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Biologist Moves To WNC To Study Jellyfish

Tourists flock Western North Carolina for the mountain views, hiking trails and attractions like the Biltmore House.  Sea life is not on the list, but that could change.  BPR’s Helen Chickering has the story of an unexpected find in the Western North Carolina waters that prompted a marine biologist to move to the mountains. 

The bubbling sound you hear is coming from a classroom on the UNC Asheville campus.  It’s a small aquarium and floating around inside are tiny pulsing transparent dot-like blobs.  They’re swimming in big circle, almost like they are riding an invisible Ferris wheel.  Biologist Rebecca Helm is watching.            “See how the body is shaped like a bell,” notes Helm.

Those bell shaped bodies belong to baby jellyfish.  Helm is a jellyfish researcher and she’s come to the mountains of Western North Carolina on a jellyfish hunt.  And yes, she knows exactly what you are thinking, 

“So we do have jellyfish here,” says Helm, “There are at least 10 species of jellyfish that live in freshwater, and the one we have here in WNC is called Craspedacusta.  We actually know very little about it.  The sort of prevailing thought is that it originated in China and then spread all over the world either from people as they moved plants around or possibly on things like birds feet.”

So apparently to understand how jellyfish got to the mountains, we have to wrap our heads around how jellyfish can get on birds feet.  Helm says like many jellies, this species has a complex lifecycle with many stages that includes a polyp phase. 

“These polys can produce essentially polyp seeds.  Those are really tiny balls of cells that can function like plant seeds do.  They can dry out and that means that these little polyps can travel to different lakes, on little bits of plants, kayaks, on duck feet and things like that.  Once the polyp rehydrates, it can start making jellyfish again, so we have jellies all around Western North Carolina!  I’ve found some in Hendersonville this year.”

Helm says the WNC jellies basically look like big contact lenses and are about the size of a nickel to a quarter (smaller when they are younger)And they tend to occur in lakes in patches.

Science educator Brenda Ramer  has seen them. Ramer runs the Team ECCO Aquarium and Shark Lab in Hendersonville (that’s a story for another time) and says a few years ago, a guy walked into the aquarium with a couple of mason jars

“And I thought mason jars, is he selling moonshine? “ jokes Ramer, “ I had to chuckle, but they were filled with freshwater jellies and they had come from Lake Summit.  We’ve seen them at Lake Summit and we’ve seen them at a couple of other lakes nearby, and I got a letter from a guy who saw them in Georgia.”

Sightings Biologist Rebecca Helm hopes to document.  She’s on a jelly mapping mission. Check it out here

“My research is to really figure out where they are, what lakes what quarries, small standing pools they live in Western North Carolina,” says Helm, “and try to figure out how similar they are to each other are all these lakes formed from same few polyps that produced these little seeds or are they all from different individuals that are colonizing these lakes – we don’t know very much about them.”

Helm is hoping to recruit citizen scientists to help her find out beginning in the summer -when jellies might start showing up in a pond near you.

And in case you’re wondering the freshwater jellies in NC aren’t big enough to sting. Like true jellyfish, they do have stinging cells (cnidocytes) which they use to paralyze prey. But there is no hard evidence the stinging cells can penetrate human skin (though some have claimed otherwise).

Want to see if there are freshwater jellies near you?  Check out: http://freshwaterjellyfish.org/location/

Hear more from Biologist Rebecca Helm about the freshwater jellies that lurk in the waters of Western North Carolina along with her idea for a jellyfish tea house!

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.