Thursday, July 14, 2011

If Jellyfish Could Talk

What would they say. I got all fired up about this topic early in July, when stories surfaced, that blooms of jellyfish had shut down two nuclear power plants. One June 21st in western Japan and another in Torness, Scotland on the North Sea on June 30th. "Both plants were manually shut down due to high volumes of jellyfish fouling the cooling system water screens." Memorial Day weekend mauve stingers showed up on the coast of Florida, stinging over 1,000 people in one weekend. They had not been seen in Florida before.

I got curious. These swarms of jellyfish are called blooms, which seems appropriate as jellyfish bodies are radially symmetrical, a form more commonly associated with flowers. This symmetry allows them to swim or drift in a straight line in some fashion and apparently for great distances. They are the Medusozoa and number 2,770 different species in four different classes. They range in size from the Austrailian Irukundji, the size of a fingernail to the Lion's Mane that is 8 to 10 feet in diameter with tentacles 100 or more feet long. Some are beautiful, some are deadly and curiously the Portuguese Man of War is not one of them. It is actually a colony of four different critters. They sting to kill their lunch because they cannot afford to have a fish flopping around inside their soft bodies.

They are difficult to maintain in aquariums, but you can see them at Kure Beach at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher and the Aquarium in Atlanta.

That's the fun stuff, now here is the scary bit.

Jellyfish have lived for over 600 million years, surviving five mass extinctions of plants and animals. They are 300 million years older than fish and insects and 3x older than dinosaurs.

We have 400 dead zones in our oceans. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico was 5,200 square miles in 1985, this year it is estimated to have grown to 9,000 square miles. Most animals swim away from these dead zones or perish. Jellyfish don't mind this hostile environment. They can change the chemical makeup of the water shifting the entire food web. They remove more food energy from the seas than they put in. They gobble up plankton and small fish and in return they release sugary goo that only bacteria consume. But the story doesn't end there. The goo slows down the bacteria metabolism, because apparently they gorge on it and the only thing they release under these circumstances back into the water is, "ta dah" carbon dioxide. More acidic water, less oxygen, bigger dead zones. Reminiscent of the little old lady who swallowed the fly.

Most creatures do not like to eat jellyfish, those that do, loggerhead turtles for one, are in decline. We don't eat them for the most part as they have very little protein and an unappetizing texture. The Chinese go through 18 separate steps of preparation to make them somewhat edible.

So the jellyfish are creating a food web that is far more primitive and like one that existed 550 million years ago. Their blooms are thought to be a sign of a degraded environment and they are showing up in new places all over the world. So what would they say….maybe "Hi honey I'm home."

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