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The Jellyfish Incident

July 23, 2010

Rheanna Sand

 

Science in Seconds Blog by Rheanna Sand

BP may have finally capped the oil gusher, but the problems have just begun for the Gulf of Mexico and its inhabitants. Amid reports that oil is "hard to find" on the surface, the fact remains that giant undersea plumes of dispersed oil droplets are sitting in the water column, priming the food web with a major injection of nutrients.

 

Well that doesn't sound so bad - I mean, come on, nutrients!? How bad could more food be for the tiniest of scavengers and filter feeders? The Gulf will just take care of itself! Yes… if you mean that in the Pulp Fiction "take care" kind of way. Strange things will happen in the years to come from this slow-motion disaster.

 

Take your average group of jellies. They gently feed on plankton, surviving long enough to get through their complex life cycle. Maybe they get to sting a person once, if they are lucky. But given a juicy tide of plankton, overpopulated from eating oil, a group of jellyfish quickly become a swarm, which quickly destroys fishing boats, terrorizes beachgoers, and decimates salmon farms. Like political activists of the sea, with a stinging anarchist slant.

 

Even one can be trouble: just ask the 150 people who were stung by a single dead lionsmane jellyfish yesterday at a New Hampshire beach. The creature, about the size of a garbage can lid, was floating toward the populated area, and the lifeguards decided to use the most delicate of all collection tools - a pitchfork - to haul it into shore. Given that a jellyfish has no skeleton, only a spongy layer called mesoglea for support, it was ripped to shreds, the tide washing stinging cnidocytes into the horde of swimmers. Talk about jelly martyrdom! Take that, polluters!

Unfortunately, the big polluters probably weren't at the beach in New Hampshire on that fateful day, so they will never know the jellyfish struggle that is about to get more intense in the Gulf. Like protestors locked away from the summit, jellies aren't really heard until they act out, at which point they conveniently become the villain instead of the victim.

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