One of the most memorable scenes from 2012 cinema was when Nicole Kidman peed on Zac Efron’s jellyfish sting in The Paperboy. Although this is ineffective treatment and recommended against, it certainly made headlines. Jellyfish stings often make headlines. But increasingly, jellyfish have been making news for a different reason: their potential for taking over the ocean.

Scoff if you will, but you won’t think it’s so hilarious when you are served sushi with tofu. Personally, I like fish. I like the taste and texture of fish… well, some fish at least. Maybe not anchovies. Ok, definitely not gefilte fish (although I am not altogether convinced that that is actually fish). Growing up in suburban southern California, I learned to love broiled salmon, and to this day my favourite sandwich is tuna on sourdough. Throughout my rather tomboyish childhood, the only way my parents could get me to wear a dress was to bribe me with lobster. And as a young adult learning to scuba dive, I discovered the succulent heaven of abalone. I say these things to reassure you that I am not some mild-mannered vegetarian prepared to easily give up fish. Quite the opposite, I’m afraid I will be kicking and screaming to the very last Filet-o-Fish.

All around us, while we go about our business enjoying our fish and seafood delicacies, something is happening to our ocean. Jellyfish are going about their business. The problem is, our business and their business are incompatible. Like a see-saw, there’s a winner and a loser… and they are better opportunists than we are. Like an imbalanced war between terrorists and law-abiding citizens, this is a war we cannot win through force or might. If we are to win it, it will only be through cleverness. We can do it – we have the brain, after all – but we have been choosing to look the other way.

Just a few decades ago, nobody could have imagined that jellyfish – the lowly, brainless jellyfish – could possibly cause so much trouble. It’s not the stings we need to worry the most about… it’s their appetites for eggs and larvae, and the fact that their bodies block up intake pipes as readily as if they were large semi-floppy plastic bags. In the book Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, I recount many stories of jellyfish behaving very badly.

The book was only published in May, but in those three months many more astonishing examples of jellyfish out of control have come to light, and now, even the staunchest deniers are beginning to backpedal. One such example that I find particularly intriguing is in the relatively pristine region of Western Australia. Here, one can find the true spirit of Australia, where the outback meets the sea, where even the snakes find it too hot and dry. But for some unknown reason, a species of jellyfish with the delightful common name of Sea Tomato has been blooming in ridiculous numbers along the coast since August 2012.

Chris Hassel, Global Flyway Network
Sea Tomatoes washing up two months after the photo in Figure 1 was taken, about a day’s drive to the south. Sea birds were unable to land and feed properly due to the density of jellyfish. Researchers drove about 25 miles looking for the end of the swarm, and never found it before turning back.

While jellyfish bloom as a normal part of their life cycle, there is nothing normal about sea tomatoes so thick you could practically walk across them, going gang-busters for a year. But unfortunately, as with so many other places where jellyfish blooms have caused the most ecological damage, we didn’t see it coming, we didn’t collect the data, and we still can’t say why.

John Totterdell
Sea Tomatoes still blooming in April 2013, some 8 months after first noticed, and some 850 miles to the south. In these sorts of numbers, eggs and larvae of other species are highly likely to be eaten.

There is an inherent lag in the responsive nature of modern funding cycles – that is to say, an urgent issue crops up demanding investigation, and then getting funding takes time. We will continue to be at the mercy of badly behaving jellyfish until we decide that it’s worth doing something about it in a bigger-picture R&D sort of way. What evv-err… jellyfish don’t care… they’ve been quietly going about their business for about 600 million years… what’s a few more?

Check back next week for the second installment of Lisa-ann Gershwin’s series Rise of Slime!

Lisa-ann Gershwin is the Director of the Australian Marine Stinger Advisory Services, and is now with CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research in Australia. Her most recent book is Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean published by the University of Chicago Press.

The Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York, is pleased to sponsor Paleontology content for This View of Life. Founded in 1932, PRI has outstanding programs in research, collections, and publications, and is a national leader in development of informal Earth science education resources for educators and the general public.


Published On: August 6, 2013

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