What jellyfish can tell us about climate change

ESU professor studies faltering population near Japan

An East Stroudsburg University professor has studied a delicate sea creature off Japan’s coast, and shed new light on how climate change is disrupting the ocean’s food chain.

“This is the first clear link between an animal we know is threatened by ocean acidification and a variety of deep-sea species,” said Jay Hunt, assistant professor of biology at ESU, describing his research.

The work of his team was published late last year in the Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. Research was led by Dhugal Lindsay, an Australian marine biologist working in Japan with whom Hunt has partnered before.

The international team of marine biologists debarked from Nagasaki, venturing into the waters off Japan’s Sanriku Coast to look at a sea species called the red paper lantern jellyfish — creatures with six-inch long, accordion-like bodies and tails that can stretch three feet.

While little is known about these jellyfish, it is becoming clear that they are a linchpin in ocean life. Other species live on them, eat them or use them for shelter.

“It was kind of thought that gelatinous creatures were floating and just doing what they do,” Hunt said. “What we’re finding is that they’re interacting in more ways, feeding off each other, traveling and parasitizing.”

As adults, the red paper lantern jellyfish live about a half-mile beneath the ocean’s surface, and have not been studied very much because they are so fragile. Fishing nets shred them.

The cost of traveling to the middle of the ocean has also kept this part of the planet from being fully explored.

“We still know next to nothing about the open ocean,” Hunt said, citing the trouble securing funding to carry out research. “It’s difficult to get money to explore if you don’t know what you’re looking for.”

But ocean water, which covers the vast majority of our planet, is still being dramatically affected by man-made climate change.

Ocean water has been growing more acidic because of higher concentrations in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide produced by humans. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says acid levels in the Earth’s oceans are higher now than any time in the last 800,000 years, and possibly in the last 20 million years.

Dan Berrett, Pocono Record, 18 March 2009. Full article.

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