Jellyfish Gone Wild

It’s spring break the oceans over.

Sign on beach in Australia. Credit: Dr. Jamie Seymour, James Cook University

Sign on beach in Australia. Credit: Dr. Jamie Seymour, James Cook University

Australia’s beaches regularly host many types of toxic gelatinous animals, including the notorious Portuguese Man-of-War and Chironex fleckeri, a type of box jellyfish that is the world’s most venomous animal; a Chironex can kill a person in under three minutes.

In addition, some species of potentially deadly box jellyfish known as Irukandji jellyfish are currently increasing in number in Australian waters, possibly because of climate change. These peanut-sized jellyfish are small enough to slip through nets that protect Australia’s beaches from their larger Chironex cousins.
The National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation has published an extensive report on the Dead Zone/jellyfish connections, but I thought I’d quote the article’s description of the upsides of jellyfish:

ECOLOGICAL ROLES OF JELLYFISH

Plying the world’s oceans for over 500 million years, gelatinous creatures have influenced marine communities almost as long as marine communities have existed.

As prey, gelatinous creatures are eaten by seabirds, pink salmon, sun fish, turtles and other gelatinous creatures.  (Animals that eat jellyfish are not impacted by their stings.)  As predators, gelatinous creatures eat fish eggs and larvae, invertebrates, small, floating creatures called zooplankton and other gelatinous creatures.

Scientists are continuing to identify new ecological services provided by jellyfish.  For example, recent studies show that the tentacles dangling from the Bering Sea’s large jellyfish provide hiding places for young pollock that are pursued by other predators but have grown too big for the jellyfish to eat.

…This last upside, while über poetic (Jellyfish-as-beaded-curtain; Quick! let’s duck out of harm’s way and hide in this undulating petticoat) does make me wonder if the upsides are outweighed by an anvil-load of problems.

Jellyfish Fantasy Hall or The Rise of Slime?

Enter the Jellyfish Fantasy Hall at Enoshima Aquarium south of Tokyo and you will find yourself surrounded by dazzling swarms of gently pulsating creatures… Jellyfish, which have inhabited the world’s oceans in one form or another for over one billion years, come in a dizzying array of shapes, sizes and colors.
– from Pink Tentacle

Japanese sea nettle

Japanese sea nettle

It’s an interesting time to be celebrating these Ophelia-esque critters who mark so many things, from alien beauty to changing oceans (beautiful horror/reality in this LA Times editorial on “Altered Oceans“). It’s not surprising to find that the phrases “The Rise of Slime” or “Invasion of the The Jellyfish Blooms” read like science fiction.

Rising temperatures in the oceans are a root cause of these blooms, attributable to ocean acidity levels, toxic sewage and animal waste  runoffs, fertilizer dumping (fish or land farming), overfishing and other pollutants. “The Rise of Slime,” a return to primordial oceans,  is one descriptor of a Dead Zone,  a drastic reduction in the ocean’s oxygen levels. Jellyfish are one of the only animals who can thrive in this climate.

The EPOCA/Ocean Acidification blog sums it up nice and heavy:

“They are calling it “the other CO2 problem”. Its victim is not the polar bear spectacularly marooned on a melting ice floe, or an eagle driven out of its range, nor even a French pensioner dying of heatstroke. What we have to mourn are tiny marine organisms dissolving in acidified water.

In fact we need to do rather more than just mourn them. We need to dive in and save them. Suffering plankton may not have quite the same cachet as a 700-kilo seal-eating mammal, but their message is no less apocalyptic. What they tell us is that the chemistry of the oceans is changing, and that, unless we act decisively, the limitless abundance of the sea within a very few decades will degrade into a useless tidal desert.”

Nomura bloom, Dead Zone expanding

Nomura bloom, in the expanding "Dead Zone"

Link to some info on the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone, currently the largest in the world.

Link to more general information about Dead Zones and the jellyfish connection