Monday, July 16, 2012

Jellyfish Bio 101: Local Identification, Local Research

When approaching the final few semesters of college, I began to lament the fact that I didn't have that typical group of "College Buddies" like those so important to the plot lines in a generic comedic movie. Very few of my family members actually went to college, so I knew people with "High School Buddies" and still have several of those myself - but the feeling that I had missed out on some beautiful part of the college experience was looming in the rafters.

Then, I seized the opportunity to live, eat, and breathe marine science at one of the most ground breaking facilities in the world with a group of 9 other similarly minded individuals as part of the Semester by the Sea program at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. While I could easily blog for a year about the adventures and experiences had during that pivotal time in my education (and when I find those photos I will do just that!), I would like to focus on one specific colleage, Evan Orellana. We learned to surf together, although he pursued it with passion and I plateaued quickly, and I consider him a life-long "college buddy" for sure.

Evan, without the promises of post-graduate bliss, also championed his own research on one of the local invasive species - the Tripedalia cystophora species of box jellyfish.  The box jellyfish is famous for A) having an extremely painful sting and B) being found in Australia.  There are actually several different species in the Cubozoa family, and 3... well, now 4 are found here in south Florida.
This newest invader is only one of several species of box jellies
So, today is a quick lesson on jellyfish.  This post will cover many species found here in south Florida but also provide information on the jellyfish life cycle, and perhaps more interestingly how they sting.  Yes, there will also be notes on what to do when stung by various types of jellies ranging from sea lice to the Portuguese man o' war.  The photos included in this segment come straight from the scientist buddy mentioned before, Evan Orellana, from his exceptional presention that he has already given at a variety of venues.  We have deemed him "the Jelly Man" as a tribute from the awesome title given to Marlin in Finding Nemo after he cleared a serious jellyfish bloom.

Jellyfish Biology 101: 
Disclaimer - These facts are the basics and a generalization of jellyfish species.  This will help you understand what you see in the water and on the beach. While well researched and accurate, I do not recommend this as a short cut for writing your own biology paper. If you are a biology major or want to know the real details about Evan's research, additional information about the paper can be found at the end of the blog post. Now that portion is something you can reference with your research papers, but please be sure to give credit where it is due and not refer to this blog as the original publication. To see his abstract jump to

On to the fun!
The jellyfish is not actually a fish. These invertebrates are generally characterized by a dome shaped "bell" and tentacles bearing stinging nematocyst. They are an ancient species with evidence in the fossil record dating back to the Cambrian era (570-505 million years ago).  The "medusa" is a stage in the jellyfish life cycle, and the first image brought to mind when you think "jellyfish".
Jellies use both asexual and sexual reproduction - smart move for an animal with no brain.
To put the above diagram in basic terms, jellyfish start out as polyps, very similar to corals.  They "bud" off into a floating form that eventually grows into the medusa we all recognize. The second reproductive stage yields planktonic planula that settle on a substrate (ideally a sold location like a rock) and then grow into a polyp. Cool, huh? Way simpler than that frog life cycle you had to learn back in high school bio.
The infamous stinging portion of a jellyfish is called the "nematocyst" and is located on the tentacles. These are used for capturing prey like tiny fish. Since jellyfish are so delicate, paralyzing their food is essential to avoid being torn up while trying to eat dinner.  The above diagram shows the stinging cells coiled up inside the nematocyst. When triggered, usually by contact, the nematocyst fires and shoots the thread out where it attaches to the victim.

This view of a tentacle up close shows thousands of tiny dots crammed into the larger casing. Think of it as yarn when bound up tightly, making it nice and compact while allowing for easy access.
The second close-up hones in on individual nematocysts, and the coiled up threads are still very active and waiting to fire.  This is why finding a jellyfish on the beach, live or dead, can be able to sting! Those cells are still under tension and will fire upon contact.

HINT: Don't pick up a jellyfish when it washes ashore just to show your friends or family. Walk them over to where you found it and just point. Plus, now they will know what to avoid while on a nice beach walk.

