble with Tribbles:
[all tribbles have been removed from the Enterprise, but nobody seems eager to tell Kirk what happened to them]
Capt. Kirk: Mister Scott. Where – are – the tribbles?
Scott: I used the transporter, Captain.
Capt. Kirk: You used the transporter?
Capt. Kirk: Well, where did you transport them? Scott, you didn’t transport them into space, did you?
Scott: Captain Kirk! That’d be inhuman!
Capt. Kirk: Well, where are they?
Scott: I gave them a very good home, sir.
Capt. Kirk: WHERE?
Scott: I gave ’em to the Klingons, sir.
Capt. Kirk: [whispering] You gave them to the Klingons?
Scott: Aye, sir. Before they went into warp, I transported the whole kit ‘n’ caboodle into their engine room, where they’ll be no tribble at all.
Below are some more photos from the trash paddle, sponsored by the New Hampshire Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club.