The Fouling

The Fouling gets its properties from examples found in nature.

But it is fiction, pieced together from bits of reality.  In truth, a crusty fouling organism has not crept up the coast of the United States and shut down ports completely, but there are many fouling organisms that are invading new territories and wreaking havoc. Some are slimy and soft, some are crusty like the Fouling in the book. They grow to cover ship bottoms, pilings, underwater equipment.

But, none have grown so quickly that they can sink a ship while it’s at sea. Nothing in nature is known to grow as rapidly as the Fouling, although giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) is an algae that grows in tall stands like trees that can grow as much as an inch a day.

The Fouling is an invader, a species that has arrived from somewhere else and finds just the right conditions to thrive. Invasive species are a big problem both in the oceans and on land. They often take over the habitat and crowd out the native plants and animals because there are no natural controls (meaning the new environment has no way to tame it–no natural predators or diseases). That’s what the Fouling did. Not all non-native species, introduced from somewhere else wreak havoc, but they often do crowd out the natives species.

Scanning electron microscope image of a fossil hederelloid from the Devonian period 360 to 415 million years ago. (Photo credit: Mark A. Wilson, Department of Geology, The College of Wooster)

A species thought to be extinct 
The author doesn’t go into it too much in the book, but the Fouling confuses the scientists because they think it’s one of the many species of Bryozoans alive today. Bryozoans are tiny animals that live in colonies and secrete a hard exoskeleton, sort of like corals do. They’ve been around for 500 million years, and there are 3,500 species of Bryozoans alive today (and 15,000 fossil species).

The Fouling, it turned out, is even more unexpected than an extinct Bryozoan. It’s another tiny colonial animal that builds a crust, but it was supposed to be extinct more than 300-million years ago. It’s a hederelloid, and it’s not just an extinct species, it’s an extinct Order. (remember Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species)

What’s the difference?
In some ways, there’s not much difference. Different varieties of tiny crusting organisms like the Fouling can be distinguished by the branching pattern they make when they build their little crusty tubes. Not only can you tell different varieties by their branching patterns, but whole species and Orders can be differentiated by the patterns of their tubes.

Why does that matter?

If you read the book, and you think hard about human evolution, you might understand why it matters that something so very old that was thought to be extinct is in-fact, alive and well. It means there things living in the ocean that represent, not just new species, but entire Orders that no one knew existed. And, that they are very, very similar to things that exist today. Of course, Bryozoans and Hederelloids are simple animals, and humans are immensely complex. But it’s interesting to think that they could be so genetically different, but so similar.