Lisa-Anne Gershwin is something of a hero to me. You won’t find anyone in Australia, and very few people in the world, with the depth of knowledge about jellyfish that she does. She knows jellyfish. Jellyfish are her bros.
That new species of snotty jellyfish that terrorised the Internet this month? Lisa-Anne Gershwin’s describing and classifying it. That huge Australian jellyfish that hadn’t been seen in 100 years until recently? Lisa-Anne Gershwin helped identify it. The ‘kingslayer’ Irukandji jellyfish, Malo kingi, one of the most venomous creatures in the world? Lisa-Anne Gershwin described and classified it. And they’re just the jellyfish I’ve written about.
She was even involved in an incredible discovery in 2011 by a grad student from Melbourne of a new species of dolphin, Tursiops australis, that lives just off the coast of Victoria. Oh and the largest invertebrate discovered in the 20th century? It’s a jellyfish, and Lisa-Anne Gershwin described and classified that one too.
She’s a champion for the pursuit of basic, foundation-building knowledge in science, and thinks taxonomy is sexy, which is kind of the best.
I had a chat to her about finding big, charismatic, and bright purple new species in our oceans, and the pros and cons of being one of the world’s foremost jellyfish experts. Plus what’s the most dangerous introduced species on the planet? One hint – it’s a jelly.
But first, we chat about the kingslayer jelly, and why such a tiny creature needs such a huge sting.
Bec Crew: So this is a particularly dangerous jellyfish?
Lisa-Anne Gershwin: It’s dangerous. Generally people need to be hospitalised when they are stung by it. Some people require life support. Some people have on-going permanent heart damage or permanent neurological damage. It's very serious. It's very, very serious.
BC: So what’s the purpose of such a small animal having such potent venom?
LG: Well that’s the million-dollar question. Most people think it’s because it’s such a small, sort of feeble, animal that isn’t able to chase its prey, and isn’t able to defend itself very well from predators. So it needs to have very powerful toxins to defend itself and subdue its prey. But in this particular case I don’t think that’s really true.
When I was raising Irukandji in my lab at James Cook University years ago, I actually had 80 of them at one point. I did some experiments on fish, and fish don’t seem to be affected by this toxin in the same way [as humans].
And there’s a delay in the onset of the syndrome, it’s usually about a 20 to 30 minute delay, and you could imagine if you’re trying to subdue prey and you sting it, if doesn’t get sick for 20 minutes, well that’s not help anything. Or if something is trying to eat you and you sting it, and 20 minutes later it gets sick, that’s not going to help you. So this, and the fact that the fish I’ve tested didn’t seem to be affected by it.
So it maybe it’s just a sheer, random coincidence that for some unexplainable reason Homo sapiens have that reaction, but there’s no connection to [the jellyfish’s] vertebrate prey or vertebrate predators. It may just be completely random.
BC: Do you have a favourite species of jellyfish?
LG: Oh gosh, what a question! It’s like asking a mother which is her favourite child or a chef which is their favourite recipe. I know I’m supposed to say, ‘Oh, I love them all equally’, but I do have a couple of favourites. I am truly, truly amazed by the Irukandji. I’m amazed by the biology and ecology of these very strange animals. They have these sophisticated behaviours and yet they have no brain, I am absolutely enchanted by that.
But there’s another one that is very near and dear to me. There is a species called Chrysaora achlyos. Chrysaora achlyos was actually the first species I named and classified about 20 years ago. And it turned out to be the largest invertebrate that was discovered in the 20th century. I am so in love with that species. It’s beautiful, it’s huge, it’s graceful, it’s purple. It’s amazing.
LG: The body is about a metre in diameter. And the oral arms are about eight metres long and the tentacles go much, much longer than that. It’s an unbelievably huge animal and it’s the colour of a fine Shiraz that you hold up to the light. It is just the most amazing animal. It’s got the quintessential, perfect jellyfish sort of look. I love it. It’s my baby.
BC: How did you find it?
LG: Well this is another one of these bizarre, wasn’t paying attention, kind of things. It had been in National Geographic twice, it had been in numerous books and magazine articles, so it was fairly well known. But it was fairly rare - it only showed up every 10 to 40 years. And then all of a sudden it started showing up every year, and when I was in Los Angeles working on jellyfish, this thing came to my attention because, well, it’s big and purple, how could it not come to your attention! And so a couple of colleagues and I decided to name it and classify it - make it official.
So to me that’s another one of these examples that we’re just not paying enough attention to the ocean. If we can find a new species that’s that big and that beautiful and that obvious in Los Angeles… It’s the elephant in the room sort of thing. How do you overlook something that’s so obvious? Like Crambione cookii - something that’s so large and so obvious and so beautiful. How does it escape notice for 100 years?
BC: I wrote an article recently about a guy who was looking into prairie dog languages and he said one of the big problems when you’re working with animals and animal behaviour is that scientists just don't have the time and the funds to go out there and look. It's sort of a real shame that 100 years ago scientists could just go out there and observe and it's sad we don't have that anymore.
LG: The irony is that it's not that expensive to go out and look. In comparison, you look at the expense of getting DNA from things, and all these big, sophisticated types of things that we do in science these days, which are far more expensive, but we are missing that basic science that tells us what's out there. We simply must know the biodiversity of what’s around us, or we have no way of even knowing if something introduced shows up from somewhere else, because we don’t even know the baseline of what’s there.
BC: It seems like there’s been a lot of press about jellyfish migrations and the danger in that. How real is this threat?
