Magazine article Oceanus

Tiny Jellyfish with a Big Sting: SCIENTISTS INVESTIGATE WHERE TOXIC INVADERS CAME FROM

Magazine article Oceanus

Tiny Jellyfish with a Big Sting: SCIENTISTS INVESTIGATE WHERE TOXIC INVADERS CAME FROM

Article excerpt

People who want to know where their ancestors came from can sometimes find answers hidden in their DNA. Annette Govindarajan also uses DNA--to map the origins of a venomous stinging jellyfish that is becoming more prevalent off the coast of the northeastern United States.

"I feel like I'm solving a mystery," said Govindarajan, a biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

These so-called "clinging" jellyfish are small--no bigger than a quarter--and ringed by as many as 90 threadlike tentacles. Unlike most jellyfish, which prefer open water, clinging jellies stay close to shore, using adhesive pads on their tentacles to latch onto seagrasses and seaweeds. Long assumed to be native to the North Pacific Ocean, the jellyfish are now relatively common along the Atlantic coast too.

Most are relatively harmless. But in the Sea of Japan, a variety of clinging jellyfish is notorious for toxic stings that cause a wide range of symptoms--severe pain, difficulty breathing, and even hallucinations--that can persist for up to five days.

A non-stinging variety of clinging jellyfish was first recorded in the U.S. Northeast in 1894, on Cape Cod, Mass., but they all but disappeared from New England in the 1930s following an eelgrass die-off.

Then, beginning in 1990, painful interactions with clinging jellyfish suddenly started being reported on Cape Cod. Was this a new clinging jellyfish invasion, wondered Govindarajan? And if so, where had this stinging variety come from?

To try to find out, she worked with WHOI Research Specialist Mary Carman, Marat Khaidarov and Alexander Semenchenko from the Russian Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok, Russia, and John Wares from the University of Georgia to collect samples of clinging jellyfish from four distinct regions: the northwestern and northeastern Pacific, and the northwestern and northeastern Atlantic. …

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