Stung by a box jelly? Oil and lemon may help.

A swarm of box jellies. Wikipedia.

A swarm of box jellies. Wikipedia.

There are many anecdotal remedies for jellyfish stings, from urine to meat tenderizer, but this one may be the tastiest. A case report published in the journal Tropical Doctor tells the story of a 55-year-old scuba diver off São Tomé and Príncipe, a small island nation off west Africa, who was stung on his hand by a box jellyfish. The sting was incredibly painful and nothing seemed to provide relief. Urine had no impact, and hot water and lemon juice only made the pain worse. Then came lemon and oil.

According the the authors of the paper:

“Local dive masters who were familiar with treatments for box jellyfish envenomation recommended the application of a palm oil and lemon juice emulsion. 30 [hours] after the event the diver applied the recommended emulsion and experienced significant pain relief within the first 20 minutes.”

Does this mean that a tasty oil and lemon mix may be worth bringing to the beach? Not quite. It’s not clear what the lemon and oil is doing, but it might not have anything to do with the sting itself (30 hours is a long time. I’m skeptical that residual jellyfish stinging cells could be intact after so long. Might there still be venom on the skin’s surface? I don’t know). The authors also make the point that, “the venoms of jellyfish are known to be species-specific and, therefore different agents may have different effects.” For example, for sea wasp (Chiropsalmus quadrumanus) and Atlantic stinging nettle (Chrysaora quinquecirrha) stings, common anecdotal remedies like vinegar, alcohol, and ammonia actually make the pain worse, not better. So while an oil and lemon emulsion might work for the sting of box jellyfish around São Tomé, its usefulness as a general jellyfish sting treatment is unknown.

For major stings, it’s always important to consult a medical professional, especially for box jelly stings, which can be deadly. But for minor stings, I’m definitely going to keep oil and lemon in mind. Much more appealing than urine.

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I’ve been waiting 16 years to know: what is the ocean dandelion?

Ocean Dandelion. Photo by NOAA.

Ocean Dandelion. All photographs by NOAA.

 

I was 12 when I first saw an “ocean dandelion,” and I wish I’d known then how strange these animals truly are. I was watching a documentary: researchers had collected a deep sea dandelion using a submersible, but upon returning to the surface, the dandelion had disintegrated into nothing but “petals.”  I remember the announcer saying, ‘we know almost nothing about the ocean dandelion. What it eats, how it reproduces, how it’s put together.’ The documentary ended, and all I could think was: “what the heck?!!? They didn’t answer ANYTHING.” 16 years later, I was in for quite a shock.

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A few years ago I started work in a lab studying a strange group of animals that includes the Portuguese man-of-war. This group is called the siphonophores. One day while looking through some siphonophore photos, everything clicked. There it was, the ocean dandelion. The ocean dandelion, it turns out, is a siphonophore. And siphonophores are completely bizarre, challenging a simple assumption about what it means to be an animal.

For starters, let’s get the basics out of the way. Is the ocean dandelion siphonophore one individual, or many? Answer: YES. To explain what I’m mean, and why these guys are so weird, let’s talk about YOU.

You are one animal, that’s clear, but you’re not one cell. You’re trillions of cells all working together in a cooperative fashion. And the product of all that cooperation is singular: one unique YOU made up of trillions of individual cells. Biologists talk about this in terms of ‘levels of organization.’ On one level, you’re trillions of cells, on another level, you’re one unique animal. So far we’re talking two levels of organization. Level 1: cell. Level 2: animal. Can you imagine what kind of crazy weird creature would exist if we add a third level?

Imagine a creature that is not just made up of trillions of cells, but also hundreds of animals. All these animals work together in the same way your cells work together, creating a kind of superorganism. Ants could be considered a superorganism, all working together with one queen.  Siphonophores, like the ocean dandelion, take this whole idea one step further.

The ocean dandelion is like an ant colony on steroids. Like an ant colony, each ocean dandelion is a collection of individual animals, all working together for the colony. There are different jobs for different members. Some protect the colony, some catch food, some reproduce. But there is one key difference between an ant colony and an ocean dandelion: individual ants work together, but still remain separated from one another, for members of the ocean dandelion colony, this isn’t true. They actually share tissues with one another. They have one shared community stomach, so what one animal eats, all get to digest.

Forget the hammer and sickle: Communism, your symbol should be the ocean dandelion.