So, what does one do when stung? Going back to basic chemistry, think of how acids and bases can neutralize each other.  To offset the burning from a jellyfish sting, here are the most common treatments and why they work (or maybe don't):
1. Ammonia is weak base (11.6 on the pH scale), and it is also what gives cat urine that oh-so identifiable stench. Many are told to pee on a jellyfish sting, but this is not usually very affective.
2. Vinegar is a very strong acetic acid, so it doesn't burn skin. With a pH of around 2.4, vinegar is acidic enough to neutralize the jellyfish venom. Yay! And it still smells better than pee. I have learned from personal experience that the type of vinegar doesn't seem to matter; this includes using the vinegar condiments right off the table at a BBQ place in the keys - still worked!
3. Perhaps the WORST thing you can do is douse the sting in COLD FRESHwater. This causes any nematocysts still on the skin to fire like crazy. Saltwater will not make the stingers release, but this also does not help with the pain if you have already been stung. HOT or very warm freshwater does do the trick. When snorkeling virtually everyday, we would place a large jug of tap water on the beach; by the time we exited the water, it was nice and toasty.  Rinsing off with this water relieved my husband's jellyfish stings (usually man o' war, sea lice, or moon jelly) but prevented any outbreaks from sea lice when washing off at the cold freshwater stations near the bathrooms.
NOTE: Individuals may react quite differently to jellyfish stings depending on the severity and quantity. Serious allergic reactions may occur.  Tell-tale signs include tightness of chest and/or shortness of breath. In this case, call 9-1-1. Simple topical treatment of the whelps will not be enough.  If there is swelling and pain, but no trouble breathing, just calm down.  Boat captains/dive masters and lifeguards deal with this everyday and should be perfectly capable of helping.

Years ago, a friend in the Florida Keys had a very sweet mutt that she would take to the beach.  One such visit resulted in her poor little dog getting wrapped up in a Portuguese man-o-war and the tentacles became very tangled in its fur. She rushed her dog to the vet where they gave steroid shots and diphenhydramine (benadryl/major ingredient in anti-allergy meds and tylenol pm as a sleep aid).  After waking that evening, the dog started shrieking and her owner repeated the process. At work the following day she was in tears and at a loss on what to do. "Give her a vinegar bath, just use the cheap stuff", I advised. Sure enough, she returned home and quickly had a very happy and pain free dog (although the smell of wet dog and salad dressing seems like olfactory overload to me).
Jellyfish are amazing and found world wide. They are microscopic but also over 20 feet long, can be found in the deep ocean with striking bioluminescence and even reside in freshwater coves.  It would be easy to spend a career striving to understand and appreciate the diversity of these animals, but this snap shot of identifications will at least help improve your beach walk and snorkeling on the east coast of Florida.
True jellies are Cnidarians (phylum). Locally some of the most common species are pictured below. Just check out the caption for identification:
Upside down jellyfish (discussed further in the 7/12 blog posting)
The Moon Jelly is extremely common and quite beautiful in the water.

Moon Jellyfish often wash ashore and can still sting despite the short tentacles

True Jellyfish are Scyphozoans

The thimble jellyfish is more commonly known as "sea lice"

Sea lice is actually the thimble jellyfish. This true jelly is very common in our waters, and it is the smaller medusa stage in the life cycle (see diagram noted earlier) before the animal reaches sexual maturity that has the uncanny ability to sting all along the edges of one's swimsuit. The thimble jelly is one of the 4 different species of box jellyfish found in Florida waters now. Just look at the box-like shape of its body to figure why it is considered a Cubozoan.
A "true" jelly is defined by how it buds off from the polyp.  While in this phase of reproduction, true jellyfish are stacked on top of each other like miniature stinging pancakes and the animal at the top of the stack is released in succession.

The fabulous and colorful comb jelly has no stinging nematocysts. They are Ctenophores, not Cnidarians
Also not "true" jellies, these species are generally harmless to humans. Their stinging cells are usually not strong enough to break through the skin... Man-o-War EXCLUDED of course.
When on the beach, check out the conditions board before crossing the dune. If jellies have been washing ashore in significant quantities, a warning should be posted. Also look at the lifeguard tower's flags - PURPLE flag = jellyfish sighted that day in the area.  While walking along, particularly after a night of rough seas, there will probably be all sorts of cool things washed up with the sea weed.  Sometimes large wads of "sea snot" might be mistaken for a jellyfish. When in doubt, don't pick it up; but if you still are willing to take the risk, the ball of clear gelatinous goo that has no tentacles, striations or body structure is actually the feeding sack of a tube worm. These little critters create sticky snot-like balloons to catch bits of plankton and algae for the worm to eat without having to leave the safety of its hole. These balloons get tattered and break away, or the worm might just release them as a quick clean up when the in-laws are coming to visit unannounced. They have no nematocysts and cannot harm humans... unless you tried to eat one, but then maybe that person should get nauseated. This last bit of information is speculation. NO WAY am I gonna test that theory and neither should your toddler.

