Jellywatch: Observing Blobs for Marine Ecology

Turn your beach visit into marine ecology research on worldwide jellyfish populations.

Looking for more summertime citizen science projects? Find them here.

Sea nettle
Sea nettle

Between 2012 and 2013, power plants in Israel, Sweden, Scotland, Japan, and the U.S. were shut down unexpectedly, all for the same reason: jellyfish. Blooms of jellyfish abundantly swarmed in coastal waters and clogged water intake pipes, forcing plants to halt operations and clear the unwitting slaughter. More recently, headlines have heralded an upswing of jellyfish appearances, such as CNN’s “Jellyfish taking over oceans, experts warn,” and Nature News’  “Attack of the blobs.” Just last week, BBC News reported record numbers of jellyfish spotted on the Welsh coastline this summer. At first glance, these sightings appear to reflect a global increase in jellyfish populations, but scientific studies say that current data is too limited to make conclusions on the ecological effects of these gelatinous zooplankton.

Sightings map on the Jellywatch app.
Sightings map on the Jellywatch app.

“It is easy for scientists to cop out and say, ‘We need more data before drawing any confident conclusions.’ ” says Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute Research Scientist and Associate Adjunct Professor Steven Haddock. “In this case, however, it really is true that we are lacking the long-term perspective needed to understand cycles that can happen on 10- or 20-year scales. It is part of the life-history of many jellyfish to have boom and bust periods.” Jellywatch, a project launched by Haddock and other scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, seeks to fill this information gap by gathering population data on jellyfish from citizen scientists across the world and making the data available for anyone to analyze. Users can log in to Jellywatch or download the app for iPhones and Androids and submit information on the type of jellyfish encountered, or even the lack thereof. Jellywatch encourages users to report beaches free of jellyfish, too. To obtain a more complete picture, Jellywatch collects user sightings of squid and other unusual marine life in coastal areas, as well as phenomena like red tides, where algal blooms pigment marine waters red, brown or green and affect viability of marine life.

“We are taking the long-term view that such reports, as sporadic as they are, will still allow us to develop a picture of jelly conditions. If you ask the right questions, you do not need perfect data to determine things like seasonality (are jellies showing up earlier or later than usual?) and big picture trends,” says Haddock. Accordingly, citizen scientist observations are critical to assessing marine ecology dynamics, even though the data can take awhile to get published and incorporated into environmental action.

In comparison to the stereotypical display of a species’ fragility, the potential rise in jellyfish populations poses a different consequence to anthropogenic effects like climate change and overfishing. Jellyfish survival is favored in warmer, saltier waters with fewer predatory fish, enabling their takeover of unoccupied ecological niches in these conditions. While recent jellyfish sightings may simply be a reflection of natural blooms and bursts of populations, in a more dire scenario, they may represent an imbalance of normal marine ecology, altering food webs, carbon cycling, and sustainability of fishing industries. That’s not to say that jellyfish themselves are bad; although commonly disliked for certain varieties’ painful stings, these organisms are among the ocean’s most efficient swimmers and can have a Benjamin Button-like life cycle, capable of rejuvenating to their polyp stage in a manner that has captured the curiosity of researchers studying aging. However, understanding human impact on this imbalance will be important toward ensuring the conservation of other species and minimizing the socioeconomic consequences of these ecosystem changes.

So this summer when you visit the beach, pay a visit to Jellywatch and log your sightings or even the absence of them. Haddock adds, “It is important to remember that we are the ones invading the ocean, not the jellyfish. Also, don’t believe everything you read in the headlines.”

Condon et al. Questioning the Rise of Gelatinous Zooplankton in the World’s Oceans. BioScience 62, 160-169 (2012).

Image credits: Sheetal R. Modi

Sheetal R. Modi does research for a biotech start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a PhD in Biomedical Engineering where she focused on the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. When she’s not tinkering with microbes, she enjoys science communication and being outside.

Categories: Citizen Science, Ecology & Environment, Nature & Outdoors, Ocean & Water

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