Flower Hat Jellyfish, photo by Josh More

Jellyfish often get a bad rap. Perhaps that is because they are so mysterious. Squishy. A tad creepy. And some are deadly. Yet as with so many other things, the more you know, the more you can appreciate them. For starters, jellyfish aren’t fish at all – they lack scales, gills, or fins. Anatomically, they are far different from most other animals, too. Not only do they lack a brain, they also do not have bones or blood (though some have eyes, and the box jellyfish has 24!).

Jellyfish are part of the phylum Cnidaria that includes more than 10,000 very diverse creatures (so diverse that some scientists simply refer to them as “gelatinous zooplankton”). They live in a wide variety of habitats from deep ocean to near the surface, from freshwater to ocean. They also come in a variety of sizes, including the more than 400 pound Nomura’s jellyfish and the 120 foot long Lion’s mane jellyfish, as well as the quarter inch wide sea fur and the 7 inch wide Atlantic bay nettle.

Another anatomical fascination includes how they reproduce. Some reproduce sexually, while others reproduce asexually. Some are able to divide themselves in two to create a copy of themselves. Others produce pods of cells to reproduce. There’s even one species called the immortal jellyfish that seem to be able to evade death; instead of dying this tiny jellyfish somehow transforms itself into a juvenile and starts the life cycle again. New word – this ability to transform one type of cell into another type of cell is called transdifferentiation.

Jellyfish have been since long before the dinosaurs. Because of the aforementioned lack of bones, fossils of jellyfish are hard to come by, but available evidence shows that these creatures have floated in the world’s oceans for 500-700 million years. Some jellyfish fossils were even found in Utah from a time when that part of North America was under water! Today we continue to witness their incredible adaptability because they continue to thrive in the face of climate changes that result in ocean acidification and warming oceans.

A few other interesting facts include that jellyfish are rarely seen in groups. When they are in a group, usually following food source or traveling in the same water current, it’s called a bloom, swarm, or smack. It is true that they are among the deadliest creatures on Earth. And some jellyfish are edible and are even considered a delicacy in Japan and Korea (uh, no thank you). After reading this, I encourage you to look at images of jellyfish and perhaps those images and this information will help you have a new understanding of these gelatinous zooplankton!

Giant Sea Worm?

Photo Credit: National Geographic

Imagine swimming in the ocean and coming across what looks like a giant sea worm . It’s translucent, bioluminescent, and looks a bit like a windsock wide enough to swim through. You have just met a pyrosome (some can be up to 60 feet long!), which is not actually a worm. And, it’s not a single creature. It’s a colony of hundreds or thousands of tiny organisms called zooids. Zooids – new word!

Zooids are multicellular organisms capable of copying themselves to add to the colony. Each individual is also attached to others by tissues, forming a “gelatinous tunic.” This jelly-like body joins them together and allows them to move through the ocean. The individuals are also known as sea squirts because they are filter feeders. They pump water through their bodies allowing them to catch phytoplankton, bacteria, and other food sources.

Did you catch that they are bioluminescent? Each zooid can emit blue-green light (like fireflies of the sea!); when one does the others around it do too. And sometimes the light from one colony will cause another colony to light up. These zooids and the colony they form are also delicate and fluffy. Now fluffy isn’t a word usually associated with strange underwater sea life, but one diver, RR Helm, described them this way: “It felt like an exquisitely soft feather boa.”

If you do happen to come across one, consider yourself lucky – they are considered by scientists and divers as the unicorns of the sea because they are rare, improbable, and mysterious.


Drought Awareness

Every June 17 is the UN observance of global desertification and drought. And while this is not an overly engaging subject or one full of WOWs, it is an essential one. We are at a point in history where drought and desertification are impacting an increasing number of people. The reasons are lengthy and complex, but really boil down to one cause – human impact. Specifically, production and consumption are driving drought and desertification.

In North America, since the time of European settlement and domination, access to water (and the freedom to use as much as desired) has been viewed as an inalienable right. I contend that it is time to alter our privileged perception and rethink this. Access to water is, of course, a need for human survival. But one look at the American West and its depleted reservoirs, and growing desertification worldwide, reveals that over-consumption is driving us toward disaster.

It is not hard to curb water use; it just takes a new mindset. I do realize it will be an uphill (if not futile) battle to combat overuse with some industries (say, for example, golf courses and factory farms), but many individuals together can make a difference. Think about how many people live in your town or city. If every person saved one gallon of water per day (shorter showers, watering lawns for less time, turning off faucets, etc), how many gallons of water would be saved? In my city, that would add up to almost 109,000 gallons of water saved per day. In a year that adds up to 39,785,000 gallons saved.

But it’s not just about how much water we use in our homes. It’s about what we buy and how much we buy. For example it takes over 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. That is not a typo. The same amount of water is used to extract and refine one barrel of oil. It takes almost 2,000 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans.

So what can we do? A lot! Start by thinking about your clothing – what you buy and what you do with your clothing once you no longer want it. Read more about sustainable fashion here. Think about the amount of fossil fuel you use. And, consider the food you buy. Buying local from farms using sustainable practices is a great start. Most importantly, we need to change our mindset. We need to educate others. And, we as a species need to take a long, hard look at what we want versus what we need.

Fruit or Vegetable?

We all think we know the difference between a fruit and a vegetable, but when it comes down to it, do we really? Take the tomato. Many of us, myself included, were raised calling it a vegetable when it is indeed a fruit. For this we can blame the government, not my parents. In a classic political blunder, tomatoes were ruled a vegetable by the Supreme Court in 1893. Yes, the case of the tomato went all the way to the Supreme Court when an importer argued (correctly) that his tomatoes, like all fruits, should be tax exempt. Vegetables, on the other hand, were subject to a 10 percent tax on foreign vegetables. Obviously he lost, had to pay the tax, and we all grew up thinking the tomato was a vegetable.

The tomato is not the only fruit or vegetable that is commonly misidentified. Botanically speaking, a fruit develops from the flower of a plant and contains seeds. This includes not only tomatoes, but also apples, cucumbers, zucchini, and pumpkin. And guess what else? Nuts are fruits too! On the other hand, vegetables, are the edible parts of the plant that aren’t fruits, such as leaves, roots, stems, tubers, bulbs, and flowers. Lettuce, carrots, potatoes, onions, asparagus, and broccoli are all examples of vegetables.

That brings up the oft-debated question, where does that leave beans? They are called vegetables but are actually fruits! The botanical reason beans (which includes peas, string beans, snow peas, green beans, etc.) are fruits is because they are the seeds of the fruit pod of the plant. There is still some debate about the true classification of beans but unlike the aforementioned Supreme Court justices, I’m going to stand on the side of science.