Summer’s Sting

A Q&A with Montclair State marine biologist Paul Bologna

Photo: Mike Peters

Paul Bologna and a student collecting sea nettle specimens on Barnegat Bay.

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 for jellyfish?
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 jellyfish?
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?
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 globally.

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.

Besides the 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!

Learn more about Bologna’s work on the New Jersey shore this summer at NJTVonline.org, NBC10.com and Philadelphia Magazine.

Read about Bologna's work with sea nettles in Montclair magazine.