Jessica Luo and Kelly Robinson are jelly lovers — not the jellies you smear on your toast but the ones that float in the ocean, their bell-shaped bodies pulsing like slow-motion heartbeats in the currents of the sea.
“I’m just blown away by the beauty and diversity of the jellies,” says Luo, a Ph.D. student from the University of Miami who’s working in the Plankton Lab at Oregon State’s Hatfield Marine Science Center. “One thing we’re studying is, what drives the dramatic boom-and-bust cycles of gelatinous zooplankton in the world’s oceans.”
Post-doctoral researcher Kelly Robinson is equally enamored of the pulsating organisms. “Moon jellies can store oxygen in their bells, which lets them stay longer in low-oxygen environments,” marvels Robinson, a specialist in how climate change affects zooplankton and how blooms of large jellies and other gelatinous species impact coastal fisheries.
Luo and Robinson have seen firsthand what happens to jellyfish and other gelatinous zooplankton when scientists scoop them up in nets, the typical method for plankton studies. Even the most advanced nets — high-tech computerized sampling systems that record salinity, temperature, depth and other data — can smash and tear the fragile free-floating animals.
“We need to get away from extraction to natural observations,” Luo asserts.
That’s why the two young researchers are particularly happy about being part of OSU’s novel plankton-sampling program led by Hatfield’s director Robert Cowen, who has designed a highly specialized digital imaging system to study zooplankton in their home waters. “In the ocean, you’ll see a curtain of tentacles, all splayed out like a Spanish dancer with fans all flowing,” says Robinson. “In the net, it’s all in bits.”
Adds Luo: “You used to have to be a diver to see jellies in their own environment. With our new sophisticated camera systems, we can learn so much more about factors like predator and prey interactions, productive thin layers and population fluctuations. Our understanding of these organisms is still in its infancy.