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Hundreds of Japanese sea critters surfed the Pacific on plastic debris after the 2011 tsunami

At least 289 invasive species surfed on debris from the Japanese tsunami in 2011 to the shores of the West Coast of America, a study released Thursday has found. The incredible transpacific crossings were made possible by the proliferation of non-biodegradable materials like plastics and fiberglass, which were capable of drifting for a year and a half or more as the ocean currents buoyed them — and their tiny living cargo — west.

[Marine sciences professor James T.] Carlton called it remarkable that such a wide range of species — which also included barnacles, worms, and tiny filter-feeders called bryozoans — could survive the journey across the northern Pacific. In many cases, these passages took years, longer than the life spans of the individual organisms. The authors [of the study] concluded that not only did these creatures adapt to an open ocean where food was scarcer than in rich coastal waters, they were also able to reproduce, in some cases for at least three generations, before reaching the North American coast.

"We found that hundreds of species could survive for multiple generations at sea," said Dr. Carlton, who is a former director of William's Maritime Studies Program in Mystic Seaport, Connecticut. "They could do this so long as their rafts did not dissolve or sink." [The New York Times]

Biology professor Steven L. Chown told The New York Times that what scientists are witnessing is an entirely new, man-made form of animal travel. "We have created a new ecological process, the process of mega-rafting," he said.

It remains to be seen if any of the invasive Japanese sea creatures get a foothold on the West Coast, a potentially calamitous possibility for the region's native species. Read the full report here.