Naked sea butterflies from Arctic waters show up on the Outer Banks this month


The little orange creatures look a little like ice cream cones with wings and prefer deep Arctic waters over the beaches of North Carolina, researchers say. But sometimes, typically in July, the tiny predators will wash up on the Outer Banks.

“Curious beachgoers have been asking, ‘What are these little orange creatures on the beach?’” The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island posted recently on Facebook. “Answer: They’re naked sea butterflies, a species of sea snail which lacks a shell and lives in cold water.”

Clione limacina, known as “naked sea butterflies” or “sea angels,” can wash up on Outer Banks beaches when wind conditions blow warm water out to sea and cold water moves in closer from deep in the Atlantic, according to North Carolina Sea Grant.

“Sometimes, when strong winds blow warm surface waters offshore, cold water located below will rise up to take its place. This process is called upwelling and can bring organisms living in the cold water, such as naked sea butterflies, close to shore,” the aquarium said.

Naked sea butterflies are typically 1 to 2 inches long and mostly translucent with orange or red heads and tails, according to North Carolina Sea Grant. They are not related to jellyfish and do not sting, the organization said.

They get the “butterfly” or “angel” part of their name from the wings they use to move through the water, National Geographic says.

According to National Geographic, “They inhabit the frigid waters of the Arctic, subarctic Atlantic, and Pacific oceans, and prey on sea butterflies — specifically a small type of sea snail.”

“Even though they are small, these animals are voracious predators. They feed on shelled sea butterflies by catching them, holding onto the shells and pulling the animals out,” according to North Carolina Sea Grant.

Naked sea butterflies “are food for baleen whales such as humpbacks and bowheads,” per the North Carolina Sea Grant.

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Charles Duncan covers what’s happening right now across North and South Carolina, from breaking news to fun or interesting stories from across the region. He holds degrees from N.C. State University and Duke and lives two blocks from the ocean in Myrtle Beach.