The jellies are running thick at the Vancouver Aquarium these days. The massive exhibit, the Jelly Invasion, features hundreds of jellyfish – mesmerizing creatures without brains that are 95 per cent water, and are capable of irritating or painful stings.
Some of the 15 species filling tanks at one of Canada's largest aquariums were acquired elsewhere, but many were cultured over the last year in preparation for the exhibit. The program comes amid concerns about jellyfish blooms – explosions in numbers of the creatures that can impact humans who also make use of the waters where the jellyfish live. Mackenzie Neale, a senior aquarium biologist, talks about blooms, the challenges of developing the exhibit and what jellyfish taste like:
A new UBC study suggests jellyfish are increasing in most coastal ecosystems. What kind of implications are there when that happens?
One of the biggest things it affects are things like fishing because jellyfish get caught up in the nets. It affects nuclear plants – anything that involves drawing water in. It has impacts on pretty much everybody all over the place.
What kind of implications are there in B.C.?
Our biggest impact in B.C. is probably swimming areas. People probably don't want to go in the water with jellies. Our general thought is jellies are increasing. No one is really sure what implications that is going to have. Everybody is just starting to look at that right now.
What can we do about jellyfish? Can we kill them off?
That's the tricky thing with jellyfish. Removing the adults you find in the water won't solve the problem because the other part of the life stage includes a sessile [or juvenile] stage that can be many miles away from where the jellyfish are found and they will keep producing more jellyfish. Right now, no one has any idea what to do about the jellyfish blooms.
Does human activity lead to jelly blooms?
That's one of the current thoughts, yes. Some ideas people are researching are whether chemicals entering the oceans can actually trigger polyps to producing new jellyfish. And global warming – increasing temperatures in oceans will [lead to] more jellyfish. Lots of those things which are happening will possibly lead to more jellyfish.
What have you learned, as a biologist, about jellyfish by being involved in the preparation for this exhibit?
Just that they're so cool. Every jellyfish species we work with has a distinct requirement for growing and reproducing. We've brought in a lot of new species, and we've had to learn each life cycle for each type. They're finding new species all over the world all the time. They have basically remained unchanged for hundreds and thousands of years.
Have you been stung?
Yes. Many times.
What's it like?
Some are very mild. You don't feel them at all. Some give you a mild itchy rash. Some of the stronger stingers we have actually leave almost like burn lines that get quite painful. It feels like a strong bee sting. We're really careful with how we're handling them, and none of our local species we have are fatal or anything like that unless you are hypersensitive or react strongly to bee stings – then you might have a problem.
In terms of stings, which is the most significant jellyfish you have, and how do you handle with it?
Lion's mane is one of the stronger stingers. A new species we have is the purple stripe jellyfish. It's common in California and it seems to be one of the strongest stings. We're just really careful. We use long gloves and we really don't pick them up. We use beakers and containers to pick them up and move them. We're really diligent about washing our hands and washing all the equipment we use to make sure there are no stinging cells left.
The myth says you should urinate on a sting. Why is that a myth?
Because it has actually been shown that things like urine and vinegar can actually cause what remaining stinging cells to fire. You can actually be increasing the sting by doing that kind of stuff. What we actually tell people to do is take a credit card or something and scrape across the sting to remove some of the stinging cells and then wash gently with water.
These jellyfish were grown for the exhibit. What will happen after the exhibit is finished?
Some of them will stay exactly where they are. Any surplus animals that we have we can trade or donate to other aquariums. We also give animals to different research groups. Jellyfish don't live very long so some of them will be at the end of their natural life cycle.
What do they taste like?
They taste like eating rubber bands. They are kind of crunchy and they taste like whatever the sauce they're in is.
You didn't eat ones that were on exhibit?
No. We didn't take the animals we have. They're quite common in supermarkets and grocery stores. We did not eat our own.
This interview has been edited and condensed.