LG: Any time that jellyfish are blooming, you’ve got a whole lot of jellyfish that are too many to fit into an area, so they sort of expand out. They drop their larvae and then those larvae are now the seed-bank for the next bloom. It’s kind of like dandelions, where you have one dandelion and if you let it go, it makes a whole bunch of new dandelions around it and then each of those dandelions will make a bunch of dandelions around them.
BC: So they spread really easily.
LG: Probably the worst case of an introduced species on the planet is a species called Mnemiopsis leidyi. Mnemiopsis was accidentally introduced to the Black Sea and separately to the Baltic from the eastern United States. And well, from the Black Sea it got out and went to the Caspian, went to the Azov, went to the Mediterranean. It spread across the Mediterranean separately when it was accidentally introduced into the Baltic and from there it spread into the North Sea. And now Mnemiopsis is absolutely rampant through the whole European seas area.
And it’s a bad one. It eats everything. It eats fish eggs, fish larvae, eggs of other species, larvae of other species. It has a voracious appetite. It eats 10 times its body weight per day. It begins reproducing within 13 days of its own birth. It grows very fast and it doesn’t even need a mate to breed.
So it’s really quite an astonishing animal and when you look at the ecological damage it’s done to the ecosystems and of course the fisheries. You just can’t imagine how bad one species could possibly be. I mean, the animal is just trying to survive, [but] it’s just so darn greedy.
BC: What are you up to next?
LG: I’m in negotiations at the moment to write my next book, so watch this space. And I’m just loving the work that I am doing at CSIRO and working hard trying to solve some of the jellyfish problems in this country. Well, trying to wrap my head around the jellyfish [problems]. I’m living the good life.
BC: It must be pretty cool to have the level of knowledge that not many people in Australia would have of jellyfish, and to know them so intimately.
LG: Well yeah, on the one hand it’s really cool, because it makes me really valuable to CSIRO, and to the country and the industries that need solutions. On the other hand it definitely keeps me really busy because there’s nobody to take up the slack. I end up 24/7, 365 days being the go-to contact person not only for Australia, but for much of the world. And I feel really humbled that people want to know this information and put me in that regard where they fire off an email or pick up the phone on the assumption that I can help them. I feel incredibly humbled by that. But sometimes I think it would be nice if I had some colleagues that shared my knowledge that could sort of pick up some of the slack from time to time!
BC: I can imagine!
LG: So I’m working on that. I’m actually trying to get some students that I can infuse my jellyfish knowledge [into].
And you know, it can also be really frustrating. When I submit a paper for peer review, for example, - and it’s a really, really important process - but recently I’ve gotten comments back on three papers where the reviewers have actually said things along the lines of, ‘Well I don’t have any knowledge about this, but I think…’. It’s like they’re being obstructive in the interest of wanting to have something to say, and not knowing the right thing to say. And this is not what the peer review process was meant to be. It's not supposed to be obstructive by people who don't know. It’s supposed to be by peers that know enough about the material to be able to comment authoritatively on it. So it has this frustration.
It gets back to this problem that there is so much emphasis on the types of science that go beyond that basic knowledge. And there’s the assumption that the basic knowledge is already known and in fact it’s not. I mean, in this day and age in 2014 I can still go out with my net right off the wharf at CSIRO where I work, I can get the net in the water for 5 or 10 minutes and about 8 out of every 10 times that I do that, I come up with something that’s not yet known to science.
BC: That’s incredible.
LG: That is utterly incredible. And by the way, I can do that most of the places around Australia and probably most of the places around the world. So if there is that much out there to be discovered - and that’s just jellyfish, there’s lots of other stuff. My expertise is in jellyfish, but spider people will tell you there are spiders to be discovered, sponge people will tell you there are sponges to be discovered, algae people will tell you there is algae. There’s a tonne of stuff to be discovered. Even dolphins!
You know, knowing the DNA of things - and I am not picking on DNA because I think it’s really important - but knowing the DNA of things is a limited field if you don't know the things. So it’s like we’re pouring vast amounts of money into researching the secondary questions when we are ignoring the primary question of what's out there.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t do the other stuff. I absolutely think we should do the other stuff, it’s utterly important and imperative, but I think there should be a balance. We should do the basic research as well. The taxonomy to know the biodiversity that surrounds us and the basic biology and ecology what makes these things tick. That level of scientific inquiry saw its hay-day 100 years ago, but we moved on, scientifically we have moved on. We are now doing more refined types of studies and we are ignoring that basic information that is just so important. I think Chrysaora achlyos and Crambione cookii and Tursiops australis and so many others like them, I think they are testament to the fact that we need to be paying attention to this basic type of research.
But it’s not sexy. It doesn’t get the big grants and it doesn’t get the jobs. And because it doesn’t get the jobs and it doesn’t get the grants, it’s not attractive to incoming students. And the thing is, for the life for me, I swear I don’t understand why it’s not sexy and honestly I just can’t think of a better way to spend a day than out there discovering something that nobody has ever seen before.
BC: Yeah, I mean, that’s what scientists dream about!
LG: Yes, seriously what a hoot! I think it’s the modern-day equivalent of being one of the great explorers, discovering new continents and scaling Mount Everest. To actually discover a whole new type of creature that’s never been seen before. Wow. It’s just the most incredible, unbelievable rush you can imagine. People pay good money for rushes like that! I think we need a generation of energetic people who see the value in that type of discovery, and not at the expense of other stuff, but in addition to it. It’s exciting, I’ve got to tell you, it’s just fantastic.
Watch Lisa-Anne Gershwin's TEDx talk: