Invertebrate Intermission

Screenshot from the day I turned in my manuscript to Riverhead.

It’s been a while since I posted here, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy with the jellies. Starting around Christmas, I went through an intense fact-checking/end-noting process with Spineless. I found that I could get through about a five pages a day–and the book is around 300 pages long. It was butt-in-the-chair, back-aching kind of work, rereading all the journal articles I’d used; relistening to all the interviews I’d recorded; pouring through my ugly handwritten notebooks; and double checking with experts.

Thankfully, I had help. A fabulous jellyfish scientist I met along the way read the entire book and gave me corrections on the science side. And I hired an independent fact-checker to double check all my work. I also worked with some super talented copy editors at Riverhead Books who found a few errors that slipped through all of that. But, it’s all done! I’m expecting the galleys (a pre-print hard copy version of the book) any day, and I can’t wait.

Despite my hiatus, the news about jellies didn’t stop. Here’s a couple stories from the last few months that you don’t want to miss:

Clinging jellyfish
Clinging jellyfish from Cape Cod. Photo credit Mary Carman, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, via PhysOrg

One of the most curious jellies that I wasn’t able to include in Spineless is the clinging jelly. It is so cool-looking; wouldn’t you love a chandelier made to look like one? These pencil eraser-sized jellies have been known since the early 1890’s in Eel Pond off Woods Hole, Massachusetts. They lived rather benignly on the seagrass that grew in the pond, clinging to the fronds with their sticky tentacles. Around the 1930’s the clinging jelly disappeared from Massachusetts, probably because of a decline in the sea grass.

But in the 1990’s off Cape Cod, people started reporting fierce jellyfish stings from sea grassy spots. The culprit was the clinging jellyfish, returned from its own hiatus. Except this time rather than being harmless, it packed a fierce sting. There were lots of questions. Had the clinging jelly simply gone undetected for 60 years? And why is its sting so terribly painful now? Was something in the environment causing the savage sting? Or was it a secondary invasion from someplace else, like Russia where clinging jellyfish were known to have a harsh sting?

A new study has tried to tease these questions apart by looking at the jellyfish’s DNA. But the story remains complicated. The DNA revealed many genetic varieties in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and the pattern is so complicated that it’s still hard to tell how all the mixing happened, though the authors propose several ideas. Here’s one: These jellies like calm tidal ponds where they can crawl around on seagrass. They are are never seen out in the open ocean were there are waves. So how all that genetic diversity got distributed around the world could depend on their tiny tiny polyp stage, which is just a millimeter in size, and might hitch a ride on a blade of grass or ships hull, or..though the authors don’t say it explicitly…a floating bit of plastic. We must never forget the powerful polyp.

Screen Shot 2017-04-19 at 11.49.36 AM
From: Hoving, H.J.T. and Haddock, S.H.D. The giant deep-sea octopus Haliphron atlanticus forages on gelatinous fauna. Sci. Rep. 7, 44952; doi: 10.1038/srep44952 (2017)

And here’s a great story of a deep-sea octopus making the most of its meal. Sure octopus tentacles can clasp, but can they fire poison-laden darts? No. But jellyfish tentacles can. So, coming across a gelatinous snack, this smart cephalopod seized an opportunity to bolster its arsenal.

Called the seven-armed octopus because males of the species modestly tuck away the arm that’s used in mating so that it’s out of sight. It can reach a length of 4 meters and a weight of 75 kg; the one in the picture is about a foot across. It was spotted from a remotely operated vehicle in the submarine canyon off of Monterey Bay, California at a depth of about 400 meters.

What’s so cool about it this picture is that the yellow stuff in its mouth is the remains of an egg-yolk jellyfish that the octopus was snacking on. Which alone is cool to catch on film because the number of creatures that eat jellyfish has probably been systematically underestimated and we can add the seven-armed octopus to the list.

But the yellow remains aren’t just akin to sloppy slurping creating a milk mustache. The scientists hypothesize that the octopus ate through the center of the jellyfish–they could see its beak reach out through the center in the video–and then purposely held on to the stinging bits. It used the jellyfish as a prey-catching tool, arming its undersides with jellyfish stinging cells, which still fire poisonous darts even if the jellyfish isn’t alive. It’s like stealing a cannon from another army.

And it might not be just this one clever octopus who does it. Another female of the same species with yellow undersides was spotted a few years ago. At the time, the researchers figured the yellow was eggs, but maybe it was a similarly captured jellyfish.

There’s one other tantalizing piece. During the day, the egg-yolk jellyfish lives at much shallower depths than the octopus, just 50 meters from the surface. So are the octopuses swimming up to the surface, seizing jellies, and then returning  to the depths with their captured weaponry? It’s the kind of plan that one Alexander Hamilton might find inspiring.

Cosmic Jelly
Credit: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2017 American Samoa

One last jellyfish that hit the news recently is this beauty from the deep sea, a stunning animal captured on the first day of NOAA’s Oceans Explorer Expedition in American Samoa. It was found near a sea mountain called Utu 3,000 meters below the surface. What’s really striking about it is that it has two sets of tentacles, some pointing upward, like over mascara-ed eyelashes, and others curled downward. And on second thought, maybe I’d like a chandelier designed to look like this gorgeous jelly instead. The scientists on the expedition say they’ve seen the species before, but it doesn’t yet have a scientific name, so they nicknamed it the Cosmic Jelly. If you need a pick me up, please click on the video link of this remarkable alien that shares our very own planet’s seas with us.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.