Drone Captures Massive Swarm of Jellyfish Off British Columbia That Weighs More Than 70 Tons

Keith Holmes/Hakai Institute
Keith Holmes/Hakai Institute

Drones have served science in myriad ways, from planting trees to vacuuming marine debris to predicting tornadoes. Now, a team of researchers has used one to measure the size of a massive bloom of jellyfish off the coast of British Columbia, Canada. And it's a monster: According to a new paper in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series, the huge swarm weighed more than 70 tons.

That's at least 150,000 individual jellies.

"The size of the bloom surprised me. What was exciting was going from not being able to see the bloom easily, if at all, to instantly being able to find them from the air," says co-author Brian Hunt, the Hakai Professor in Oceanography at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C. "It is remarkable how tightly they group together."

Jellyfish bloom in Pruth Bay, British Columbia
Keith Holmes, Hakai Institute

The bloom is comprised of five species in the Aurelia genus, also known as moon jellies. They're found worldwide (and in aquarium exhibits), often gathering in quiet harbors and bays to feed on plankton, fish larvae, crustaceans, and mollusks.

Hunt and colleague Jessica Schaub conducted their survey in Pruth Bay, a peaceful waterway edged with dense forests, near Calvert Island on the province's central coast, roughly 375 miles north of Seattle. The Hakai Institute, a scientific research institution that supported the survey, faces the bay. The area is within the First Nations territories of the Heiltsuk and Wuikinuxv Nations.

This is the first time a drone has been used to locate and study jellyfish blooms, Hunt tells Mental Floss. Previously, scientists viewed the groups at water level, which provided a limited perspective on their true size and density. The aerial view can help researchers estimate the biomass of jellyfish more accurately and reveal aggregations' behavior, such as their movements in currents or tides.

The team deployed the drone from a research vessel positioned within the mass of invertebrates. While the drone captured aerial images, the researchers also sampled the waters with nets. Then, they compared the drone data and sampling, and estimated that the bloom could weigh anywhere from 70 to as much as 128 tons.

Jellyfish bloom in Pruth Bay, British Columbia
Keith Holmes, Hakai Institute

There isn't much long-term data about the blooms, Hunt says, but those living in the area are familiar with the jellies' appearances in the waterways. "I wouldn’t call these events common, but they are definitely consistent in their timing. We see this happening every four or so years, particularly the local fisherman who catch them as bycatch in their nets," William Housty, chair of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department's board of directors, tells Mental Floss.

In the future, drones might help scientists interpret the blooms based on where, when, and how often they occur—as well as how they affect the surrounding ecosystem. Housty says these jellyfish may be following the pattern of warmer waters along the coast.

"We did notice higher numbers during the 2015 marine heatwave and the 2016 El Niño [also a warm event]," Hunt says. "It is possible that changes in the seasonal timing of the jellyfish life cycle might be as or more important than increasing numbers. For example, if jellyfish are more advanced in their life cycle in the spring, they might have a bigger predation impact on herring larvae."

Soon, thanks to aerial imagery, we might know more about the jellies' secret lives.

This story was made possible in part through the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

NASA Reveals How Living in Space for a Year Affected Scott Kelly’s Poop

NASA, Getty Images
NASA, Getty Images

When you agree to be part of a yearlong space study, you forfeit some right to privacy. In astronaut Scott Kelly’s case, the changes his body endured while spending a year at the International Space Station (ISS) were carefully analyzed by NASA, then published in a scientific journal for all to see. Kelly submitted blood samples, saliva samples, and cheek swabs. Even his poop was subjected to scrutiny.

As PBS reports, Scott Kelly’s fecal samples revealed that his gut microbiome underwent significant but reversible changes during his time in orbit. In what was surely good news for both Kelly and NASA, his gut bacteria didn’t contain anything “alarming or scary,” according to geneticist Martha Hotz Vitaterna, and it returned to normal within six months of landing on Earth.

Even after being subjected to the challenging conditions of space, “Scott’s microbiome still looked like Scott’s microbiome, just with a space twist on it,” said Vitaterna, who was one of the study’s authors.

The fecal probe was one small part of a sweeping NASA study that was just published in the journal Science, more than three years after Kelly’s return. Dubbed the Twins Study, it hinged on the results of Kelly’s tests being compared with those of his identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth as the control subject.

NASA’s goal was to gain insight into the hazards that astronauts could face on proposed long-term missions to the Moon and Mars. The agency has gone to great lengths to get this information, including offering to pay people $18,500 to stay in bed for two months in order to replicate the conditions of anti-gravity.

It also explains why NASA was willing to launch unmanned rockets into space to collect samples of Kelly’s poop. On four different occasions at the ISS, Kelly used cotton swabs to pick up poo particles. When the rockets arrived to drop off lab supplies, they returned to Earth with little tubes containing the swabs, which had to be frozen until all of the samples were collected. The process was tedious, and on one occasion, one of the SpaceX rockets exploded shortly after it launched in 2015.

The study also found that his telomeres, the caps at the ends of chromosomes, had lengthened in space, likely due to regular exercise and a proper diet, according to NASA. But when Kelly returned to Earth, they began to shorten and return to their pre-spaceflight length. Shorter telomeres have a correlation with aging and age-related diseases. “Although average telomere length, global gene expression, and microbiome changes returned to near preflight levels within six months after return to Earth, increased numbers of short telomeres were observed and expression of some genes was still disrupted,” researchers wrote.

Researchers say more studies will be needed before they send the first human to Mars. Check out NASA's video below to learn more about what they discovered.

[h/t PBS]

Astronomers Want Your Help Naming the Largest Unnamed Dwarf Planet in the Universe

iStock.com/jgroup
iStock.com/jgroup

Part of the fun of becoming involved in science is naming things. Entomologists are notorious for branding new species of insects with fanciful names, like the Star Wars fans who labeled apoid wasps Polemistus chewbacca and Polemistus yoda. Sometimes scientists invite the public’s opinion, as in the 2016 petition by the UK's Natural Environment Research Council to have internet users name a polar research ship. They dubbed it Boaty McBoatFace. (That choice was overruled, and the ship is now known as the RRS Sir David Attenborough.)

Now, astronomers are looking to outsource the name of a dwarf planet. But the catch is that there’s no write-in ballot.

The planet, currently known as (225088) 2007 OR10, was discovered in 2007 in the Kuiper Belt orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune and may have a rocky, icy surface with a reddish tint due to methane present in the ice. It's bigger than two other dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt—Haumea and Makemake—but smaller than Pluto and Eris.

The three astronomers involved in its identification—Meg Schwamb, Mike Brown, and David Rabinowitz of Caltech’s Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California—are set to submit possible names for the dwarf planet to the International Astronomical Union (IAU). They’ve narrowed the choices down to the following: Gongong, Holle, and Vili.

Gonggong, a Mandarin word, references a Chinese water god who is reputed to have visited floods upon the Earth. Holle is a German fairy tale character with Yuletide connotations, and Vili is a Nordic deity who defeated a frost giant.

The team is accepting votes on the planet’s website through 2:59 EDT on May 11. The winning name will be passed on to the IAU for final consideration.

[h/t Geek.com]

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