Tiny Jellies, Big Discovery

A tiny discovery is making big waves here at the National Aquarium!

Published June 12, 2019

In November 2016, Jennie Janssen, assistant curator of Blue Wonders, noticed something peculiar in the Camouflaging exhibit in the Surviving Through Adaptation gallery. On the water’s surface, she spotted a transparent, barely visible jelly about 5 millimeters in length. Considering the Camouflaging exhibit is not a jelly-friendly exhibit, this was a shocking find!

Box jelly

Over the following weeks, Jennie and her team found more jellies, pulled them from the exhibit and moved them to the National Aquarium’s culture lab for safekeeping and closer examination. When observing the jellies under a microscope, it was clear to Aquarium staff that these were box jellies but determining the specific species has proven to be a tougher task.

When experts classify animals, species are typically described based on the appearance and characteristics of the adults, rather than those of the juveniles. Despite the existence of approximately 50 known species of box jellies, experts are only aware of the full life cycles of very few species—meaning that the box jellies discovered in the Camouflaging exhibit may be a known species.

To begin the process of classifying these box jellies, Aquarium staff—in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History—sequenced their DNA and compared it to the DNA of other box jellies. They got an 88% match with a known species and could immediately spot a physical similarity between the two—each only has two tentacles as a juvenile. This discovery aided staff in determining the jelly’s family: Alatinidae. While this discovery was a breakthrough, the question of the exact species of these box jellies still remains.

Aquarium staff have now successfully raised these jellies from polyps to a four-tentacled medusa stage. Without knowing the exact species, preferred environment and diet of these box jellies, culturing them here at the Aquarium has been hard work. Once these jellies reach their adult stage of life—marked by the ability to reproduce—our experts will be able to formally describe them and give them a scientific name.

Learn more about jellies at the National Aquarium!

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