Why Jellyfish Might Rule the Future
Are jellyfish taking over? Dr. Lisa-ann Gershwin, author of Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of our Oceans and the director of the Australian Marine Stinger Advisory Sciences, has outlined how rising temperatures and the toxicity of the earth's oceans have resulted in an increase in jellyfish blooms. We recently asked the marine biologist about the rise of the jellies and whether humans are smarter than brainless invertebrates.
Can you start of by telling me what Stung! is about?
It's about human impact on the oceans and the unexpected and unwanted consequences of jellyfish taking over. Nobody could have imagined that jellyfish could have done so well in damaged ecosystems.
There is a really powerful quote in your book: “Here we are at the dawn of a new millennium, in the age of cyberspace, and we are at the mercy of jellyfish.” What is the significance of that quote to you?
Despite all of our gadgets and all of our technologies and all of our good intentions and our good management models, despite our ability to do things right, nonetheless jellyfish are getting the best of us. We’re losing this battle to jellyfish. Mind you, it’s not their fault, we’re not losing the battle to ourselves because we want our cake and we want to eat it too. It’s our fault because we’re damaging the ecosystems to the point that they’re able to exploit that damage.
I love that you mention our gadgets — it makes me think of how jellyfish don’t even have a heart, brain gills, all these things that we consider evolutionarily novel. . .
We’ve got this huge brain and we’re being outsmarted by something with no brain. They’re simply doing what jellyfish do — taking advantage of opportunities. And we’re giving them all the opportunities they could possibly wish for.
You wrote your book in five and a half months. When did you sleep?
I really didn’t sleep very much. But it was an amazing experience!
How did you come to study jellyfish?
On the 21st January of 1973, I visited a small public museum with my third grade class called Cabrillo Marine Museum. And I knew on that day, 21st of January, 1973, that I would be a marine biologist. But I dropped out of high school without ever finishing. Several years [later], I decided to take a marine biology class and it was everything I ever wanted it to be. We ended up going to the Cabrillo museum. We went back there, I saw jellyfish on display, and they captivated me.
You have discovered about fifty different species of jellyfish, which one is your favorite?
If I had to pick one and I’d say, “No, no! Don’t make me pick one!” It would probably be Chrysaora achlyos. It was my first new species. It was also the largest invertebrate that was discovered in the 20th century. All of my species, in their own way, and many species that I haven’t discovered — they are beautiful, incredibly dangerous, they have their own personality. Well, personality isn’t the right word because that implies that they have a brain.
If humans continue to have the same relationship with the seas and oceans, what will the future look like? What role will jellyfish play?
The quick answer, but maybe not the fully correct answer, is we’re screwed, they’re taking over. I don’t know that that has to be the inevitable outcome. The more damage we do, the more ecosystem shifts. I do think that we are heading towards a more jellyfish future. The evidence is overwhelming. I think at the same time, we do have control over it. We need to stay passionate, we need to raise hell and we need to say “Hell, no!”
-Image courtesy of Lisa-ann Gershwin
Ailsa Sachdev is an editorial intern at Sierra. She is a rising senior at Mount Holyoke College and spent the last semester reporting on witchcraft in Morocco. She is passionate about food and travel, and knows how to say "I'm hungry" in over 10 languages.