Not all creatures are susceptible to the jelly's sting. Sea turtles, for instance, are one of many ocean dwellers that use jellyfish as a major food source. While all species of sea turtle will eat jellies, they are the primary food source for the leatherback in particular. So the largest of all marine turtles, often weighing up to 1,000 lbs, survives solely on an animal that mostly water (95-98% depending on the resource)!

Another term commonly attached to the jellyfish, particularly in the media, is the "bloom".  Many different species of jellyfish are known to suddenly aggregate in abnormally high densities. This can be caused by removing the major predators in an area (leatherback turtles, for instance, are critically endangered) but also by environmental changes such as nutrient run off from the land into the sea, or by significant climate changes. Higher ocean temperatures have also been correlated to large jellyfish blooms in areas like the Gulf of Mexico.

Okay, the following is the abstract to Evan Orellana's actual published work. The topic of invasive species are finally gaining some general public interest, but the realization that exotics often end up in the wrong ecosystem without having been introduced as a pet (i.e. pythons in the Everglades) has not quite set in.  Marine exotics are a particular problem because all life on earth needs water, and when the balance of health is compromised starting with the water resources for an environment, serious problems may take hold quickly and be extremely difficult to control.  Prior to Orellana's findings, only 3 species of Cubozoans (box jellyfish) were found in south Florida; the addtion of a 4th is significant.  Even now this species is being spotted further north in Florida, so his research continues and we will follow his work closely.  (I did have some formatting issues while transferring the pdf into this post. While all of the information is verbatim, I might have missed some italicizes here and there. My apologies) Enjoy!

First report of the box jellyfish  Tripedalia cystophora (Cubozoa: Tripedaliidae) in the continental USA, from Lake Wyman, Boca Raton, Florida">

Marine Biodiversity Records, page 1 of 3. # Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 2011  doi:10.1017/S1755267211000133; Vol. 4; e54; 2011 Published online
First report of the box jellyfish Tripedalia cystophora (Cubozoa: Tripedaliidae) in the continental USA, from Lake Wyman, Boca Raton, Florida

Gumbo Limbo Nature Centre, 1801 North Ocean Boulevard, Boca Raton, FL 33432, USA, 2NMFS, National Systematics Laboratory, National Museum of Natural History, MRC-153, Smithsonian Institution, PO Box 37012, Washington, DC 20013-7012, USA

A male specimen of Tripedalia cystophora (Cubozoa: Tripedaliidae) was collected from Lake Wyman, Boca Raton, Florida, USA. This is the first report of this species from the continental United States and brings the total known number of cubozoan species living in this region to four. Lake Wyman is a natural lagoon/estuary ecosystem which is part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. The box jellyfish was found in shallow water around the roots of the red mangrove, Rhizophora mangle, where it was observed feeding on copepods attracted to light. This finding may indicate a local population in the waters of south Florida, USA, but an isolated occurrence cannot be ruled out.
Keywords: Cubomedusae
Submitted 5 May 2010; accepted 21 January 2011


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O¨stman C. (2000) A guideline to nematocyst nomenclature and classification, and some notes on the systematic value of nematocysts. Scientia Marina 64, Supplement 1, 31–46. Stewart S. (1996) Field behavior of Tripedalia cystophora (Class Cubozoa). Marine and Freshwater Behaviour and Physiology 27, 175–188.

Werner B. (1973) Spermatozeugmen und Paarungsverhalten bei Tripedalia cystophora (Cubomedusae). Spermatozeugmata and mating behavior in Tripedalia cystophora (Cubomedusae). Marine Biology 18, 212–217. [In German, with English abstract.]Correspondence should be addressed to:
E.R. Orellana
Gumbo Limbo Nature Centre
1801 North Ocean Boulevard
Boca Raton
FL 33432, USA

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