Ben Raines, Press-Register
It’s taken 10 years, but a Dauphin Island Sea Lab scientist has now determined that the giant pink jellyfish that turned up in the Gulf of Mexico in 2000 are an entirely new species.
The tale of the discovery is featured in the current issue of the scientific journal The Biological Bulletin.
Back in 2000, scientists initially decided the creature seen in the Gulf — nicknamed the “pink meanie” — was a jellyfish native to the Mediterranean.
Now, with the aid of genetic fingerprinting and other techniques, scientists have determined the Gulf version is a unique species, Drymonema larsoni. More importantly, the pink meanie and its Mediterranean cousin represent a new family of jellyfish altogether, the first new family of jellies identified since 1921, according to The Biological Bulletin.
Pink meanies prey on other jellyfish, entangling them in tentacles that can be up to 70 feet long. The meanies then reel their victims in and consume them. The creatures have been documented eating 34 jellyfish at a time.
One, nearly 3 feet across and likely weighing upward of 50 pounds, was documented by the Press-Register on Dauphin Island in 2000. At the time, scientists believed that animal was the Mediterranean species.
The realization that the Gulf species was unique started with a walk along a Turkish beach, said Sea Lab scientist Keith Bayha.
Then a graduate student in Delaware, he was visiting a friend who lived in a small fishing village in Turkey when he saw a giant jellyfish in the water, captured it and brought it home.
“That turned out to be the first one anyone had seen in the Mediterranean in 20 or 30 years. These guys are just really rare everywhere except here,” Bayha said Monday.
Bayha began comparing the jellyfish that he brought home from Turkey with specimens from the Gulf and Argentina.
“There were little differences, but when things are gooey, some of the classification work gets really hard,” Bayha said of some of the subtle differences he noted. Puzzled by some of those inconsistencies, Bayha studied jellyfish samples from the Smithsonian Museum and from a collection in Berlin that had been captured in 1930. Something was amiss, the scientist realized.
Bayha began working with Michael Dawson — a scientist at the University of California Merced Campus and the co-author of the scientific paper featured in the Biological Bulletin. Dawson specializes in the evolutionary history of marine creatures.
“It’s rare that something like this could escape the notice of scientific research for so long. That it did is partially due to Drymonema’s extreme rarity almost everywhere in the world,” Bayha said.
But, he said, it is also because the differences between species can be subtle.
“Jellyfish are so simple, so there has been this tendency to assume that they are the same everywhere. Like the moon jelly, it was thought to be the same species everywhere around the world. But previous work by Dr. Dawson has shown that there are approximately 13 species,” Bayha said.
As part of the team that discovered a new species, Bayha got to give the animal its scientific name. He said that he named it after Ron Larson, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife scientist who was among the first to document the creature in the Gulf and also captured many of the jellyfish preserved at the Smithsonian Museum.
“I felt like he hadn’t really been recognized for all he had done,” Bayha said. “So this was my way of giving him some recognition.”