The Blob

An unexplained … thing … lurks in mysterious and ancient underwater forests near Lake Tahoe

A microscopic view of a colony of the “pond scum.”

A microscopic view of a colony of the “pond scum.”

A professor and his boat are just a speck on the surface of frigid Fallen Leaf Lake west of Tahoe. The line attached to his experimental vibrating fishing lure cuts the glassy water, trolling the deep blue for a big, hungry and unlucky fish.

It catches, the professor leans closer, the pole bends, but the line snaps, and his hopes sink into the dark water. But this isn’t about the one that got away. It’s a true tale: How John Kleppe, a retired University of Nevada, Reno electrical engineering professor, caught the big one, and how he is still wrestling his controversial catches to shore.

It began 30 years ago. He would toss out his line and troll around the lake and hit snags like any fisherman would. Until one day, “I looked up and triangulated that I was at the same spot over and over again when it [hit the snags], and I said, ’I need to figure out what this is.’”

He turned to his high-tech fish finder for answers. The water below was 150 feet deep, his line was down only 40 feet, and the screen showed the water was as dead as space. What invisible force might be clutching his experimental lures and trying to steal them away into the Tahoe abyss?

Kleppe will never forget the day he took the bait: “I need to get a diver and figure out what it is.”

It was 1997 before he got a diver to go down into the fishing lure Bermuda Triangle. The diver splashed in with his black rubber wet suit, tanks and mask, breathing compressed air in long loud heaves like Darth Vader. The bubbles of breath rose toward Kleppe as he watched the diver kick and fall into the high-altitude lake.

“At that altitude, they can only stay down for about 20 minutes,” Kleppe said. “He went down.” And just a few minutes later, “He came up shaken.”

Since that day, Kleppe says what he found has stirred the pot of scientific debate and sparked the realization that mysterious legendary things of the deep do exist—just not as we ever imagined. Finding mysterious things and telling people about them is fraught with snags, and he’s had to be careful.

“People are likely to put you in a boobie hatch,” he said. “You lose your credibility if you move too far beyond the existing box. You have to be patient, you stick to your guns and you still might be wrong.”

He didn’t start to talk to his neighbors about the strange snags in the mysterious lake until after he had evidence in front of his very own eyes.

“He [the diver] said, ’There is a tree rooted right under your boat.’ I said, ’Really?’ And he said, ’You can probably see the top if you lean over, and I leaned over, and I could see the top down about 25 feet, and I thought, ’Oh my god.’ [I said to] saw a piece off, and let’s carbon date this to see what we got.”

The discovery was 120-feet-tall Ponderosa pines that had grown for hundreds of years and dated back to A.D. 1215. But that submerged tree was just skimming the surface of scientific mysteries.

“When I heard it was medieval, I knew we had to search for more,” Kleppe said.

Sixteen years later, his work has gained acceptance. In November 2011, he co-wrote and published an article in Quaternary Science Reviews. It’s the story of these forests that are still standing, dating back up to 3,232 years. That story represents 200 years of growth during mega-droughts that were possibly happening every thousand years. With the last one in 1215, it could mean we’re approaching another one now.

“The magic number is 60 percent of normal precipitation, and it is like what we are going through this year,” Kleppe warned. “So you will see the reservoirs being depleted. We plan buildings to withstand an earthquake. We need to do the same thing for a megadrought. The best solution is to store water.”

He suggested finding natural chasms in the ground and to start storing water so that it just doesn’t just evaporate into thin air as it did during these historic megadroughts.

So, why are we finding out about the forest now? “Oh, they are huge, and they don’t show up on a fish finder. That’s why no one has discovered them,” Kleppe said.

There have been some rough seas, battling skepticism, which is fine, he said. But there was also jealousy. Others dismissed the upright forest, telling him Noah drowned the trees. “There couldn’t be such a drought,” he recalled someone telling him. “That was denial.”

“Not discovered here! How could that be? No way in hell!” He recalled people questioning him. He said now there are two other detractors of the warning presented by these monoliths of the deep.

“There were people saying to me, ’What governor wants to face on his watch that they will have to prepare for a 200-year drought?’ The other detractor is that we think that global warming is much more of a danger than a megadrought.”

John Kleppe found the mysterious plant/creature on his pier in May 2012.

