Earlier this summer, our family was bounding down the Eastern corridor on I-95 and talking about jellies, specifically one jellyfish that goes by a rather unwieldy name: Chiropsalmus quadrumanus. Eight syllables in all, but nicely balanced by the twin -us endings. The second part of the name means "four hands" and so this is sometimes called the four-handed box jellyfish. [Editorial note: manus means hand in Latin, which is why this word in not typically used in the way it was presented in the No Bones piece on the new unusual animal Dendrogramma.]
We were on our way to North Carolina in search of this one jelly for a variety of reasons. First, it is a box jellyfish (in the class Cubozoa) and those are all amazing, with their vision-capable eyes (SEE BELOW) and often potent venoms, and therefore worthy of study. As we discussed these animals, our 6-year old busied herself in sketching one out of her imagination (RIGHT). No boxing gloves as our older child had famously sketched several years earlier on a whiteboard during a museum happy hour, but we found this depiction pretty entertaining nonetheless. It has a rather angry look to it, easily explained by our daughter's trepidations about getting into the water with these animals. She didn't want to get stung, which was a sound conviction even though this species does not appear to be particularly dangerous.
One of our questions, a pretty basic one, was whether this jellyfish found in the United States, which had originally been named and described based on collections from Brazil, is actually a separate species. The species was described more than 150 years ago from Santa Catarina State in Brazil, more than 7,000 kilometers (4,000+ miles) away from our destination in North Carolina. Not long after its original discovery (LEFT), specimens from North America (also LEFT, but below) matching the original description were encountered and the species was presumed to range from Cape Hatteras in North Carolina all the way southward through the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean to southern Brazil.
As far as we know, there are no readily apparent morphological differences among the individuals collected from along that 7,000+ km coastline stretching up the Atlantic. So, what makes us even question whether the North Carolina animals belong to a different, as yet previously unrecognized, species? Hah! That's a trick question. As scientists we question everything and the names that people use to call species can always be viewed as a hypothesis, an idea that can be tested. In addition, we had some evidence that made us question the validity of this hypothesis. A few years ago, a colleague (Bastian Bentlage) had obtained some samples of Chiropsalmus from North Carolina and when we examined genetic sequence from these animals and compared them to data derived from Brazilian specimens, we discovered that they were quite distinct. On their face, these data showing distinct genetic lineages from such disparate geographic localities contradict the hypothesis that there is only one species ranging from North Carolina to Brazil.
The simple goal of this trip was to collect individuals and document them in a variety of ways. High quality pictures to document the animal in its true form and color is always an aim, but we also brought a number of other preservation materials that will allow this team and collaborators to investigate in different ways. We brought a relaxant to so that we could fix the animals' tissues in formalin, which preserves their form for long term storage in a museum. In addition, we planned to preserve tentacles in citrate, so that they could be used for venom studies. We had a super chilled thermos, known as a dry shipper, which had earlier been cooled to -300 degrees with liquid nitrogen, so that we could flashfreeze entire individuals for whole genomic DNA sequencing. The flashfreezing prevents DNA degradation so that large pieces of DNA, or even entire nuclei, can be extracted.
Our most important goal was to collect adult animals. Specifically, we sought adults so that we could isolate live eggs and sperm in order to raise them in our new Invertebrate Zoology aquarium room (there will be a forthcoming pience on No Bones about that!). Raising animals in the lab would allow us to share them with the public through an outreach program that we are collectively developing for the Q?rius Education Center.
So, how did we do in achieving all of these aims?
With field research, it is always difficult to predict the outcomes and this adventure was no different. In this entire endeavor, we were aided by an important partner, Jo O’Keefe. Jo lives in the area and her passion for natural history is palpable. She runs an extensive website about marine life at Sunset Beach, North Carolina and has been in contact with us for years about organisms that wash up on the beach. She was the host for our group, which not only included our family but also an intern, a volunteer (accompanied by significant other), a graduate student (with family) and a postdoc. Jo helped to arrange access to collection sites and a kayak. She even arranged a greeting from the Mayor of Sunset Beach, Mayor Watts, who drove us to our primary collection site when we first arrived!
Within the first 10 minutes of deploying a plankton net into the strong current, we caught a single young target box jelly. We were off to a fantastic start in our jelly hunt. We would soon learn that it was probably luck and not that there was a high abundance of these guys swimming in the water, but at the moment we were ecstatic! Consecutive attempts brought up other jellies, but no Chiropsalmus. So off to Jo’s we went, where a make-shift processing lab was set up in her garage. Hours of photographing the swimming animal, then preservation and that concluded that first day’s work. The rest of the crew would arrive the next day and we would spend two days getting all the jellies we needed to fulfill our aims.
Over the course of two other days, we found lots of individuals washed up on shore, which we preserved for venom studies. Night time attempts, and various other collecting endeavors timed with incoming and outgoing tides landed us a couple sightings of live animals, but no more catches. After a promising start, we went home with a bit of disappointment, with just a single juvenile specimen in hand. Clearly it was not the most successful collecting trip. On the other hand, a number of good things were achieved. Personally, it was a great time for the family to be together. In addition, we were able to share the adventure of fieldwork as a team of educators and scientists at various career stages. As a diverse team of people interested in natural history, we explored a wonderful locality conversing on topcis ranging from the biology of jellyfish to the merits of banana pudding.
This trip was supported by an Education Minigrant from NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center.