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Star Jelly: The Mysterious Phenomenon That Inspired ‘The Blob’

For hundreds of years, people have reported blobs of strange gelatinous substances on the ground that they presumed had fallen from the skies. Old texts dating as far back as the 14th century have described them as translucent or grayish-white slimy goo, that tended to evaporate shortly after having “fallen.” The 13th century English physician, John of Gaddesden, mentions stella terrae (or “star of the earth”) in his medical writings, describing it as “a certain mucilaginous substance lying upon the earth” and suggesting that it might be used to treat abscesses. The unidentified gooey substance soon began to be associated with shooting stars and comets, as they often appeared after meteor showers. A 14th century Latin medical glossary has an entry that describes “a certain fatty substance emitted from the earth, that is commonly called 'a star which has fallen'”. That’s how the mysterious droppings got the name “star jelly”.

the blob

What exactly is star jelly is hard to determine. It certainly didn’t fall from the stars, and almost all samples that have been examined so far have turned out to be some sort of biological growth. The most common explanation is that star jelly is unfertilized frog spawn that had been ripped out of the abdomen by predators such as birds. Or they are gelatinous food disgorged by animals. At least some of the sightings are amphibian innards, as identified by Baylis from star jelly samples collected from Dartmoor in 1926. Baylis found oviducts and ovaries with black eggs along with remnants of an alimentary tract and bladder of a frog or toad in the samples, confirming the theory that some jelly deposits are of amphibian origin.

Star jelly discovered during autumn can be explained by this phenomenon. During this season, the adult female frog carries a batch of eggs ready to lay the following spring. As the eggs pass down the oviduct, each egg is surrounded by jelly secreted by the oviduct wall. This jelly is relatively small in volume, but when they come in contact with water, they expand enormously. If a predator catches a frog and tears apart the ovaries it will release the jelly, which will absorb water from soil and rain and become large masses that people see.

Star Jelly

Image credit: Rossographer/geograph.ie

Star Jelly

Image credit: Richard Webb/Geograph.org.uk

Many star jelly blobs are also probably slime molds. Slime molds are an unusual kind of organism that can live freely as single cells, but can aggregate together to form multicellular structures that can reproduce and move about as a single body. They were originally thought to be fungi, but are no longer classified as such. Slime molds live off dead plant matter feeding on microorganisms. They appear as gelatinous slime and can easily be mistaken for star jelly.

Star jelly sightings are fairy common. In 2008, BBC Radio Scotland asked its listeners to send in details about any sightings to their webpage and comment on what they thought the jelly might be. In just four months, over 130 sightings were posted from all over Britain, including 47 from Scotland, where the phenomenon is known as “pwdre ser”.

Many modern sightings, however, turn out to be something completely different. In 1979, a Texas resident reported several purple blobs of goo on her front yard following a Perseid meteor shower. Investigators suspected the compound came from a nearby battery reprocessing plant, although there is some skepticism in the conclusion.

Star Jelly

Image credit: ssames/Flickr

Star Jelly

Image credit: BBC

Star Jelly

Image credit: BBC

Star Jelly

Image credit: BBC

One obscure sighting, later made famous by a Hollywood movie, occurred in Philadelphia in 1950, when two policemen saw on the streets a large, quivering mass of jelly, six feet across and about a foot thick at the center. They reported that the jelly gave off a dull purple glow. When they tried to pick it up, it dissolved into an odorless, sticky scum. This incident allegedly became the inspiration for Steve McQueen's 1958 horror movie The Blob, where an alien entity with a large gelatinous body crashes into Earth on a meteorite. The Blob was a cheesy B-grade monster/horror flick that immediately became a cult classic. It was also the first movie where Steve McQueen appeared in a leading role.

the blob movie

The enduring mystery of star jelly continued to inspire Hollywood. In the 1978 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, alien spores fall to Earth in a rain shower and form blobs of jelly that grow into flowers which produce the seed pods.

Aside from movie makers, star jelly have inspired many poets and novelists including H. P. Lovecraft, whose short story, The Colour Out of Space, is about an unidentifiable substance that falls to earth during a meteor shower.

Sir John Suckling, an English poet who invented the card game cribbage, wrote a poem in 1641, a part of which reads:

As he whose quicker eye doth trace
A false star shot to a mark'd place
Do's run apace,
And, thinking it to catch,
A jelly up do snatch

Another reference is found in the poem The Talisman by the 18th century poet William Somervile.

Swift as the shooting star, that gilds the night
With rapid transient Blaze, she runs, she flies;
Sudden she stops nor longer can endure
The painful course, but drooping sinks away,
And like that falling Meteor, there she lyes
A jelly cold on earth.

The most recent sighting of star jelly was in Goochland County in Virginia, the United States, in June 2019, where a couple found five small piles of strange crushed-ice like substance, but gelatinous in nature. An agricultural expert in Chesterfield County took a look at it under a microscope but failed to find evidence of a living organism. To the relief (and probably some disappointment) of the couple, the expert concluded that the substance was a man-made, water-based polymer used in gardening as a soil replacement.

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