Paul Bologna, an associate professor of biology and director
of Montclair State University’s Marine Biology and Coastal Sciences program, is
an authority on jellyfish. Bologna, who is president of the New Jersey Academy
of Sciences, is the media’s “go-to” expert on everything from the jellyfish
invasion in Barnegat Bay to the recent appearance of Portuguese man-of-wars on
New Jersey shores. Here he shares insights about these marine stingers.
Is this a big summer
Yes. The unusual sightings of Portuguese man-of-wars on our beaches alone are making this an interesting summer.
Where have the
Portuguese man-of-wars been sighted?
The first one to be reported was washed up on the Harvey Cedars beach on Long Beach Island last month. Since then, they’ve been seen along the Jersey coast, from Wildwood and Stone Harbor to the Ventnor area, as well as the Navesink and Shrewsbury.
They’ve also recently been spotted on Long Island – on Fire
Island and in waters off the Hamptons and Montauk.
What is causing this?
They began washing up on Florida beaches in the spring and have been trucking up north ever since, via the Gulfstream, the powerful current that runs from the tropics to the North Atlantic. They may even show up on Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod.
While they are a tropical and sub-tropical species, the
Gulfstream is generally further offshore, so they don’t often land on our
beaches. But with the current easterly and northeasterly winds, the ’sail’ of
the Portuguese man-of-war allows it to be transported to our coastal beaches.
How did the
Portuguese man-of-war get its name?
Their floats, which are above the water, give them the appearance of an old Portuguese warship in full sail. The floats make them more susceptible to winds, which propel them along.
Are they really
No. They are actually siphonophores, which are colonies of cloned individual organisms working in unison to perform specific functions – like stinging, digestion and reproduction. You can think of it as a group of clones that work together for the collective good, akin to individual bees within a bee colony.
How dangerous are
They deliver a toxic cocktail of neurotoxins and sedatives. The sedatives stun their prey and the neurotoxins kill them – so they are able to kill fish and eat them.
While people can die if they encounter them in the wild,
where they can get tangled up and repeatedly stung by tentacles that can be up
to 100 feet long, by the time they wash up on our beaches, they’ve been bounced
around and their tentacles are often torn up. This doesn’t mean they can’t
still sting you – even the tentacles of a dead man-of-war can still sting you.
I was stung yesterday by a piece of tentacle – it was quite
painful, but not deadly.
What should you do if
one stings you?
First, you should seek medical help if the sting is painful. Seek out the lifeguard if you are on a guarded beach. Rinse the affected area in seawater.
Vinegar can often help neutralize the stinging cells. We
keep vinegar on board when we are dealing with jellyfish in the Barnegat Bay. It
does not take the pain away, but it will generally stop the remaining stinging
cells from firing. Lifeguards would do well in areas where there are lots of
jellyfish to keep vinegar on hand with their first aid kits.
For the past several
years, you and some of your colleagues have
been studying the jellyfish invading the Barnegat Bay. What is your focus?
My colleague, biology professor Jack Gaynor, and I received funding from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to investigate the potential impact of jellyfish on the aquatic food web.
There has been an explosion of jellyfish, or sea nettles, in
the bay. Jellyfish are voracious predators that grow rapidly and are top
predators in the Barnegat Bay. They feed on larval fish and crabs that have
recreational and commercial value. And they feed on other organisms that
juvenile fish feed on. This makes jellyfish both predators and competitors for
food. It’s a double whammy that can cause declines in fisheries both locally and
This summer, we have a group of volunteers who are helping
us see just where in the Barnegat Bay the sea nettles are settling in.
Why do sea nettles
thrive in Barnegat Bay?
Jellyfish don’t need as much oxygen as other species to compete and can survive where other organisms cannot. They win by default.
The sea nettles themselves die off and do not survive the
winter, but their polyps do. Bulkheads and docks are great places for the
polyps to develop and contribute to the nettles’ population explosion.
To your mind, what is
the most fascinating thing about jellyfish?
Jellyfish are fascinating because they are simple creatures, yet they exhibit complex life histories. Some are potentially deadly, but at the same time they are beautiful and tranquil to watch.
What else can we
learn from jellyfish?
Pharmaceutical companies are interested in their toxins. Perhaps they could reverse engineer the toxic chemicals in the stings to develop anti-cancer drugs. Pharma companies are also interested in the sedative properties of the chemicals in the stinging cells, which could have value as painkillers.
Portuguese man-of-war, have any
other unusual jellyfish visited New Jersey lately?
Last fall, a box jellyfish washed up in Bay Head. These are extremely dangerous and have an extremely toxic neurotoxin that affects the central nervous system and can create a world of hurt. Their sting can bring on Irukandji syndrome, which can cause cardiac arrest and respiratory failure.
Are the box jellyfish
likely to return?
This was probably an isolated incident, though records show there were box jellyfish here in the North Atlantic 100 years ago. They are a tropical species brought here by the Gulfstream. Depending on the Gulfstream, they might be seen again this fall.
So is it safe to go
into the water?
Yes – but be sure to look around!
Read about Bologna's work with sea nettles in Montclair magazine.