Unearthly, transparent and beautiful—and also exceedingly delicate. The spotted comb jelly is so fragile a creature, just waving your hand through the water could destroy it. Now, for the first time anywhere, animal care staff at the Monterey Bay Aquarium have managed to culture these fragile, scintillating creatures.
The species, known scientifically as Leucothea pulchra—Latin for “beautiful sea goddess”—is “a clear football-shaped gelatinous animal” says Wyatt Patry, a senior aquarist who’s worked at the Aquarium for 11 years, and who led the culturing effort this winter.
“They’re ctenophores, not true jellyfish,” Wyatt notes. “Instead of stinging cells they have sticky cells called colloblasts.”
The spotted comb jelly’s common name refers to orange “knobs” or spots along its body.
“We don’t know what those do but we suspect they aid in prey capture,” Wyatt says. Two sticky tentacles trail behind it, acting like fishing lines.
“They also have cool whips called ‘auricles’ that they wave around—undulate—in this really cool slow wave motion, probably driving food into their mouths,” he says.
They’re so soft—so squishy! Where to put a tag—and why bother? Questions like these moved scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), Hopkins Marine Station and other institutions around the world to publish the first comprehensive how-to tagging paper for jellyfish researchers everywhere. This missing manual was long in the making
Tommy Knowles, a senior aquarist at Monterey Bay Aquarium, explains why. Historically, ocean researchers demonized jellies as “blobs of goo that hurt you,” and that interfered with scientific gear. That changed in the latter part of the 20th century as scientists grew keen to understand entire ecosystems, not just individual plants and animals. Knowing who eats what, how, where and when, they learned, is critical for conservation.
Jellyfish, however, remained a very under-appreciated member of the ecosystem for years, largely because so little was known about them.
“People didn’t know how to keep them alive in the lab or even on the boat,” says Knowles. Today, the field is coming into its own at a time when climate change has added urgency to the need to understand ecosystems in order to preserve ocean health.
A growing subject of interest
Understanding jellies is a concern for fisheries managers, too, since some jellyfish species prey upon the young and compete for food with the adults of commercially important fish. Other jellies impact tourism when blooms of stinging species foul beaches.
It’s not all negatives. We know that jellyfish play important roles in healthy marine ecosystems, by sheltering juvenile fish and crabs under their swimming bells, and nourishing hundreds of ocean predators. Jellies are a significant food source for ocean sunfish (the largest bony fish on the planet) and the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle, California’s state marine reptile.
As with other marine species that live and travel underwater—out of sight of human researchers—electronic data tags are useful tools for tracking jellies’ movements. Which gets back to the question: Just how do you tag a jellyfish? Continue reading How do you tag a jellyfish?
Try as she might, MacKenzie Bubel just couldn’t satisfy the baby comb jellies.
The aquarist was attempting to spawn a species called Mnemiopsis leidyi—ghostly-looking little creatures native to the Gulf of Mexico—in the Aquarium’s Jelly Lab. She tinkered with variables like water temperature, salinity and light exposure.
“We did some wacky stuff to get the conditions perfect,” she says, “but they weren’t doing as well as we’d hoped.”
That changed when our staff aquarists, in collaboration with University of Miami assistant professor William Browne, pioneered an efficient way to culture comb jellies en masse. The breakthrough—which we’re sharing with our colleagues—could eliminate the need for aquariums to collect comb jellies from the wild. It could also pave the way for deeper scientific study of these little-understood animals.