Like something straight off Miley Cyrus's Instagram feed, this "tongue" turned up recently on a beach in Australia – but despite its resemblance to a mouth muscle, the creature is not what it seems. 

Image: Cahra Swarris/Facebook

The strange blob of tissue washed up on Fremantle's South Beach, and in the days since Perth local Cahra Swarris posted a photo of it on social media, the guesses have been flooding in. Some commenters suggested the find is part of a cow's tongue or some kind of fungus, while others evoked the runaway star of this Toohey's Lager commercial (ten points for that one).

So what are we really looking at? This is a sea squirt (more formally known as a compound ascidian), a colonial cohort of tiny animals called zooids that live and feed together. Chances are you've seen one before: many of the brightly coloured patches on intertidal rocks are ascidian colonies.

The Western Australian Museum's head of aquatic zoology, Dr Jane Fromont, confirmed the ID after the photo made the rounds online. "[The colony] has numerous individuals within the dark pink oval jelly casing seen in the image," she told WA Today. "Each little whitish flower-like shape indicates an individual."

Ascidians are filter feeders, and this one would look quite different underwater – something like this or this (trypophobia warning!). Openings along the structure allow the colony to pump water past the zooids, which then sieve tasty plankton from their surroundings.

Much like a snail sucks in its eyes when touched, the zooids retract when disturbed. This tactic not only keeps the delicate animals out of harm's way, but it also prevents the colony from drying out too quickly by closing the openings. Exactly how this group ended up in the sand remains a mystery, but that retract-and-protect instinct is what's giving it the appearance of a geographic tongue.

Image: Cahra Swarris/Facebook

Fremantle is no stranger to headline-grabbing marine life. Just the past few weeks have brought us this "mystery giant jelly monster" (in reality, a decomposing ray) and the "furry beast from below" (a.k.a, a dead whale).

Why does dead whale flesh look fuzzy? We've talked about this before! Find out here.


Top header image: The large holes in this ascidian colony are the exhaling syphons, where water leaves the structure. John Turnbull/Flickr