Crazy to think about, but beautiful to look at. Each ‘petal’ of the disintegrated ocean dandelion I saw  years ago was actually a single member of the colony, able to survive a short time on its own before starving to death. A change in pressure, or bumpy ride to the ocean’s surface, may have been what caused the colony to collapse.

Despite the time that’s passed since I first saw the ocean dandelion, there’s still a lot we don’t know. What does it eat? How does it reproduce? But we know something about how it’s put together, and I never would have guessed the answer would be so strange. Twelve-year-old me would be thrilled.

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Beautiful jelly sculpture on display at the National Aquarium

I’m totally in love with this beautiful instillation, now on display at the National Aquarium as part of their new exhibit on jellies.

Photo source

Photo source

I hope I get the chance to see it in life. I’ve heard amazing things about the exhibit, and would love to ask more about these sculputres. In the meantime, I’m left wondering if perhaps these sculptures were inspired by the incredible real life colors of some jelly species. And if we’ll one day get to see these on display!

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Scientists use electricity, drugs, to uncover the secret world of jellyfish

A polyp makes jellyfish

A polyp slowly changes it’s body into a jellyfish-making machine. Image courtesy of Konstantin Khalturin.

Researchers have announced that, thanks to a whole slew of amazing science gadgets, they can now control the jellyfish life cycle, causing mini-jellyfish blooms in the lab anytime they want. This finding is cool enough, but how they did it may be one of the craziest science stories I’ve ever heard. We’re talking Frankeinstein’s jellyfish over here. They used pretty much every awesome science trick in the book (including two rarely combined words: jellyfish and electricity). But before we talk Franken-Jelly and electric shock, let me show you why jellyfish are so damn strange in the first place, and why their life cycle is so difficult to crack.

A polyp with jelly rolls (termed a "strobila"). Photo courtesy of Konstantin Khalturin.

A polyp with a jelly roll (termed a “strobila”). Photo courtesy of Konstantin Khalturin.

Jellyfish, most of the time, look nothing like jellyfish. They look like tiny little bread-crumb sized sea anemones.

These “polyps”, as they’re technically (tragically?) called, can hide all over the place; under shells, docs, logs, etc. They’re also really good at copying themselves. One polyp can turn into hundreds over a season by growing and dividing. The best part? Like little living 3D printers, they can churn out copies of their same old polyp body over and over again or they can mix things up and start making a different body: Jellyfish. Jellyfish as we know them start their lives as little jelly rolls (see what I just did there?) on the polyp body.

Each jelly roll develops into a wee jellyfish, which eventually breaks off and swims into the ocean, starting the whole cycle over.

Ever wonder why jellyfish appear only at certain times of the year? One reason is that while being exposed to cold water (like during winter) polyps started churning out jellies. So there is something about cold weather that flips the switch from polyp mode, to jelly mode.

Now, let’s talk Frankenjelly. Scientists wondered if there was a molecule that kicked jelly rolling into gear. Presumably, this molecule is already present in jelly rolls, but not in warm, cozy polyps. Thanks to the polyp’s handy hobby of cloning itself, scientists had a genetically identical collection of polyps to work with. Translation: they could stick pieces of one polyp onto another without any rejection. So, what would happen if, say, you stuck a piece of jelly roll onto a naive polyp? Answer: the host polyp starts making jellies of its own, even though it was never exposed to cold water.

A polyp with a newly transplanted piece of jelly (left, center), starts making jelly rolls (right)

A polyp with a newly transplanted piece of jelly (left, center), starts making jelly rolls (right)

When they stuck polyps onto other polyps, in comparison, nothing happened. Meaning there is something in the jelly roll tissue that can turn on jelly making in polyps. But what is it?

Thanks to gene sequencing, scientists discovered an important clue, a gene called CL390. CL390 codes for a particular protein (a kind of cellular part) that is only present in jelly rolls, appearing for the first time when polyps are placed in cold water. The scientists predicted that, like an inmate stuck in prison, a polyp uses this protein to tick off each day that it’s stuck in cold water. Each “tick” is the production of more CL390 protein. If enough days pass, enough CL390 builds up in the polyp to tip the scale–it freaks out, breaks out, starts forming baby jellyfish. And how do you test this idea? Jellyfish, meet electroshock.

Moon jellies. Photo courtesy of Konstantin Khalturin.

Moon jellies. Photo courtesy of Konstantin Khalturin.

