THE BLOG

The Discreet Charm of the Jellyfish

Jul 21, 2014 | Updated Sep 20, 2014

We love them in fish tanks at aquariums, but we loathe them on our shores at the beach. Very beautiful and eerily fascinating, jellyfish are a most mysterious species. Some are called medusa, in reference to a monster in Greek mythology with snakes instead of hair; a more exact term for jellyfish is gelatinous zooplankton, a broader description for the animals, which are not all fish.

The beauty of some of the jellies is -should we say- out of this world. They populate every ocean on Earth and some fresh waters too. Most of them are shaped as umbrellas, some are bell-shaped, others are a simple flat disk, and all are formed of 95 to 98 percent of water. They are just drops of colored water in seas of water. Almost invisible and certainly stealth-like.

Raise your hand if you have never been stung by the marine beasts. The tentacles of certain jellyfish can be a very painful experience, ever heard of Portuguese man-of-war stings? An Australian sea wasp hit can kill a man in less than three minutes. But the beauty of these animals kept safely tucked behind glass walls are endless source of admiration and mesmerizing gaze, as their movements and looks are one of the most unusual behavior to be witnessed.

A new book is coming out in September by biologist Jacqueline Goy and Robert Calcagno, the director of the Oceanographic Institute of Monaco, titled in French "Méduses, à la conquête des océans" or The Conquest of Oceans by Medusa, in which Goy, fascinated since 30 years by the transparent organisms, explains that after having been in our oceans for hundred of millions of years, the jellyfish have learned the art of adaptation to their environment extremely efficiently. Maybe even a little too well in fact.

The more man influences the quality (or lack of) of the ocean waters, such as overfishing, artificial pollution, global heating, the better the jellies learn to go with the flow (pun intended) and adapt accordingly, growing in population to the point of arising in locations where they had never been spotted before, and taking over the oceans. They adapt wonderfully, and make do with whatever humans throw at them. They can even use discarded plastic bags to attach their cysts before becoming a full animal. Now, that is recycling.

There are about a thousand different kinds of jellyfish. They live from two weeks to a few months and feed on fish eggs and plankton. The overfishing of the oceans is taking away the natural predators of the animals, leaving more and more of them to survive. Cold fjord waters, warm African ones, there is no place free of jellyfish anymore, they have adapted to any water temperature.

They are changing the balance of the Earth's aquatic ecosystems. In Maine this June, an early summer invasion was so much heavier than normal, parents were worried to let their kids play in the surf. As human activities in the oceans increase, run-ins with jellyfish are bound to become more frequent. Researchers expect to see them be the cause of seasonal beach closings more often, or becoming more of a nuisance at coastal power plants, where they sometimes lodge in the cooling pipes.

We may have to start liking the jellyfish in a whole new way -- as food. At a laboratory in Italy, researchers are looking at how to make jellyfish more palatable to livestock -- and to humans -- as they are very low in fat and very high in proteins. The lovely creatures have been a staple of Japanese cuisine for centuries, where dried jellyfish are a delicacy, used in soups and salads.

We may have to adapt. We must learn not to gag.