Scientists Convene at the Aquarium for Jelly Camp 2023

If a group of jellies is called a smack, what is a group of jelly experts at a conference?

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If you've ever been captivated by jellies' hypnotic pulses as they effortlessly drift along with currents, you know the spell these creatures can cast. Jellies are animals from multiple branches of the evolutionary tree and are the descendants of true jellies, comb jellies and tunicates that emerged in the ocean over 500 million years ago. Despite looking like simplistic creatures, their evolution, lifecycles and genomes are surprisingly complicated. Some scientists have dedicated their professional lives to untangling the mysteries of these gelatinous organisms.

Sixty-five of these experts from institutions across the U.S., Canada and the Bahamas descended on the National Aquarium and Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology in Baltimore, Maryland, earlier this year to discuss all things jelly-related. Organized by National Aquarium Assistant Curator Jennie Janssen and co-hosted by the National Aquarium in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the conference was called Jelly Camp. It was a packed and productive weekend, focused on sustaining jellies as well as the communities of experts studying them.

A Culture of Sustainability

Given the diversity of jellies, one might expect to see a wide variety in aquariums. However, only one or two dozen species are routinely found in exhibits. This is due to many things. Thirty to 40 years ago, jellies were primarily collected at sea and then placed on exhibit. Their free-swimming adult forms have always been more easily identified than their microscopic larval or immobile polyp phases, making them perfect for collecting. Unfortunately, the short-lived and fragile nature of their free-swimming form (known as medusae) often resulted in problems in keeping exhibits stocked. A solution—fostering jellies throughout their entire lifecycle and facilitating breeding—brought challenges, especially without literature or guidance about culturing certain species.

Jellies Aquarist Pipetting Jelly Larvae From a Culture Kreisel into a Beaker to Collect and Analyze DNA

Over the last few decades, breakthroughs in species identification, in vitro fertilization techniques and culturing have allowed aquariums to keep sustainable colonies of jellies. Even aquariums that aren't culturing species can still display those jellies—if another organization can provide them with medusae. Thanks to the dedicated space and expertise at the National Aquarium's Culture lab, our jelly aquarists routinely trade jellies of all life stages with other aquariums. This practice reduces the need for collecting trips while increasing the collective knowledge about these species since their lifecycles and behaviors can be extensively observed.

Identifying and culturing new species is an exercise in trial and error since so little is known about most species. Little is known about the scientists and aquarists driving these discoveries, too. That may not seem critical, but allowing people to tie names to bodies of work is equally essential for these scientific communities. Just as researchers and aquarists successfully culture and spawn generations of jellies, many also want to foster the next generation of enthusiastic jelly experts who will nurture and progress the field.

Some in the next generation will discover their love of jellies by chance. Others may take inspiration from the scientists already in the field. Dr. Mónica Medina, Victoria Sharp and Vivian Li from Pennsylvania State University have created biographical webpages for female and minority researchers. During Jelly Camp, they led a workshop highlighting the difficulties they encountered, like bias in the source verification process. Researchers with diverse backgrounds and perspectives further the field, just as biodiversity helps maintain a robust and stable ecosystem. Scientific progress has rarely resulted from one person's achievements; technology today can shed light on those historically overlooked.

Adaptations for the Future

Jellies and jelly experts alike face challenges to which they must adapt. Dr. Rebecca Helm of Georgetown University held a workshop focused on using social media platforms to increase visibility around jelly research and encouraged scientists to explore these newer and popular modes of communicating. By sharing their findings in ways that spark the public's curiosity, jelly experts see to their field's future—and increase awareness of the environmental changes that jellies are facing.

Jellies can tolerate a broader range of stressors, but they have their limits, too. One limit Rachel Thayer from the Tennessee Aquarium and her collaborators looked at was ocean acidification. Her team had conducted a study raising upside-down jellies in waters of differing acidity. Their findings were mixed but suggested the species could withstand acidity levels predicted for the end of the century. However, they struggled beyond that limit—a sign that while these jellies may have the tools to adapt to some changes, they may struggle if their climate changes too drastically.

Drifting Along, With Purpose

Jelly Camp 2023 allowed this group of experts to meet in person—many for the first time after years of strictly email communication. Carrying on the conversation, they've continued to stay connected and are expanding the community via an online forum created during Jelly Camp 2023. With luck, they will continue to learn from and collaborate with each other, welcome and support the next generation of jelly experts, and expand our knowledge of jellies in and beyond aquariums worldwide. Until then, we—and the researchers unlocking their secrets—can marvel at these deceptively simple animals whose adaptations and unique lifecycles continue to surprise us.

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