‘Marimo’ mystery explained in a roundabout way, thanks

MY COLUMN of February 16 discussed the mysterious moss balls photographed on a west Cork strand by M Didier Le Goff, a Breton visitor. 

“Could you help me resolve the mystery of the Green Moss Bowls of Schull?” he asked.

Didier’s image matched those of ‘lake balls’, found in Iceland, Estonia, Scotland and Lake Akan in Hokkaido in Japan where they are called “marimo” and, due to their seemingly sentient behaviour, were regarded by the native Ainu people as magic.

How did marimo end up on a beach in Schull?

After the article appeared, Mr Dan Driscoll, who was born and went to school on Long Island, west of Schull, telephoned me.

He said that, as a boy on Long, he often saw them at Trá na Nóiníní (Strand of the Daisies). Sometimes the entire beach was covered, some being as large as golf balls.

They were also common on Schull strands after storms.

Might they have grown in Lough Hyne, I wondered, the unique sea-water lake east of Schull with relatively warm, well-oxygenated water supporting a great diversity of marine plants. Had currents carried them down the narrow channel connecting it to the sea?

Lists of Lough Hyne flora at the National Botanical Gardens and University College Galway’s websites left me confused. Marimo seemed to be freshwater plants, but did they also grow in salt water?

I emailed an expert, Matthew Jebb of the Botanic Gardens, Dublin.

He replied saying, “Excellent photographs and I can confirm that they are NOT Aegagrophila or Cladophora balls.

“The name Aegagropila linnaei is the current and correct name for what was once called Cladophora, so yes the Japanese and Irish plants are the same, but the photograph you sent is not of Aegagropila balls but of true ‘Sea Balls’.

“Sea Balls are composed of plant fragments — often reeds or/and other plants that have washed down rivers. They are not living.

“Schull’s narrow inlets and lagoons are perfect for their formation. The greenness on the balls results from small green algae growing on the surface. They have formed on a flat bottom in some shallow area of Schull harbour and then been tossed up by a storm.

“The gentle rocking by wind and tide gradually forms these balls, which are no less remarkable than the ‘lake balls’ or marimo.

“Lake Balls’ or ‘Moor Balls’ (Marimo) have been found in County Clare, and at Lough Neagh. ‘Sea Balls’ have been collected on the shores of Counties Meath, Donegal and Kerry.

“The largest Sea Balls we have come from Dingle Bay (nearly six inches across) and these have a generous share of blue plastic bailer twine fragments — a pernicious pollutant that probably helps them reach a bigger size than normal.

“The Lake Balls we have from County Clare are about four inches in diameter. Sea Balls are just as fascinating, but alas cannot be kept as pets. With best wishes, Matthew Jebb, Director of the Gardens”

So there we have it. The Sea Balls are not ‘entities’, not whole organisms but fragments of organisms rolled together by happenstance. Thank you, Mr Jebb.

Meanwhile, on my first walks after my return from Barcelona, I was pleased to find all of February’s natural progeny in train, some ahead of time, some behind.

The first celandine — those little golden, buttercup-like flowers with heart-shaped dark green leaves — were in bloom by the roadside. The day was bright, so they were open. A single primrose bloomed on the wooded bank opposite our backyard.

On cliffs at the Seven Heads in west Cork, the ravens had built a substantial nest on top of last year’s debris, and lined it with horse-hair and the bailer-twine Mr Jebb mentions, a colourful array that included a single, fluffy grey feather which, I suspect, once belonged to a heron.

No eggs yet, but the hen was sitting. By the time this column appears, I will scanning the cup for a glimpse of bluish-green ovoids, speckled with black or brown.

In the wood below the house, herons are sitting on their huge nests, their pointed heads and sinous necks the only parts visible. I believe our ‘adopted’ bird is amongst them.

When he feeds here, he hurries away, as opposed to hanging around the pond (perhaps hoping to catch an unwary rat?). One parent keeps guard while the other forages, otherwise magpies or ravens would be quick to make a meal of the eggs.

READ MORE: How did marimo end up on a beach in Schull?


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