When polyps are zapped with electricity, their cells briefly break open. Not so much to kill the animal, but just enough to let things in and out. Like briefly knocking down the cell’s tightly-held defenses. Place a polyp in a tube with some molecules that prevent CL390 from doing its job (anti-CL390), stick the tube into a tiny electric chamber, zap the crud out of it, and BAM! Now the anti-CL390 molecules that were *outside* the polyp’s cells have been granted uninvited access *in*. And what happens when you introduce anti-CL390 into the polyp cells? Suddenly a polyp about to make jellyfish slows waaay doooowwwwn. If CL390 is like the ticks of a prisoner counting the days in cold water, anti-CL390 sneaks in and erases 60% of those marks. And thus the polyp takes much longer to make jellies.

To celebrate their success, the scientists next went out and bought a bunch of drugs. Then, like any reasonable person with a boatload of drugs, they gave them to polyps. Specifically, they soaked polyps in various drugs that had a similar predicted shape as the mystery CL390 protein. Sure enough, molecules with a special kind of ring structure were able to act like synthetic CL390, kicking polyps into jelly-making mode, cold weather or not. And now scientists have a trick to trip polyps into making jellies any time, anywhere.

Some speculate that this finding may one day give humans the power to control wild jellyfish populations, but I don’t much care for this idea. Humans are clearly in the jelly’s back yard. If we don’t like them, it seems only fair that we modify our behavior, not the other way around. Instead, I love this study for the wonder. That these simple-looking, hypnotic animals have secret, surprisingly complicated lives. And with the right awesome science tools, we can begin to discover their world.

Like this article? Check out the paper here. Want to play with jellyfish genetic data? Check out their database at compagen.org/aurelia

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Creation of the world’s first Peanut Butter and Jellyfish

Ladies and gentlemen, I could not make this up if I tried. I owe my thanks to Wyatt Patry for sharing this study with me, and to P. Zelda Montoya and Barrett L. Christie at the The Dallas Zoo and Children’s Aquarium for creating  “the first known unholy amalgamation of America’s favorite lunchtime treat and live cnidarians”. That’s right folks, on the earth right now are, in fact, peanut butter jellyfish.

“We would love to claim we conducted this trial with noble purpose” Montoya and Christie say, “but the truth is that we just wanted to make peanut butter and jellyfish simply to see if itcould be done”.  So to carry out this mission, they gathered up 250 baby moon jellies and some creamy peanut butter (no additives, of course!). They blended peanut butter and saltwater,  then added small drops of the peanutty liquid twice daily to the baby moon aquarium.

The authors expected many things to happen. But the moon jellies eating peanut butter was not one of them. To everyone’s complete shock, however, that’s precisely what happened.  ”Mean size had increased to 4.17±1.06mm (n=19) after 8 days of peanutbutterification” the authors write. In other words, the peanut butter jellies were actually growing. And better yet, they became little peanut butter jelly cups: “Throughout this period it was noted that jellies that had recently fed displayed a distinct brownish hue owing to their high degree of peanutbutterocity.”

Look at how big the peanut butter jellies get! From just a few millimeters (upper left) to about an inch (lower right). Favorite caption from the paper: “2b. A pair of [moon jelly] specimens on day 8 of the trial, magnification 100x, scale bar is approx. 1mm. Note the color of the (contracted) specimen on the left, this specimen has recently fed and is full of creamy goodness.”

Look at how big the peanut butter jellies get! From just a few millimeters (upper left) to about an inch (lower right). Favorite caption from the paper: “2b. A pair of [moon jelly] specimens on day 8 of the trial, magnification 100x, scale bar is approx. 1mm. Note the color of the (contracted) specimen on the left, this specimen has recently fed and is full of creamy goodness.”

The authors conclusion? “Moon jellies have seen a storied past. They have delighted children at aquaria worldwide, captivated researchers with their elegant simplicity and functionality, and even traveled into space (Spangenberg, 1994); but we feel that becoming one with peanut butter helps them fulfill their ultimate destiny as a species – to become peanut butter and jellyfish!”

These people. I want to be friends with them. I want to be friends with them now.

 

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Comb jellies, not sponges, may be your most distant animal relative

Comb jelly. By Alexander Semenov. Used with permission.

Comb jelly. By Alexander Semenov. Used with permission.

