Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Gelatinous Goo

So did you have a nice Memorial Day? I hope so, and that you took some time - however brief - to thank those who gave their lives in service of our country. I decided to spend the week in beautiful Cocoa Beach Florida. After hitting the local farmer's market and attending a Memorial Day observation, I took to the famously clear blue waters of Florida's Central Coast and, like the more than 800 people in the region, immediately got the hell stung out of me by jellyfish. Did you hear about this on the news? Seems conditions were just right for a "perfect storm" of mauve stinger jellyfish to "bloom" on beaches all over Brevard County. In hindsight, I should have noticed all of the purple blobs at the water's edge, and the fact that there was no one in the water as I approached, but I was in full-on "Big Kahoona" mode as I headed for the break with my boogie-board. Everything after that is a bit of a blur.

I can say that the lifeguards were amazing. They fished me out of the drink and immediately doused me with a vinegar solution that greatly reduced the burning and itching of the stings. While I still smell like a giant pickle - even after numerous showers - I am forever grateful for their efforts. Just the same, I've decided to stay poolside and bone up on my jellyfish facts. For example, did you know that all jellyfish are part of the family of creatures known as Cnidaria, and that another name for them is Medusozoa (like the Greek monster Medusa)? Yeah, they can be found at every depth of every ocean in the world, and even in fresh water. Most don't harm humans at all, and none of them are actually "fish" or even vertebrates. In fact, most aquariums have taken to calling them simply "jellies", and many in the scientific community call them "gelatinous zooplankton," but that's just gross.

But the little buggers that got to me are the ones most of us are familiar with. They use stinging tentacles to stun their prey and then absorb it through a rudimentary digestive system called a gastrodermal lining. In fact, everything about jellies is rudimentary. They have basically no nervous, circulatory, nor respiratory systems to speak of, and yet they have been around since before the dinosaurs; possibly 500 million years. Are you kidding me?! I guess sometimes less really is more.

The life cycle of jellies starts with the polyp phase. This is a super simple organism that is basically just a larva covered with cilia. It can be free-floating or attach itself to hard structures and even other organisms. But at this stage it is able to asexually reproduce itself into other polyps. So more like a plant than an animal, really. Here's where it gets really weird. Each polyp can then asexually produce a new organism called a "medusa". This is what grows up to be a full fledged jelly, and possibly ruin your day at the beach. So the original polyp remains, enabling it to continue to pump out more medusas until it dies. This is how "blooms" like the one I swam into occur, and goes a long way towards explaining their success as an organism. But just to up the ante, scientists recently discovered a species of jelly that may be essentially immortal. Yeah, the Turritopsis dohrnii has the unique ability to revert from the medusa phase, back into a polyp, and start the process all over again - skipping the death part altogether. That might sound attractive on the face of it, but the first time you have to buy yourself a Father's Day card would expose the obvious limitations with this approach for sentient beings - taking the "who am I" question to a whole new level.

Anyway, these jelly blooms are rare, and should not prevent you from heading to Cocoa Beach. My timeshare rental is a 2-bedroom/2-bathrooms oceanfront unit at The Resort on Cocoa Beach that puts me right in the heart of Florida's Space Coast. There's a tennis court, gymnasium, an elevated outdoor jacuzzi, even a 50-seat movie theater, all onsite. It's no wonder RedWeek users rate this place 5-stars.

Well I am off to get some dinner, and on the menu tonight is Stomolophus meleagris, a.k.a. cannonball jellyfish. That's right, there are over 80 species of jellies that are harvested for food around the world, and the cannonball is by far the most popular in the U.S. I'm told it is crunchy, salty, and even a bit smelly. I am sure it is going to be absolutely repulsive, but sometimes you need to send out a reminder as to who is at the top of the food chain, and why. I may be a mere mortal whose species isn't built for the long haul, and tomorrow I will still be a sun-baked boomer that smells like a pickle, but tonight...vengeance will be mine!

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