New Jellies Exhibit at Aquarium of the Pacific Explores the Mysterious Lives of These Gelatinous Sea Creatures

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Photos by Asia Morris

The sea jelly is one of the ocean’s most puzzling creatures. They float gracefully with the pull of the tides, oftentimes in shimmering clusters, but sometimes majestic and alone. They have no heart, brain or lungs and are three times as old as dinosaurs. According to the marine experts at the Aquarium of the Pacific, some can even indicate if ocean water is clean, while others can show it’s polluted.

Starting on Friday, May 22, the Aquarium of the Pacific will debut its new Jellies exhibit, including interactive experiences and educational programs for curious visitors of all ages. The aquarium hopes to further ocean education and conservation by offering new interactive experiences and by giving guests an opportunity to get up close and personal with these mysterious gelatinous creatures.

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Dr. Sandy Trautwein, curator of fish and invertebrates at the aquarium, spoke on how integral jellies are to furthering ocean conservation efforts, for experts and aquarium visitors alike.

“Not only are jellies fascinating and mesmerizing to watch, but they also play very important roles in marine ecosystems,” she said. “For example, many jellies are a food source for leatherback turtles or for our local sunfish, the Mola mola, as well as humans in many Asian countries.”

New jelly habitats will be added to each of the Aquarium’s indoor galleries. Moon jellies will be added to the Wonders of the Deep gallery near the aquarium’s entrance, where visitors will have the opportunity to touch them. Bioluminescent jellies and other various specimens on loan from researchers in the field, such as tiny thimble jellies, will also be on display.

In the Northern Pacific gallery, home to animals of colder waters and the aquarium’s permanent jelly collection, shimmering comb jellies (also known as a Sea Walnut), umbrella jellies, sea nettles and a lion’s mane jelly, whose tentacles can grow to lengths as long as a blue whale, will be showcased. The Southern California/Baja gallery will feature sea jellies found in local waters, including purple-striped and egg yolk jellies.

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“They also are indicator species where certain species can give us clues about the state of our ocean's health," Trautwein said. "For example, if there’s a region where there’s a lot of fertilizer or nutrient runoff, then there can be a large jelly bloom." She said these blooms have occurred more frequently throughout the past few decades, and may be related to fertilizer runoff as well as changes in ocean temperature.  

“We thought they would be great ambassadors for ocean conservation and that’s why we decided to highlight them here at the aquarium,” she said. 

These spineless beauties, which are actually invertebrates, meaning they lack a backbone, are made up of 95 percent water and can be deceivingly delicate, with some able to wield quite an impressive sting. Visitors can learn about jellies’ stinging cells, only some of which are actually harmful to humans, jelly blooms and their relationship to human activity, as well as the entire sea jelly lifecycle.

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Nicole Leier, also a shark expert at the aquarium, said that the oral arms of several of the sea nettle jelly species had to be cut so the creatures could be shipped.

“Their oral arms are so very long that they actually had to cut them and they shipped it to us that way, so their oral arms were very short,” she said. “And they’ve grown almost four times the size of what they were, so they grow really, really quickly.” Leier confirmed that the jellies are not harmed during the process.

Josh Wagner, a husbandry expert at the aquarium, explained the life cycle of a jellyfish, a feat of both sexual and asexual reproduction.

“Most people usually recognize a jellyfish as what we call a 'medusa,' which is that big thing that’s floating in the water, but they actually go through a really cool life cycle where they reproduce like corals," Wagner said. In these situations, the adult jellies "shoot their gametes into the water, fertilize eggs that settle and turn into what are called polyps, which are really small," according to Wagner. 

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After the polyps begin cloning themselves and once they’re "fat and healthy,” a seasonal change will warm up the water temperature. This change triggers them to start “popping off little baby jellies,” which grow to become the “medusas,” Wagner said.

The aquarium accommodates this process behind the scenes using “kreisels,” or jellyfish-specific, cornerless, water-filled containers that create a circular current which replicates an open-ocean environment.

Wagner, who cultures nine to 11 different jellyfish species at any given time, has built a solid relationship with aquariums across the country in the case of a reproductive overflow.

“If someone on the East coast needs a species that I have, and I have too many of them, I’ll send it to them free of charge, but if they have something that I want, we’ll just make a little trade,” he said. “So there’s actually a really cool community of jelly aquarists throughout the country [who communicate] all the time.”

Guests can take a more in-depth approach to their visit at the aquarium by attending the lecture on pacific northwest jellies by independent research scientist Claudia Mills on July 30, a lecture on the jellies housed at the aquarium on August 18 and a lecture by Rick Brodeur form the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Newport, Oregon on September 10. A Jellies Photography Exhibit, composed of photos taken by attendees will be on display starting November 1.

For more information about Jellies and how to see the exhibit and other programming, visit the Aquarium of the Pacific’s website here.

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