For over a hundred years scientists have assumed that sponges (yep, the animal that inspired your kitchen sponge), are our most distant animal relative. And why not?  They sit on the sea floor, filtering water, and generally doing nothing much (they don’t have neurons, muscles or true tissues). Sponges certainly look like they belong in ancient history. Then in comes the comb jelly genome, to mess everything up.

According to the new study, comb jellies, not sponges, may be our most distant animal cousin. Now, here’s where the trouble starts: comb jellies have pretty much all the fancy machinery that defines most animals, including true tissue, muscle, and nerves. This means the earliest animals on Earth may have been much much than a collection of cells sitting on the sea floor. The ancestor of all modern animals may have been up and moving around.

Not only that, but comb jellies may have evolved much of their nervous system after their split from the genetic line that includes pretty much every other kind of animal (jellyfish, sea stars, flies, people…) They’re missing key ingredients like dopamine and serotonin, which in other animals are critical for nervous system function. As it turns out, these molecules aren’t necessary to make a working nervous system. Presumably as long as you have some sort of molecule that can transmit information between cells, that’s all you need.

Of course this is going to cause a huge ruckus among scientists, and more studies are needed to confirm these finding. But either way, a storm has arrived, challenging the way we think about our own history. One thing is for certain, I’m never going to look at comb jellies the same way again.

Comb jelly in space! By Alexander Semenov. Used with permission.

Comb jelly in space! By Alexander Semenov. Used with permission.

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The exceptional life of the mauve stinger jelly Pelagia noctiluca

 

Mauve stinger. Stefan Siebert

Mauve stinger. Stefan Siebert

Tens of thousands of farmed salmon are dead after a swarm of mauve stinger (Pelagia noctiluca) jellyfish swept through an open-ocean salmon farm off in Ireland. Tourists in France and Spain must contend with these summer visitors, too. Where are these mauve stingers coming from? Why now?

It’s not easy to answer. This is not the first time this has happened. In 2007 a massive mat of these jellyfish spread over 10 miles decimating another salmon fish farm in Northern Ireland, costing more than US$2m in damages.

Where are they coming from? Mauve stingers are an anomaly among jellyfish. And its strangeness also makes it difficult to track them. Most jellyfish break their lives into two parts: a larval and adult phase. First comes the bread-crumb sized larva, called a polyp, which lives on the seafloor. When conditions are right the polyp undergoes metamorphosis into a stack of tiny jellyfish, which grow into larger, more familiar adult jellyfish.

But that is not mauve stinger’s story. It grows from an embryo directly into a tiny jellyfish, skipping the polyp stage. Without being tied down by a polyp, it is free to roam the world’s oceans, like a butterfly that never has to touch the ground. This nomadic life makes the arrival of the mauve stinger difficult to predict.

Only last year it was discovered that mauve stingers live year-round in the Mediterranean sea, and that summer swarms in Italy, France and Spain may be due to changes in ocean currents and wind patterns, rather than jellyfish numbers. This makes long-term sense. In the Mediterranean, the occurrence of the mauve stinger has been recorded for over 200 years. With these data scientists have discovered that the arrival of mauve stingers can be predicted, at least in the Mediterranean. Warm, dry summers increase the chances of beach encounters with the mauve stinger along the Riviera.

Could these same patterns of increase and decline also occur in other parts of the world? Absolutely. Tom Doyle, the head of the Big Jellyfish Hunt, has said the jellyfish were abundant for yeras after 2007. The Big Jellyfish Hunt is a collaborative effort to track jellyfish in the Irish sea using citizen reports. “After the 2007 bloom, the mauve stinger then disappeared for several years,” he told me. “2013 is the first year that they have been around in abundance.” These observations hint at larger trends, but scientists aren’t yet sure.

Until Doyle and colleagues have collected enough information to begin making predictions, researchers are experimenting with other methods for protecting businesses and beaches from the mauve stinger’s impact. Unlike recently unveiledrobot-aided jellyfish killing machines, which shred jellies by the thousands, they are trying less invasive techniques. These include improved salmon pen designs and bubble curtains, which create a constant stream of bubbles around pens, preventing jellyfish from passing through.

But for these strange and beautiful creatures, the big questions still remain largely unanswered. Are there always giant purple mats of this jellyfish, stretching for miles in the open ocean? And would that really be so bad? These ethereal jellies likely play an important role in the health of ecosystems, including as food for animals like loggerhead sea turtles and bluefin tuna. With their vivid color and bright bioluminescence, if they are out there somewhere, that is something I would like to see.

I originally wrote this article for The Conversation 

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