It’s jellyfish mania in Australia right now, thanks to our snotastic new friend, whose discovery on a Tasmanian beach was announced just last week. While Captain Vom waits patiently for his new official name, we’ve got time to welcome another Australian jellyfish species into the spotlight, and this one’s been waiting more than a century for its fifteen minutes.
Meet Crambione cookii: a species that was discovered in the 1890s off the coast of Cookstown in Queensland and then not seen again for more than a hundred years. Well, that was how the story went, so when Puk Scivyer from Underwater World on the Gold Coast photographed a dead specimen in 1999, she knew she was on to something pretty special. Especially since there were no photographs of the species on record - just a single sketch from the original discovery.
She sent the photograph to CSIRO marine biologist and Australia’s foremost authority on everything jellies, Lisa-Anne Gershwin, and in 2010, Gershwin published the discovery. The first confirmed sighting of the species in more than 100 years.
C. cookii is about 50 cm across the dome and about that long vertically. It’s got a light, pinkish hue, and a mass of thick, frilly tentacles. “It looks like a cauliflower with legs,” says Scivyer.
Things got spooky when late last year, Scivyer picked up another C. cookii, and this time, she’d caught a live one. “We were out on our boat, releasing turtles on that particular day, when I saw a rather large jelly in the water that didn’t look like the ones we normally encounter. We were in the process of setting up a jellyfish exhibit, so maybe our eyes were open a bit more than usual,” says Sciyver.
She sent Gershwin some footage of her find. "She said, ‘I think this is Crambione cookii. What do you think?’ And I looked at it and went, ‘Oh my God. You’ve got to be kidding. What are the odds? Because at that time we thought that it was an incredibly, incredibly rare species, and the only two sightings in 100 years were by the same person.”
Coincidence? Kind of, but only in the sense that Scivyer was the one qualified person to come across the species twice in over a century. It turns out that plenty of people had seen the species since its original discovery, and sure enough, once they knew it was special, the photographs started to pour in.
“It was pretty exciting. It’s just that it escaped the scientific community’s eyes for 100 years, but now that it’s been seen, members of the public have been contacting us with pictures,” says Scivyer. “So it’s not like it’s the last single jelly in the world, it’s just that nobody had really been in a position to find it when they knew that it was something unusual. They’re not rare, it’s more that they’re rarely encountered.”
When Scivyer pulled C. cookii out of the ocean, she noticed that nine fish seemed to be living amongst its tentacles. She scooped them up and they were housed together in a special jelly tank at Underwater World. And then, as if from nowhere, fish emerged from all over the place.
“It was just a weirdest thing,” says Gershwin. “When [Scivyer] caught the specimen and let it go in the aquarium, I think it originally had nine fish with it. She sent me video with the nine fish and she was so excited. And then the next day she sent me more video and it's got 25 or 30 fish. And then the next day she sent me more video and it's got like 50 fish. It was unbelievable.”
“That’s probably what we found most interesting about him," says Scivyer. "This single jelly had a population of 76 fish and several crustaceans living with him. The fish were actually nestling the jelly. Up until now it’s always been thought that they didn’t make contact with the jelly to avoid being stung, but from everything we’ve seen, they actually physically nestle in it, and they’re not the species of fish that would normally be known to do that, like clown fish with anemones. But these were trevally, [a species] never known to [associate so closely with jellies].”
Scivyer counted at least three different species of fish that were living with the jellyfish. She thinks they might have been feeding on the parasitic crustaceans that had attached themselves to its tentacles.
While it’s clear from the number of sightings by members of the public that Crambione cookii is not rare, and possibly not even particularly uncommon, figuring out its population density and range is a particularly difficult task.
“With most jellyfish blooms, it comes and goes, sometimes within 24 hours. You can never quite pick when they’re going to happen,” says Scivyer. “We’re kind of getting an indication that it’s this time of the year [December], because it’s coming into our summer period, and we haven’t had any pictures from in the middle of winter. But that could be because people are out of the water when it’s rather cold. We’re also getting pictures distributed up the east coast of Australia. It’s a rather extensive range compared to what we thought originally."
And finally, the million-dollar question - just how powerful is that sting?
“I would say moderate,” says Scivyer. “I haven’t physically made contact with the tentacles, but I did happen to touch the water that he’s been in, and it feels like a decent whack on the hand. You can definitely feel it in the water. It’s quite common for jellyfish, a lot of people when they’re in the water, they get the little stingy bits on them, quite often they’re just the stinging cells of the jellyfish.”
“Oh it stings. It hurts,” says Gershwin. “It's not life threatening or anything like that. But it will get your attention. I think maybe it's kind of like a Lion's Mane or a Snotty, so it's pretty zappy, but then it goes away. It makes you wonder, certainly it must be stinging these fish, but then to have the fish sheltering inside it, you’ve got to sort to say, well no, it can't possibly be stinging the fish, or they'd be dead.”
Unfortunately the jellyfish didn’t last too long in captivity, but judging from the size of it – the original specimen from the 1980s was just 10 cm across the dome - it was probably fairly old when it was picked up. It now resides in the Queensland Museum as a specimen for future studies.
I'd just like to point out that the Daily Mail called Crambione cookii "deadly", "incredibly rare", and said that "Ms Scivyer thinks it is unlikely that any more will be found". Gizmodo called it "deadly" too. Guys, come on. Thanks for ruining its Wikipedia page.
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