Extreme Jellyfish

There are some 2,000 species of jellyfish. Some are tasty, others will kill you with the tap of a tentacle. Here are nine varieties that really stand out

Jellyfish Lake
Reinhard Dirscherl / Alamy

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Amphinema rollinsi Henry Rollins
(Maura McCarthy)
Jellyfish species have all kinds of offbeat common names: fried-egg jellies, cabbage heads, big reds. But their scientific names can be funky too. Phialella zappai is named in honor of Frank Zappa; the Italian scientist who discovered the jellyfish was reportedly angling for a visit from the famous musician. Likewise, Monterey Bay Aquarium jelly guru Chad Widmer named Amphinema rollinsi after hard-core punk artist Henry Rollins, whose music he admires.

But sometimes a gelatinous namesake can be a dubious honor. Malo kingi is a nod to Robert King, an American tourist who was killed by the jellyfish’s sting in Australia in 2002.

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Crystal jellyfish
(Maura McCarthy)
The crystal jellyfish, Aequorea victoria, helped win the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Scientists from three American labs worked with the jellyfish’s green fluorescent protein, known as GFP, developing it into a key scientific tool. The glowing substance illuminates previously invisible processes inside cells and has been used to study diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s.

GFP has also been used for more, um, creative purposes. In 2000, French scientists spliced GFP into a white rabbit’s genome; Chicago artist Eduardo Kac claimed it was his idea, though scientists later disputed that. The resulting bunny, which glowed under black lights, triggered protests from animal rights groups. “It makes no sense to paint as we painted in caves,” Kac said in defense of his phosphorescent rabbit.

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Jellyfish near mineral chimneys in Costa Rica
(Maura McCarthy)
Jellyfish thrive in all sorts of climes, but in 2007 scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and other organizations were surprised to find them congregating near the mouths of “black smokers,” undersea mineral chimneys that spew water as hot as 626 degrees Fahrenheit. The jellies, discovered off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast at a depth of 8,500 feet, are a distinctive pink color, somewhat reminiscent of boiled shrimp.

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Jellyfish under West Antarctic ice sheet
(Maura McCarthy)
NASA scientists recently stuck a camera beneath a 600-foot-thick West Antarctic ice sheet, expecting to find no signs of life. But in the frigid water they saw what appeared to be the tentacle of a foot-long jellyfish.

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Australian box jellyfish
(Maura McCarthy)
The Australian box jellyfish, or sea wasp, is most likely to succeed…in killing you. It has up to 15 tentacles, each packing enough poison to slay dozens of unlucky bathers. These jellies are almost transparent: the best way to spot them is to look for their shadows on the ocean floor. Their toxins work so quickly that a victim’s heart can stop before he even reaches the shore. Survivors are left with horrific-looking welts on their skin.

Sea wasps are advanced, as far as jellyfish go. They can swim (as opposed to drifting in the current) and scientists at the Tropical Australian Stinger Research Unit recently developed tagging technology to track the killers’ movements underwater.

Box jellies are also shoo-ins for the “Best Eyes” category. Most jellyfish don’t have eyes, but sea wasps have several clusters of them on their bells, complete with lenses, irises and corneas.

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Nomura jellyfish
(Maura McCarthy)
The Nomura jellies that have plagued Japan in recent years are big, yes – 450 pounds and seven feet long, roughly the proportions of sumo wrestlers. But they are petite compared with the lion’s mane jellyfish. This cold-water species can reach over 100 feet long. Granted, most of its length is tentacles, but that’s no cause for relief – the flowing appendages pack a nasty punch. Indeed, this jelly emerges as the murderer in a classic Sherlock Holmes short story, “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane.” Although the lion’s manes are often found farther north, the giant jellies are reportedly gracing the shores of Holmes’ native England this summer.

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Edible jellyfish
(Maura McCarthy)
Several jellyfish species are eaten with gusto by the Chinese – who have consumed them for more than a thousand years – and others are now becoming the darlings of fringe foodies in Europe and elsewhere. (One Michelin-starred Spanish chef recently referred to her new favorite soup ingredients as “beautiful marine princesses.”) Jellies are a desirable seafood alternative because they haven’t been overfished like so many other oceanic sources of protein.

However, sometimes nature’s bounty is not enough. The Chinese are so keen to harvest the edible jellyfish Rhopilema esculentum that in 2005 and 2006, some 400 million tiny cultured jellies were released into Liaodong Bay. Fishermen recaptured only about 3 percent.

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Darth Vader Bathykorus bouilloni Star Wars
(Maura McCarthy)
On Arctic collecting trips in 2002 and 2005, Kevin Raskoff, a jelly expert at Monterey Peninsula College, spied a little deep-sea jellyfish that turned out to represent not only a new species, but a new genus as well. He christened it Bathykorus bouilloni, a tribute to the late marine scientist Jean Bouillon, but many have noticed its striking resemblance to the former Anakin Skywalker.

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Jellyfish Lake
(Maura McCarthy)
A lot of jellyfish are lookers. The flower hat jelly has hot pink lures curling from its bell. The orange Pacific sea nettle is radiant as a star. But jellyfish are even more beautiful in multitudes than on their own -- scientists and tourists alike rave about snorkeling through the masses in the so-called “Jellyfish Lake,” on the Pacific island of Palau. (The golden jellies’ sting isn’t perceptible to swimmers, which makes them even prettier.) Perhaps the most beautiful of all are the common moon jellyfish. Their simple, pale, pulsing forms are almost ethereal.