Jelllyfish are invertebrate marine animals known for their unique, often elegant bell-and-tentacles appearance. Jellies use their tentacles to both trap and poison their prey, but in many cases their stings aren't harmful or even noticeable to human beings. Thanks largely to increasing amounts of pollution in the Gulf of Mexico, oxygen-consuming algae blooms have driven many animal species out of the region, allowing jellyfish to flourish. The Gulf south of the Florida panhandle has become a hot spot for sea nettles, moon jellyfish, cannonball jellyfish and the Australian jellyfish, along with the jellyfish-like Portuguese man o' war.
One of the most abundant types of jellyfish in the region since about the 1980s and 1990s, Chrysaora quinquecirrha, or sea nettles, are known for their especially noxious and prominent tentacles as well as for their tolerance for both very high and very low levels of ambient salt content. People stung by these animals report symptoms ranging from annoyance to considerable pain, but sea nettles are not considered truly dangerous. Their color is usually plain white under low to normal surrounding salt content, but at higher salinity, their tentacles often assume a red tinge.
Aurelia aurita, or moon jellies, cause no serious problems for human swimmers and are one of the most populous jelly species near the Florida panhandle. They frequently congregate in very large numbers in one spot, and if you feel the sting of a moon jellyfish at all, it is likely to be very mild and transient. Their most prominent feature is a pinkish-red design in the center of the bell that closely resembles a four-leaf-clover without the stem.
Stomolophus meleagris, also known as the cannonball jellyfish, has a bell about 10 inches in diameter, from which eight tentacles extend. The cannonball jelly is edible -- and quite nutritious, since it's low in fat and cholesterol -- but proper preparation is essential to avoid toxicity. The neurotoxin they produce is harmful to fish and therefore helps stave off predation. Subsisting on zooplankton and larvae, they are a vital part of the local food chain and are a favorite meal of leatherback turtles.
Portuguese Man o' War
Despite its appearance and conventional wisdom, the Physalia physalis, or famed Portuguese man o' war, is not a true jellyfish. It's a siponophore -- a colony of smaller organisms working together. The creature gets its name from the uppermost of its four polyps, which somewhat resembles a warship of old when projecting above the water's surface. Regardless of what you want to call it, the man o' war is nothing to mess with -- the cysts embedded in its massive 30-foot-long tentacles contain a poison nasty enough to possibly send you to the hospital if you are stung --- even by a dead, beached man o' war.
The Australian jellyfish, or Phyllorhiza punctata, is a dinner-plate-sized interloper that has invaded the Gulf waters in at least two waves -- the first in 2000, which was largely self-limiting, and again in 2007. Although only mildly venomous and of no toxicological consequence to humans, their presence has proven disruptive to the local fishing industry, as Australian jellies not only feed on fish eggs and larvae, but also become entangled in fishing nets to quite messy effect. As of 2014, biologists couldn't be certain what factors were most responsible for the invasions, which have also taken place in other parts of the world.
- National Science Foundation: Jellyfish Gone Wild -- Gulf of Mexico
- Florida Department of Environmental Protection: Northwest District - Envirofact/Jellyfish and Sea Nettles
- BeachHunter.net: Moon Jellyfish
- National Geographic Kids: Jellyfish
- National Geographic: Portuguese Man-of-War
- National Geographic: Australian Jellyfish Invade U.S. Waters
- Photo Credit Purestock/Purestock/Getty Images
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