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Stung! Jellyfish blooms

On May 17, 2013, Dr. Lisa-ann Gershwin gave a presentation at CMA and debuted her book Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean. Gershwin’s career actually started at CMA when her third grade class visited the Aquarium and she decided right then and there to become a marine biologist. Twenty-years later, as a volunteer in CMA’s jelly lab, Gershwin became enchanted by the moon jellies that resembled “living lava lamps” and decided to study jellyfish.

Today, Gershwin is director of the Australian Marine Stinger Advisory Services and is considered to be one of the world’s foremost experts on jellies. She has discovered more than 150 new species, including 16 highly dangerous jellyfish. During the lecture, Gershwin took the audience on an ocean odyssey, demonstrating how the health of our oceans and jellyfish populations are forever intertwined.

“Jellyfish blooms are the visible indicator that something is not quite right for an ecosystem, that something is out of balance,” said Gershwin. “When an ecosystem is nice and healthy, jellyfish can’t get the proverbial foot in the door. They bloom as a normal part of their lifecycle, but blooms come and go and they don’t last very long, it’s just a normal seasonal thing.”

Gershwin showed photo after photo of abnormally large jellyfish blooms that persist for months and sometimes even years in certain parts of the world. These blooms are so massive that they can be seen from space! She explained that the size and duration of a jellyfish bloom indicates how severely an ecosystem is out of whack. But what’s causing such extreme imbalances in the ocean?

According to Gershwin, several human-generated environmental stressors are working together to create a very unstable ocean, including: overfishing, climate change, eutrophication (excess nutrient run-off), pollution, invasive species and ocean acidification. And while many other ocean species struggle to adapt and survive in such extreme circumstances, jellyfish thrive.

“Jellyfish are the ultimate weed. They grow fast, they don’t need to eat all the time, they can tolerate just about any temperature and salinity and even chemicals don’t bother them,” said Gershwin. “They are the ultimate survivors and through the past 600 million years of jellyfish in our oceans, other species have come and gone, while jellyfish have persisted just as they are.”

Despite being so successful, jellies are actually very primitive organisms and their ability to prosper for millions of years boils down to one thing: their lifecycle. Like many other ocean animals, male jellies broadcast sperm into the water column and then female jellies capture the sperm to fertilize their eggs. The eggs develop well-protected on the female’s oral arms (extended lips that look like tentacles). After a few days, the fertilized eggs grow into larvae and swim away in search of a nice place to settle on the ocean floor.

Once larvae find a suitable place to settle, they develop into polyps that start cloning and cloning and cloning. This cloning ability gives jellyfish a great advantage. “Pretty soon you end up with blankets of jellyfish. And when conditions are right they undergo a process called strobilation where the polyp elongates and differentiates into a stack of discs that pop up and become free floating jellyfish, and then they start eating and growing and soon there is another population of jellyfish” said Gershwin.

In fact, many of the environmental stressors that cause other animal populations to decline actually trigger jellyfish polyps to strobilate and kickoff the next generation. And the more jellyfish there are, the more imbalanced an ecosystem becomes as they decimate food sources, create more carbon dioxide from their waste, and use up the last bits of oxygen at the surface of dead zones.

Gershwin painted a grim picture of an ocean in the not so distant future peppered with coastal dead zones, plagued by jellyfish blooms, overwhelmed by pollution and wrought with invasive species. Yet, she still ended on a note of hope, “If we decide there’s value in the environment and what we get from the ocean, we can take steps to do something to slow these changes down. The more money we invest in research to try to find ways to not get there, we may actually be able to not get there. We have a choice.”

Post Date: Monday, June 03, 2013

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