Is the world ready for this jelly?

Idontthinkyoureready.jpg

You can't tell from the photo, but this jellyfish is huge. Nomura jellyfish, native to the waters off China and Japan, can grow to be the size of a refrigerator, and weigh up to 400 pounds. And, since the 1990s, there's a lot more of them. Swarms, 500 million jellies strong, have sunk ships, writes Brandon Keim in Wired. It's part of a global increase in jellyfish populations. Right now, nobody's sure whether this is a blip, or a new normal. But everybody would like to know how jellyfish affect ecosystems, and new research offers some sobering analysis.

In what may be the most comprehensive jellyfish study to date, Condon's group spent nearly four years gathering data from Chesapeake Bay on Mnemiopsis leidyi and Chrysaora quinquecirrha, two species that have caused trouble elsewhere and are considered representative of jellyfish habits worldwide.

The researchers counted them at sea, measured the nutrients in surrounding water, and calculated the composition of nearby bacterial communities. In the lab, they observed how bacteria in seawater reacted to jellyfish, and tracked chemicals flowing through their aquariums.

They found that jellyfish, like many other marine species, excrete organic compounds as bodily wastes and as slime that covers their bodies. But whereas the excretions of other species are consumed by bacteria that form important parts of oceanic food webs, jellyfish excretions nourish gammaproteobacteria, a class of microbes that little else in the ocean likes to eat, and that produces little of further biological use.

"Lots of marine creatures make this dissolved organic matter that bacteria use to live. But the point of this paper is that the organic matter produced by jellies doesn't make it back up the food web," said study co-author Deborah Steinberg, also a Virginia Institute of Marine Science biologist. "When jellies are around, they're shunting this energy into a form that's just not very usable. They're just shunting energy away from the rest of the food web."

Nomura jellyfish photo by KENPEI, used via CC

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  1. Hey, I need that food web, I eat from it all the time. Are going to be shunted into extinction?

  2. “When jellies are around, they’re shunting this energy into a form that’s just not very usable. They’re just shunting energy away from the rest of the food web.”

    Reaganomics.

  3. What is the likelihood that a rise in jellyfish population coincides with a decline in fish population, perhaps due to over-fishing?

    Do fish compete with jellyfish for food, or do they have some other suppressive effect on jellyfish?

  4. Guess we’re gonna have to start liking jellyfish excretions and gammaproteobacteria. Any of you paleo-munchers want first crack?

  5. The very next BoingBoing post had BETTER be a tentacley thing, for the Jellyfish/Cthulu/FSM trifecta!!!

  6. “The organic matter produced by jellies doesn’t make it back up the food web…”

    …for now.

    Seriously, are there barriers to species adapting to eating gammaproteobacteria? I.e. are they anaerobic and living in sulpher vents where oxygen breathing species can’t survive?

    Or do we just need to get some modernist chefs on this?

    1. There are probably barriers to them doing so in time to ensure that entire existing ecosystems don’t suffer. In the long run, maybe things balance out, but then, in evolutionary terms, we and our kids and grandkids all live in the short run.

    2. “Seriously, are there barriers to species adapting to eating gammaproteobacteria? I.e. are they anaerobic and living in sulpher vents where oxygen breathing species can’t survive?”

      Yes, you’ve got that exactly right. “An exceeding number of important pathogens belongs to this class” including salmonella, the plague and cholera. They oxidize hydrogen sulfide and excrete sulfur. So yeah, a slight obstacle there.

  7. How is this story “sobering”? Do we normally walk around in an intoxicated state until some blog post snaps us back to reality?

  8. : hey, any scientists want to find some way to use these for the good of mankind? ideas:

    biofuel
    jelly

  9. Somebody check to make sure those jellyfish aren’t undead.

    Jellyfish: the zombies of the sea.

  10. @Kosmoid: sobering = making one thoughtful or sober (m-w.com). So it’s not incorrect, just the slightly more metaphoric sense of the word.