P. caterino

Wherever you stand in the debate about what should be done, if anything, Kleppe likes to stand with the evidence laying all around him. His yard is littered with chopped up sections of the ancient wood. As he said before, he could be wrong because he only studied 15 trees in the lake. “That many trees does not science make,” he said. So, he’s looking for funding to study 88 more trees and confirm his theory of a routine 200-year megadrought every 1,000 years.

Beware! The Blob

But there are many ancient forests on this planet. There are stranger things in the Alpine lake’s crystal clear depths.

Kleppe wanted to see what was in the depths for himself. He bought a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to motor around the depths with lights and video tape every moment.

“I have a whole lot of nothing,” he said.

Watching his videos of particles floating by is like being in space on the Enterprise, watching stars shoot by. Every once in a while a fish or a tree appears out of the darkness.

“It is sort of amazing because when you think about it, no humans have seen a lot of what we see,” Kleppe said. “It is like walking on the moon.”

Sometimes he follows the divers remotely and watches them. That led him to the next strange thing.

“I was watching that diver sawing off a branch and he knocked something that floated off like a jelly fish, right off the tree!” Kleppe said. “And so that is what triggered me, and I was like, ’What is that?’ And so we forgot all about the tree and followed that.”

He doesn’t recall exactly what happened after following the blob. But he has videos to show today. It is fascinating to observe in silence as the ROV approaches the tops of the ancient forest spires and the living creatures swaying in the current. They look huge on the screen and in pictures, but they’re really just about the size of a golf ball.

“What we are seeing here is a thing, which is like a balloon of green gel, and it will eventually look, as you will see in a minute, like a baggie, and then like it is creating a gas in it and then float away.”

He collected specimens of the thing, put them in jars with their native Fallen Leaf lake water and FedExed them to a couple of scientists. In 2003 and 2004, he got some answers back—cryptic, scientific, some definite, and some conflicting.

“He sent me one, and I didn’t know what it was, so I sectioned one,” said Gary Williams, an invertebrate zoologist with the California Academy of Sciences. “I took that to a microscope. You can’t really call them plants or animals because they are between both.”

He called them “strange lake beasts in the Tahoe basin” in a one-page description that he titled “Science Now.” He wrote that they were little-studied organisms with two whip-like flagella emanating from the anterior end. He called them cryptomonads, basically bags or masses of single-celled organisms of which there are 100 different species, some of which feed on the dead wood of trees. But Paul Kugrens, biologist with Colorado State University wrote to Kleppe telling him, “They definitely are not cryptomonads.” Instead, he called them Ciliata.

“Two different biologists disagreed,” Kleppe said. “I am not a biologist, so that’s why I put them on the back burner.” Kleppe went back to focusing on the dead forest of the deep and left the mysterious moving globs alone.

But they didn’t leave him alone. In the past, the things were only found clinging to the ancient trees way out in the lake. But then in July last year, he found one had come a lot closer and attached itself to his steel pier.

“If they eat wood, what was it doing on my pier?” he asked. “It was there, like a movie—the aliens, they are waiting to be picked up by the spaceship,” he joked.

He says that there’s room for interpretation in what they are.

“Now, you are getting in the middle of the argument,” he said. “It is still not settled in my mind.” By sending the blobs to a zoologist and a biologist, he had fanned the flames of a long-running debate over nebulous creatures like these.

It turns out, there are a whole bunch of organisms that turn light into energy like plants but also act like animals. For decades the classification of plant versus animal has caused a tug of war between scientists.

“Thus botanists claim some [organisms], zoologists claim some [organisms], and many are claimed by both,” wrote R.L. Kotpal in Modern Text Book of Zoology: Invertebrates. The solution, according to Kotpal, is to remove Kugren’s blob classification of Ciliata from the animal kingdom and put it in the kingdom Protista. On that, the two scientists agreed, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

“A protist is simply something that is not an animal, or a plant, or a fungus,” according to the University of California Santa Barbara, Science Line website. “In many regards [it] may still represent the scrap pile of taxonomy—it is where all of the misfits are thrown.”

John Kleppe, a retired University of Nevada, Reno professor is shown at work on Fallen Leaf Lake June 28, 2008.

PHOTO Provided by John Kleppe

Mystery solved—the globs are misfits. But this month, the globular debate came back to life when the Tahoe Resource Conservation District started to ask Kleppe questions. There was a new complicating factor.

