As fascinated as I am with pens, it is no small wonder that my favorite sea creature is the Sea Pen. Resembling an old fashioned quill made from an ostrich feather, they dance and ripple in the current.
I say ‘they,’ for each Sea Pen is not singular. It is plural. Each Sea Pen is made of hundreds of individual Sea Pen polyps! A community of individuals that have banded together, and what they build together is truly remarkable and beautiful.
It starts, as you would think, with one polyp, and a process known as dimorphism. This polyp morphs into the central stem and base of the pen, and it secures itself to the floor of the ocean. Other polyps attach to the stem, becoming whatever the colony needs to survive. There are many jobs available: water siphons, feeders and the lucky ones of course take on the sexual roles.
The water current carries more polyps, and they band together randomly. Yet we don’t hear of Sea Pen wars, late night shootings, or domestic violence among the many groupings of Sea Pens that decorate the sea floor. One polyp doesn’t complain that he has to take in water while the next one propagates the species. How do they even know what they should become?
Since they are made up of so many individuals, we only see the colony that they form once they have banded together. But what are they singly? The Sea Pen polyp. Are they like the Borg, and are nothing without the colony? What does one Sea Pen polyp look like? It is hard for me not to think individually, to think that each single polyp is as important as the total sum of the pen. Do they band together for their own protection and welfare, or that of the group? Do they care? Do they have any consciousness other than that of the entire community?
Living in near darkness on the ocean floor, the current brings them what they need. From time to time new polyps replace those that die. The Sea Pen continues.
Several aquariums showcase these beautiful creatures. The Sydney Australia aquarium Sea Pens were incredibly colorful. I got to pet them in Newport, OR. They feel as feathery as they look. But even as I admired the way they danced and swayed in the water, I couldn’t help but wonder. What does one Sea Pen polyp look like?