Seeing tiny orange creatures in the surf? They don’t sting or bite. In fact, they’re sometimes called sea angels.
Their proper name is Clione limacina, but they’re better known as naked sea butterflies. According to Sea Grant North Carolina, they are shell-less mollusks and completely harmless.
“These distinctive Arctic creatures, related to snails and sea slugs, are tiny, translucent and roughly 1 to 2 inches long,” Sea Grant wrote in its magazine, Coastwatch. “They look like ice cream cones with small wings that help them swim. Their heads and tails are orange-red. The visceral mass — which contains the digestive, respiratory, excretory and reproductive organs — is a darker brownish-orange.”
The colder sea water we’re experiencing this week may explain the recent invasion of naked sea butterflies on the northern beaches. They thrive in water temperatures from 28 to 63 degrees, with North Carolina being as far south as they range.
“Even though they are small, these animals are voracious predators,” Coastwatch wrote. “They feed on shelled sea butterflies by catching them, holding onto the shells and pulling the animals out. In turn, naked sea butterflies are food for baleen whales such as humpbacks and bowheads.”
You can read more about the naked sea butterfly here.