Large Jellyfish Stoke Curiosity and Science


This summer, Maine’s busy beaches were frequented by a surprising visitor – remarkably large lion’s mane jellyfish. Glimpses and photographs of these guests shocked and captivated people around the state and even the country. No one was more intrigued, perhaps, than Senior Research Scientist Nick Record.

Since 2015, Record has run an ecosystem modeling project based on jellyfish sightings by citizen scientists along the coast of Maine and Atlantic Canada. Interested beachgoers send him basic information about the type, size, and location of the jelly they spot. Record plugs this data into a mathematical model he developed, and generates a forecast map that shows the likelihood of more jellyfish sightings throughout the region.

"Collectively, people are really tuned into how things change from year to year," Record said. "I'll often find out about new developments in Gulf of Maine jellyfish populations faster through citizen science reports than from other researchers."

The summer of 2019 was a particularly odd one for jellyfish. Beachgoers reported far more sightings of lion’s mane jellyfish than anything else, and they were unusually big. Reports poured in about animals between two and three feet in diameter, and a few described gelatinous masses six feet across – complete with jaw-dropping photos.

Lion’s mane jellyfish are typical in the Gulf of Maine, but what inflated many of this summer’s specimens is unclear. Record suspects it may have to do with the increasingly warm water temperatures that have become the new normal in the Gulf of Maine, or perhaps a change in the availability of the jellyfish’s food.

"Currently, there’s no funding available for a survey in the Gulf to quantify their populations and help explain changes," Record said. "Without that data available, citizen science reports give us a unique opportunity to learn about what is happening in the ecosystem."

Since he first sent out a call for sightings in 2015, Record has received thousands of reports by social media, email, and a dedicated website. Collectively, these reports are painting a picture of how jellyfish populations surge and cycle in the Gulf of Maine.

In 2015, hundreds of people reported white cross jellyfish along the Maine coast. On a hunch, Record mapped the contemporary reports alongside historic data that oceanographer Henry Bigelow collected as part of a routine coastal survey in 1912. He found that they matched perfectly, revealing that white cross jellyfish populations had suddenly swelled in the same area over a century before. Few other studies have examined jellyfish in the Gulf of Maine, and Henry Bigelow’s data remained some of the only existing information until Record began his current forecasting project.

"A lack of past research means we don’t have a clear baseline for jellyfish in the Gulf, and the complex geometry of Maine’s coastline makes it difficult for a traditional survey to capture how their populations fluctuate through the season," Record said. "With the help of citizen scientists and advanced computational techniques, we can capture an incredibly rich picture of the nooks and crannies along the coast."

In 2018, Record published a paper about his jellyfish forecasting approach, describing how citizen science data can reveal what is happening in an ecosystem. Just as weather forecasts help people and industries make informed decisions, ecosystem forecasts can be useful tools for anticipating events as diverse as harmful algal blooms and rising fish stocks.

In addition to yielding insights into how the environment functions and shifts, Record believes that developing new techniques to mine citizen science data can change the way we view and understand ecosystems. Citizen scientists around the world are constantly gathering ecosystem information and taking photographs. Using this data to fuel models could reveal complex environmental interactions that traditional ecological methods tend to miss.

"The people who contact me have hypotheses about what's changing in the ocean, and observations and insights about all kinds of things," Record said. "Figuring out how to tap into the collective knowledge that’s out there could provide a new lens for ecosystems that captures their true complexity."