Philosophy and Jellyfish

Jellyfish have a subtle way of pushing your mind to the philosophical. Maybe it’s because they are hard to understand and lack of understanding easily morphs into abstraction. One night this month, Keith was out at an evening meeting, so I threw food on the dinner table, mac and cheese, olives (my kids love olives), grapes–stuff that’s fast and with a low complaint-to-acceptance ratio. I sat down to eat with them, while recordings of my conversation with an Italian jellyfish scientist named Fernando Boero reverberated in my head. I’d been wrestling with his philosophy all week. I put a conjecture to my kids, as Boero did to me. ”Suppose I tell you that all jellyfish are clear. Then you go to the beach and find 50 clear jellyfish. Can you say that my statement is true?” “No,” Isy says, surprising me a little because she usually has little tolerance for my brain games. […]

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Who’s Been Naughty?

Last week, the mauve stinger, Pelagia noctiluca, which has terrorized beaches in the Mediterranean for years, swarmed into a salmon farm, Loch Duart, off the Scottish coast. The berry-sized jellies slipped through the nets that hold the salmon and lodged themselves in the gills of the fish. Loch Duart is located on one of the oldest aquaculture sites in Scotland, and it’s committed to sustainable farming. It has nine sites, but only farms six at a time. The other three remain fallow, a practice also encouraged by sustainable land-based farming. On land, fallowing gives the environment a chance to return to its natural condition, and in the sea it does too. Importantly, fallowing in the ocean cuts down on the populations of sea lice that infest salmon kept together in pens. These parasites latch on to the skin of the fish, opening them up to infection. Hoping to keep sea lice levels […]

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Suez Backstory

A story that forewarns of ecosystem demise begins, for me, with two deaths. On October 17, the effervescent Heather Kahout lost her three-year battle with cancer. Heather and her husband Martin took a chance on me when I was really just a textbook writer and offered me a writing residency at Madroño Ranch, where, since they believed in me as a writer, I had to begin to believe in myself as well. Martin famously referred to Heather on Facebook as L&THCK, and it took me a while to realize what that meant. (She was anything but THiCK.) Until one day it clicked: the Lovely and Talented Heather Catto Kahout, which just about sums her up perfectly. From the first time I met Heather, I felt like I could talk with her animatedly about both the complex and the mundane. It was an unusual sensation, and […]

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Playing Lotto in the Sea

When I was in grad school, my advisor took a sabbatical and then a few leaves of absence to work at the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, or FAO, in Rome. I visited often and I fell in love with the country, it’s food, and energy, and left a small piece of my heart there, where it’s remained for the last 19 years. When my husband Keith told me he had a business trip that would take him to Rome this month, I decided I should go along, and see how my heart was doing. I justified the trip by wrangling an interview with one of the most well-known jellyfish scientists in Italy, Fernando Boero. During the first months of my jellyfish research, I ran across a paper Boero wrote called, “Gelatinous plankton: irregularities rule the world (sometimes),” which made chuckle. Turns out Boero has a penchant for provoking titles (and […]

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It’s All About That Base

No, not the bass that Meghan Trainor’s been singing about so infectiously all summer. It’s all about the base of the animal tree of life. This month’s science news is full of stories from the deep past, which means we know a bit more about the murky ancient world of jellies. A group of researchers from the University of Cambridge discovered a 560 million year old fossil in a cave Newfoundland, Canada. Like the few known fossils from that time, it’s soft bodied. Unlike any other fossil of that age, parallel rows run through the stone like rake-lines in the sand. These are the oldest muscles we’ve ever found: they predate the previous record-holder by 100 million years. And we are pretty sure they belonged to a type of jellyfish. Scientists named the brawny creature Haootia quadriformis. Haoot comes from the language of the indigenous people of Newfoundland meaning […]

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On the Beach in Qingdao: Face-kinis and Giant Jellies

One thing I love about my jellyfish work is the twisty path research often follows, a path that often ends in a place I could have never predicted. Last week my jellyfish Google alert, which notifies me of articles with the word “jellyfish” every afternoon, sent me to a story in the Huffington Post on a new trend for women in the Chinese resort town of Qingdao. It’s sure to catch on with fashion-conscious bank robbers: the face-kini. These masks made from neon swimsuit material are meant to preserve the fair skin that’s said to be a sign of beauty, and a signal you haven’t spent days working the fields. But they come with one other benefit too, according to the article. They protect against jellyfish stings. Just how bad are the jellies in China? Getting worse. A 2010 paper in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, reported over 2,000 […]

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