January 19, 2011

'Pink Meanie': New Species of Jellyfish Discovered In Gulf of Mexico

The scientific world is abuzz with the news. A brand new species of jellyfish has been identified in Mexican waters. This extremely rare creature has been nicknamed 'Pink Meanie', in part because it feeds on other jellyfish. Its discovery also means registering a new family, unique amongst any studied before.

Drymonema larsoni
Photo: Mary Elizabeth Miller, 2011

Drymonema larsoni has been measured at 3ft (0.9 meters) across, weighing in at 50lbs (3.6 stone; 22.7kg). Its tentacles can reach 70ft (21.3 meters) and are capable of ensnaring dozens of prey at once. (One in the Gulf of Mexico was spotted snacking on 34 smaller jellyfish at the same time.) It is the founding species of the Family Drymonematidae. This designation will cover jellyfish which specifically eat its own kind.

The species was photographed, in November 2000, off the coast of Dauphin Island, Alabama, USA. At the time, no-one realised the significance. It was assumed that the giant, pink creature was a stray, washed across the Atlantic from the Mediterranean Sea. A similar jellyfish lives there. Marine biologists nicknamed it the 'pink meanie'.

Drymonema larsoni
Photographed by Ben Raines, 2000

It was only when an American graduate student, Keith Bayha, went on vacation to Turkey, that questions began to be asked about the 'pink meanie'. He spotted one of the supposed species off the coast there and captured it. Asking around, he learned that this jellyfish hadn't been seen in decades in the region. It also had marked differences to the 'pink meanie' photographed back home.

Thus began ten years of research for Keith Bayha, who is now a Dauphin Island Sea Lab scientist. He teamed up with Dr Michael Dawson (University of California Merced Campus), who is an expert in the field, as well as an author of books on the subject. Bayha studied classifications of jellyfish from all over the world, as well as investigating 'pink meanies'. Their range covered the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the US Atlantic. Finally, DNA testing confirmed what his other data had already concluded. This jellyfish was something entirely new. In fact, it is unique.

Bayha explains, "It's rare that something like this could escape the notice of scientific research for so long. That it did is partially due to Drymonema’s extreme rarity almost everywhere in the world."

Keith Bayha
Keith Bayha and wallaby friend

When the classification was made, Bayha named it 'larsoni' after a personal hero, Ronald Larson. He was a US Fish & Wildlife scientist, who had contributed significantly to the jellyfish collection at the Smithsonian Museum. Bayha also believes that Larson was the first to document the 'pink meanie'. Bayha added, "I felt like he hadn’t really been recognized for all he had done. So this was my way of giving him some recognition."

Drymonema larsoni
Current cover of 'The Biological Bulletin'. A 'pink meanie' preys on the moon jellyfish Aurelia

Swimmers and divers suddenly feeling very nervous about taking a dip in the Mexican oceans should take note. The jellyfish have always been there. The only thing that has changed is that we now know about them. The distinct lack of headlines, from people attacked by them, is testimony to the fact that human beings are not on the menu. However, if you are an Aurelia jellyfish, beware!

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