‘Spineless’—What Jellyfish Can Teach Us About the Oceans’ Future
By Tara Lohan
As human industry belches out more carbon dioxide, the chemistry of our oceans is changing. The resulting acidification is endangering coral reefs and the myriad creatures that depend on them. Science writer and one-time ocean researcher Juli Berwald wondered how ocean acidification affects jellyfish. Will they be climate change winners or losers?
The answer, she learned, isn't simple—scientists don't even agree on whether jellyfish populations are increasing or decreasing. But her question offers a jumping off point into the deep blue. The result is Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Act of Growing a Backbone, a book that's both a scientific journey and a personal one.
Jellyfish are beautiful and ethereal looking, but they don't have the easy charisma of some marine animals. They're not dolphins or clownfish or even octopuses. Most of us would rather not get close enough to touch them. Yet thanks to Berwald's years of research, global treks and accessible language, Spineless is an enchanting read.
Scientists still have much to learn about jellies, but what we already know is fascinating enough. It turns out jellyfish have traveled to space, are informing robotics research—and are delicious in salad (if you know the secret to their preparation). And they can tell us volumes about the ocean they live in.
"Understanding jellyfish means recognizing the oceans in their complexity rather than homogenizing their problems," she writes in the book.
We wanted to know more about jellies, so we asked Berwald about her process of discovery, what scientists are learning about jellyfish and how they can help us better understand the ocean's biggest challenges.
Your book is a scientific journey and a personal one. What was your favorite part of the process?
When I discovered jellyfish, I was an ex-oceanographer-turned-soccer mom living in Austin, Texas. I had become complacent writing textbooks but didn't quite have the insight to realize I was craving something more. Jellyfish became a kind of secret obsession that took me back to the sea in my mind, even if I was still physically in a landlocked home office overrun with kids' toys. As I became more fascinated with their biology and ecology, jellyfish gave me the confidence to discover their larger story, and mine too.
Since you first began studying jellyfish, what have you seen change about our scientific understanding of them?
The recognition that jellyfish aren't a dead end to the food chain is a big deal. For decades, scientists thought of jellyfish as wasted energy largely because the best tool we had for studying what-ate-what was looking inside predators' bellies. When you do that, you rarely find a jellyfish. But with new molecular tools we've discovered that loads of animals eat jellyfish—including top predators like penguins and tuna. It looks like jellyfish are at the very least an important food when supplies run short and maybe even critical to the food web.
As you write in your book, there are a number of things that make jellyfish unpopular—from stinging swimmers to clogging power plants. What are some things we should appreciate about them?
Jellyfish are a cornucopia of superlatives. The smallest animal in the world is a parasitic jellyfish called Polypodium. The colonial jellyfish, Praya dubya, grows to 120 feet, rivaling the blue whale's length. The oldest muscle discovered is 540 million years old; it came from a jellyfish. And here's a whopper: That stinging cell, it explodes out of its capsule with an acceleration 5 million times the acceleration of gravity. It's the fastest known motion in the animal kingdom.
Also, jellyfish are the most efficient swimmers in the sea. And they aren't out there just bumbling around. They have many little faces around the edge of their bell called rhopalia that they use to sense the world. Each one has eyespots, a sensory region like a nose, a balance organ like our inner ear and connects to a pacemaker like our heart. And that doesn't even leave space to talk about their incredible glowing or their insane regenerative capabilities.
How can jellyfish help us better understand the crises facing the ocean?
Jellyfish have adaptations that allow them to do well in today's damaged seas. They are both eaten by fish and compete for food with fish. So overfishing decreases their predators and increases their prey. They have a very important sessile stage called a polyp that lives on the underside of hard surfaces. Construction of docks, jetties and oil rigs provide a lot more coastal habitat for those polyps.
Because of their jelly insides, they can withstand low-oxygen environments better than more cellular animals with higher metabolism. Those dead zones are expanding because of pollution. And shipping and the proliferation of larger canals provides pathways for jellyfish to become invasive species. Jellyfish populations do ebb and flow naturally. But in places where jellyfish are chronic, it's often a signal of a compromised ecosystem.
You wrote that funding in 2013 for space exploration outpaced ocean exploration 150 to 1. How do you think we can begin to close that gap and get more people interested in the fate of our oceans?
Ocean scientists have been trying to figure that out for a long time. It's not that the ocean isn't inspiring enough. It is. The problem might be exposure. Everyone can look up and wonder about space every day, but only if you live on the coast do you see the ocean every day.
The best answer I have is that we need more diverse voices telling stories that resonate in ways people can't ignore. I personally don't watch very many ocean documentaries because I get tired of somber male voices. (No offense, David Attenborough.)
Many books about marine science have that same problem. I used to finish them—often 10 chapters told in an authoritarian voice—and think, there's no way I could write a book like that. Then I changed the inflection and I thought, but I could write a book like this. This being a book about my own journey to grow a spine as much as about the science of jellyfish and what these incredible creatures mean for our planet's future.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Alexandra Rowles
Oregano is a fragrant herb that's best known as an ingredient in Italian food.
However, it can also be concentrated into an essential oil that's loaded with antioxidants and powerful compounds that have proven health benefits.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently issued a list of 431 products that are effective at killing viruses when they are on surfaces. Now, a good year for Lysol manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser just got better when the EPA said that two Lysol products are among the products that can kill the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
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For all its posturing on climate change, the Democratic Party has long been weak on the actual policies we need to save us from extinction. President Barack Obama promised his presidency would mark "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow," and then embraced natural gas, a major driver of global temperature rise, as a "bridge fuel." Climate legislation passed in the House in 2009 would have allowed industries to buy credits to pollute, a practice known to concentrate toxic air in black and brown neighborhoods while doing little to cut emissions.
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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