The new ocean predator: Jellyfish?


Editor's note: This story is part of a project spearheaded by GlobalPost's Study Abroad team and summer interns. They spent the summer learning about the world's endangered oceans and their work is displayed in this interactive graphic.

BOSTON — Of all the oceans' predators, jellyfish have the least ... of everything: With no teeth, fins or brains, they catch only whatever unlucky animals drift into their path.

But to the animals they hunt, jellyfish and the many related species of comb jellies are a menace. Ranging from several feet long to nearly microscopic, their venom often kill creatures hundreds of times their size, including, in rare cases, humans.

As scientists study jellyfish more closely, a new creature is emerging: More than just a nuisance, jellyfish are viewed as barometers of ocean health and possibly a powerful force affecting seawater itself.

Scientists remain cloudy about the role of jellyfish in the ocean ecosystem, but the creatures are undeniably hardy. Unlike sharks, orcas and other aggressive carnivores, jellyfish thrive in ecosystems damaged by human activity. From the Gulf of Mexico to the Sea of Japan, oceanographers have found a common symptom among places where overfishing, chemical pollution and rising sea temperatures have killed off other species: more jellyfish.

"There are suggestions that the whole oceans are turning to jellyfish," said Larry Madin, the director of research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Madin said he finds that theory "premature," but anecdotal evidence shows jellyfish species invade places where fish, coral and other marine animals once thrived. They procreate more quickly in warmer water, tolerate pollution and escape commercial fishing nets that decimate almost every other marine species.

Off the northern and southern coasts of Europe, an invasive carnivore called Mnemiopsis leidyi, also known as the American comb jelly, has punished economically vital fish stocks by devouring the smaller fish and algae that form the base of the food chain. Originally found off the eastern coasts of North and South America, comb jelly now drift as far north as the Baltic Sea.

The sudden spread of the non-native species "surprised nearly everyone," researchers from the Finnish Institute of Marine Research said in a 2007 report. Until an expedition found areas of the polluted, brackish sea filled with the non-native species, scientists thought nothing like it could survive the waters' frigid temperatures.

Off coast, jellyfish do little direct damage to people, but the story changes near beaches where the human population has likewise exploded. Off the coasts of Australia, more than 70 people have been killed by jellyfish from 1882 to 2005.

The common box jellyfish and deadly irukandji found off the northern coast of Queensland have forced local officials to place nets around some crowded beaches.

Yet as much harm as jellyfish cause to unlucky beachgoers and the tourism industry, they effect the ocean ecology far more, Madin says.

An emerging theory suggests jellyfish can benefit marine ecosystems. According to a study published in the July 30 issue of Nature magazine, the daily motions of billions of small jellyfish could physically dampen the effects of global warming.

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology predicted that by dragging water and nutrients with them as they move, jellyfish stir the oceans, absorbing carbon dioxide and regulating water temperatures. Isolated experiments have confirmed their hypothesis.

Could the entire oceans soon fill with jellyfish, and if so, could they actually neutralize ocean pollution while at the same time thriving in it? Madin said there's still too little information to know for sure.

"There's little quantitative analysis, so we can't really tell if there's a trend," he said. "There might be some natural cycles [of jellyfish invasions] anyway. It's kind of a matter of how much attention is paid to the problem."

Learn more about the endangered oceans in an interactive graphic.

This report comes from a journalist in our Student Correspondent Corps, a GlobalPost project training the next generation of foreign correspondents.