It Came from Outer Space

“Hi John,” Jonelle Bright of the agency’s watercraft inspection program wrote. “I remember hearing about a freshwater jellyfish living in Fallen Leaf Lake a few years back and was wondering if this is a native species. It is listed on the U.S. Geological Survey website as a non-indigenous aquatic species.”

This was the result of rumors, unsettled science and possibly bogus reports. Many in Tahoe had been saying that jellyfish were found in Fallen Leaf lake and confusing them with Kleppe’s globs. It didn’t help that scientists from the University of Massachusetts to the California Academy of Sciences have published online articles calling the globs “jelly balls.”

“This whole article is sort of misleading because [jellyfish] are totally different kingdoms of life,” said Jeff Baguley of UNR’s biology department of one. “This is a really misleading article right here, and I don’t really agree with the way it is worded.”

“That is the whole thing, you have to use a common language with the public,” invertebrate zoologist Gary Williams of CAS responded.

Another potentially confusing issue appeared on the highly-respected United States Geological Survey invasive species list. There was a report that jellyfish had been found in Fallen Leaf in 1999. That report is out of scientific character for the agency. It only cited a sighting of a “jellyfish” that was submitted to another website even though, according to the notes, no samples were taken or studied for that matter.

“They (the blobs) are suddenly in the headlines because there is so much concern about invasive species,” Kleppe said. “Maybe it is society driving the science, but that doesn’t mean you kill everything you don’t understand.”

To try to filter the confusion, Kleppe has pointed the U.S. Geological Survey and Tahoe Resource Conservation District back to the two scientists who studied the blobs before. Paul Kugrens of Colorado State University has since passed away, but Williams is still at the California Academy of Sciences.

“It is not anything bad that has to be eradicated,” Williams said. “There is no reason to go out and destroy them. There is no indication that it is coming from another planet to destroy us. I am totally amused by this.”

And in the rapidly changing world of science, he says the former tug of war over plants verses animals is now “out-of-date thinking. New concepts of the vastness of biodiversity have revolutionized things.”

But there are still many unanswered questions about the blobs.

“Who knows, the actual species at Fallen Leaf Lake may be new to science,” Williams wrote in an email. “It is difficult to identify microscopic forms of life that are only rarely seen and described by a very few people in the world! We now know there are plants, animals, fungi and a huge diversity of organisms that do not fit those into these three groups and were once lumped into a giant hodge-podge mega-group called Protista.”

For Williams, the mystery is settled.

“The newer name for the group should be Chromist, forget about exactly what kind (cryptomonad, chloromonad, Ophrydium, etc.). There is no evidence that they have been introduced by birds. There are native species of Chromists throughout freshwater lakes of the world,” he wrote.

But while we may know what they are, we don’t know much about them.

“Yeah, very little, there is very little known about these things that are not well-defined plants or animals,” Williams said. “In fact, I don’t know any protozoologists out there.”

If the public interest in Tahoe is going to drive new questions about these golf ball-sized globs, Kleppe is ready to step up to the plate. He has some good questions.

“They could be an indication of clarity,” he said. “They could be cleaning the lake. We should study what they are and what they do.” He thinks that a good place to start would be if someone aimed cameras at the blobs and did some time lapse photography to watch what they do, how they change and grow.

But as he said earlier, sometimes bubbles get burst. In one email, Kugrens called the blobs “Ophrydium,” which the University of Massachusetts Amherst lovingly refers to as “pond scum.” But even pond scum has mysteries.

“It is still a mystery to scientists why the gel matrix forms or why it disappears, but some scientists believe the day length, the amount of sunshine and/or the temperature of the water play as much a crucial role as individual microorganisms in the life span of the green jelly balls. The only thing known about the formation of the colonies is that Ophrydium individuals or zooids are capable of separating from their holdfast roots in the gel and swimming freely to populate other areas. These free swimmers are called telotrochs. They usually attach themselves to suitable substrates such as aquatic plants and then return to the immobile zooid form.”

The ball or masses of single-celled—not plant, not animal—pond scum living in an ancient forest is clearly feeding imaginations and calling our attention back to those ancient monoliths that may be an indicator of the drought we may face tomorrow. Two mysteries of the deep, clinging to each other, each with stories to tell.

Kleppe, the fisherman, caught these ancient trees and mysterious blobs. But more importantly, he caught and released public curiosity and imagination about the present, the past, the future and the unknown. It’s a fish tale of the sort from which legends are made.