- If you are walking on the beach anywhere from Antarctica to Anstruther, you are almost certain to encounter them
They have no brain and feel no pain. They can shut down power plants, stop ships, and torment and occasionally kill humans.
As the most efficient swimmers in the world, these top predators are reproducing in record numbers.
Once they take over an ecosystem, there is no way back for other species. But they can also hold the secret to new foods, medical treatments and even a way to extract plastic from the oceans. Some are effectively immortal. Welcome to the extraordinary world of jellyfish.
If you’re going for an invigorating walk on the beach, anywhere from Antarctica to Anstruther, you’re almost certain to encounter them.
Yes, even at the beginning of winter, as demonstrated last week. The coast of Gwynedd in North Wales has been ravaged by Portuguese warships, prompting vets to urge dog owners to be extra careful so their pets don’t suffer poison shock when sniffing around in the sand. .
Climate change is to blame for their appearance in such a cold latitude, but jellyfish are resilient life forms – fossils found in China date back 600 million years. These fleshy alien lookalikes are the oldest multi-organ creatures on Earth, researchers believe.
My son and I can attest to their presence in North Wales, as we encountered several of them on Aberdaron beach last year. Or, to use the correct collective noun, a jellyfish smell. In large numbers they are called a flower or a swarm.
Lying on the sand like solidified puddles of rubber, they looked more bizarre than impressive.
They were lunar jellyfish, ranging in size from saucers to frying pans. One of 2,000 species of jellyfish, you wouldn’t guess by looking at them how strange and surprising the family they belong to is.
We were studying the mature, medusa stage of the creature’s life cycle. We could see the four purple rings, the reproductive organs, located at the bottom. From here come the eggs of the female jellyfish, fertilized in the sea by the sperm of the males, transforming into floating planula larvae, which attach themselves to a rock to form a polyp.
READ MORE: Britain is hit by a tide of jellyfish! Record numbers are migrating to British waters – with a 32% increase in sightings this year
In some species, male sperm enters the female through the mouth. She then incubates the fertilized eggs inside her. Others reproduce by fission: they divide, and one creature becomes several.
I warned you: strange and incredible – and all true!
But the real shocker is a tiny, immortal jellyfish. In a laboratory, researchers in Naples observed this species transforming from the polyp stage to the medusa stage – and then back to the polyp stage, avoiding death, the usual end of the mature stage. The technical term for this enviable trick is biological immortality. Assuming you don’t get eaten by anything, you’ll be able to ride the wheel of life again.
But on that Welsh beach we had more basic concerns.
‘It will hurt?’ my boy asked.
“Not those,” I said. ‘But those that sting can really sting. Grandfather John once ran into the tentacle of a Portuguese warship when he was a child in South Africa. He said it was like being whipped with hot barbed wire.
‘Did you get stung by one?’
‘Yes once. On the chest, while swimming in Sicily. Wow, it hurt!
My friend Scott Tetlow, an artist and surfer, took a jellyfish to the face while surfing in Scarborough. It slid down his collar and into his wetsuit. Stung in the eyes and chest, he discovered he could not see.
“My limbs would lock up from the toxic shock,” he says. He was taken to the hospital, where nurses gave him liters of water and advised him to urinate on his hands and sneeze on the bites.
While this doesn’t work for all types of jellyfish stings, and may even make some worse, it helped in this case.
Clearly, humans and jellies will have to learn to cohabitate. The warming of the oceans caused by climate change, the overfishing of jellyfish predators – tuna, whales and sharks eat them – and the runoff of pollutants and fertilizers from industrial agriculture are perfectly pleasing to the gelatinous eccentrics.
But there is good news.
Jellyfish eat zooplankton, the animal component of plankton, and with them large amounts of microplastics. Dying jellyfish produce a mucus that Slovenian researchers have proven effective in collecting the tiniest polystyrene remnants, which would otherwise be too small to remove from the sea.
In Cardiff, a company called Jellagen is collecting collagen from jellyfish for medical use in wound dressings.
And although jellyfish have long been a part of Chinese cuisine, they have only recently started appearing in European dishes.
Danish scientists have created jellyfish crisps, which they claim taste like pork shavings.
But don’t think that the dynamic between us and them is one-sided. In the eastern seas and South Pacific, it is estimated that between 50 and 100 people die annually from jellyfish stings.
Author and marine biologist Shannon Leone Fowler chronicles the death of her fiancé, Sean Reilly, in Thailand in her moving memoir Traveling With Ghosts.
Stung by a jellyfish, he said: “My head feels heavy. I’m having trouble breathing. Go get help.
“He was quiet, calm and coherent,” writes Fowler.
His book is dedicated to ten jellyfish victims, including Sean, who have died on the Thai islands in recent years.
Like us, they are terrifying in some ways and magnificent in others. The biggest I’ve seen are sea nettles along the coast of Peru. At least as cows, their heads resemble large flexible lampshades and their tentacles appear woolly, like great long trails of creamy blankets.
I thought they were the strangest animals I had ever seen and, in their own way, wonderfully beautiful.