Video: catching a killer jelly

One recent Friday morning I received an email that started like this:

Dear MBL-ers

For your information we can confirm that specimens of Portuguese man o’ wars in the waters in the vicinity of Woods Hole.  This species, known as Physalia physalia, is a marine “jellyfish” within a group called the Siphonphores.
… super painful sting etc etc. The point is, they’re siphonophores, and my lab lives and breathes to unearth the secrets of these strange animals. So I forwarded the email to my lab peeps, and then continued to nom me lunch while reading the New York Times online. Fast forward 45 minutes to Freya Goetz, our lab tech, rushing into the office asking, “So, are you coming!?” While I had been reading all about gut bacteria  and enjoying my sandwich, the rest of my lab had been in a frenzied email discussion about driving the 2 hours to get some Portuguese man o’ war. Right. Now.
So I put my snack away, dusted off my gear and 15 minutes later we were all pilled in my advisors car, ready to do what we do best: collect some muthafuckin siphonophores!
Freya Goetz, Casey Dunn and Stefan Siebert ready to go

Freya Goetz, Casey Dunn and Stefan Siebert ready to go

2 hours and some awesome nerd talk later, we landed in Woods Hole, MA, complete with the crowds of tourists and terrible traffic. We wandered out to the ocean with all our buckets and cups-on-sticks in hand. Where we found all of… … … …  nothing. No Portuguese man o’ wars in sight. Fortunately  the folks at the Marine Biological Labs are all kinds of awesome, and they’d collected some for us just in case they’d blown away by the time we arrived.
A Portuguese man o' war, complete with left over summer watermelon

A Portuguese man o’ war, complete with left over summer watermelon

Our man-o-war-in-a-bucket generated a great deal of curiosity. Great opportunity for some impromptu science jamming!

Our man-o-war-in-a-bucket generated a great deal of curiosity. Great opportunity for some impromptu science jamming!

 

Because these guys have a big blue float on top, they’re one of the few planktonic animals you can spot while driving, so after we loaded our MBL animals into the truck, we did some mobile looking too, just in case.
Stefan keeping an eye out for blue floats

Stefan keeping an eye out for blue floats

With no man-o-war spotted and the truck getting hot, we decided to head back to home base, and learn all about our new catch. Once in the lab, we set up our three man-o-war in an aquarium, to get a better look. Moving them from the bucket to the tank was no easy task.
Definitely need to wear gloves when handeling these guys!

Definitely need to wear gloves when handling these guys!

The siph experts then set off dissecting them, to better understand their anatomy and organization. But for me, it was amazing enough just to watch them move. Their foats are muscular, and can crumple and bend. This isn’t one single animal, but a colony of clones, all doing a different task. As they sit in the tank, different clumps of clones move and sway. We are using these animals to learn how these different clones develop and differentiate. And even how they evolved from single-bodied ancestors. Much like our multi-celluar bodies evolved from single cells a billion years ago. Watching the man-o-war, I’m reminded of when I was little.  I wanted to study alien life, and with siphonophores I feel like I’ve gotten my chance:

RR Helm (26 Posts)

I am a PhD candidate studying jellyfish development and evolution at Brown University. I've participated in numerous research expeditions, studying jellies all over the world, from Africa to the abyss. I am currently studying the beautiful mauve stinger jellies, found in the Mediterranean, and the ghostly Atlantic stinging nettles found on the US east coast.





5 comments on “Video: catching a killer jelly
  1. Pingback: Video: catching a killer jelly | Rocketboom

  2. I remember this day – I got a whole bunch of texts & calls from Freya looking for liquid nitrogen after stockroom-hours.

    • As a teenager, I’m ashamed to say we came across some of these washed up on the beaches of coastal Texas. We didn’t squish the squishy but after a few hours in the sun they got slightly hard so they would pop if you stomped on them. So then did the tenticular mass splatter on to said stomper. We learned pretty quickly not to do that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>