  11. I remember going to a Zoo camp with my 6 year old daughter about the oceans. The zoologist made a point of explaining to the kids that scientists had decided to change the names of Starfish and Jellyfish because they are not actually fish. We found this rather amusing and have since taken to calling these creatures Jelly-not-fish.

  12. If it’s energy that doesn’t go up the food chain is there any chance this locks up carbon?

    1. In an alternate universe, jellyfish are candy and gummi bears terrorize campers.

    1. Yeah, they are actually edible. I had one at a sushi place near home. Personally, not what I’d normally crave, but no worse than other things I’ve eaten at a sushi bar (I’m looking at YOU Sea Urchin).

      Not a bad idea for targeting invasive species – make em gourmet. Down in the Keys they are hosting Lionfish hunts and turning them into ceviche. Even made a cookbook about it.

  13. Am I the only person who thinks that BoingBoing headline would make a great t-shirt?

  14. “jellyfish excretions nourish gammaproteobacteria, a class of microbes that little else in the ocean likes to eat”

    They shouldn’t worry, something will be along in a few hundred thousand/million years that’ll gobble that stuff right up.

  15. They look like that, live in the ocean, and they’re stealing away Earth’s carbon cycle? Cthulhu!

    Jellyfish are a pretty common appetizer in some kinds of Chinese restaurants, served cold and usually relatively plain but occasionally with spicy stuff or sesame.

  16. It seems a rather sweeping conclusion to say their organic excretions don’t back up the food web. This sounds a lot like doctors in the 1960s removing adenoids as a matter of course because nobody knew what they did–therefore they have no good function. It’s easier to believe that the jellyfish study wasn’t comprehensive enough to reveal the function of the excretions in the food web. Or that if the organic excretions of the massive oceanic population of jellyfish were consumed by the usual bacteria, then everything else would go whacky. Or any one of a dozen other things. It’s elementary that there is a balance in the “food web” because that is one of its essential characteristics. The study was done in connection with the inquiry about whether a balance in the jellyfish population has been disturbed, but that question is unrelated to this surprising conclusion about the apparent lack function of jellyfish secretions in the food web.

  17. Jellyfish are not like metroids or Cthulu. Cthulu and metroids are like jellyfish. Man, it’s like you guys have spent more time on-line than in the ocean.

  18. Alas, the ocean sunfish does not travel unmolested. From that wikipedia article:

    “Sunfish are accidentally but frequently caught in drift gillnet fisheries, making up nearly 30% of the total catch of the swordfish fishery employing drift gillnet in California. The by-catch rate is even higher for the Mediterranean swordfish industry, with 71% to 90% of the total catch being sunfish/
    The fishery by-catch and destruction of ocean sunfish are unregulated worldwide. In some areas, the fish are “finned” by fishermen who regard them as worthless bait thieves; this process, in which the fins are cut off, results in the eventual death of the fish, because it can no longer propel itself without its dorsal and anal fins. The species is also threatened by floating litter such as plastic bags which resemble jellyfish, its main food. Bags can choke and suffocate an individual or fill its stomach to the extent that it starves.

    1. Which is why Sunfish Michael Pollan advocates that molas not eat anything that their great-grandmothers would not have recognizes as jellyfish.

  19. “They’re just shunting energy away from the rest of the food web.””

    That sounds like carbon fixation. If organics are not being ate, then what else is happening to them?

  20. Just FYI, ocean sunfish taste so bad nobody eats them. That’s how come they get so gigantic… ocean sunfish the size of volkswagens are no big deal.

  21. “When jellies are around, they’re shunting this energy into a form that’s just not very usable. They’re just shunting energy away from the rest of the food web.”

    Kind of like people?

  22. To everybody who thinks that the evil jellies at least help with carbon fixation: No, not even that, they steal carbon and increase the CO2 output. The Wired article (second link in the announcement) has a diagram of the carbon cycle with and without jellies.

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