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Beautiful and Mysterious Jellyfish

Originally published on the Smithsonian Collections blog

Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel, Kunstformen der Natur, 1899-1904. Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel, Kunstformen der Natur, 1899-1904. Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel, Kunstformen der Natur, 1899-1904.

Jellyfish tend to be regarded as bad news. An encounter with these creatures and their stinging tentacles could give anyone bad luck, whether or not it happens to be Friday the 13th. However, jellyfish are some of the most bizarrely beautiful, strange, and mysterious animals on the planet.

A few years ago, while walking through the back corridors of the Natural History Museum on my way to the staff cafeteria, I paused to look at a bulletin board where some of our resident scientists posted abstracts of their articles. One article was about jellyfish fossils, and my mind reeled. Wasn't that phrase, jellyfish fossils, an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp? Could those transparent blobs of goo that you had to avoid stepping on at the beach lest you get a bad sting, those things that seemed to evaporate to nothingness on the sand in the sun, somehow be preserved in stone? Could such delicate and ephemeral creatures leave solid traces of their presence, to be studied as fossils in this very museum millions of years later?

That was an eye-opening moment for me, where (not for the first or last time) I was staggered thinking about the breadth and depth of research done at the Smithsonian.

The SIRIS Collections Search Center is a great place to find out about the wide range of studies available on the subject of jellyfish. Want to learn about  How to Keep Jellyfish in Aquariums? The Libraries has a book about it. Want to learn more about fossil jellyfish? The Smithsonian Research Online database offers the article, Exceptionally Preserved Jellyfishes from the Middle Cambrian, describing Cnidarian specimens that are over 500 million years old. Want to see the working notes of a scientist who studied jellyfish? The National Anthropological Archives has the notebooks and sketches of marine zoologist and anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes (1850-1930). Want to see architecture with a jellyfish theme? The Inventory of American Sculpture has a record for the Allan Hancock Foundation and Memorial Museum in Los Angeles, showing how that museum's wall panels are decorated with stylized images of animals, including jellyfish. The Smithsonian's Collections Search Center currently has over 80 links on the topic of jellyfish.

Other great resources about marine life at the Smithsonian include the National Museum of Natural History's Ocean Portal and the Department of Invertebrate Zoology, where there is a link to an illustrated story about a Jellyfish Romance. The Smithsonian is also a partner in the Encyclopedia of Life project, where every living species will eventually have its own page of images and scientific data. The ongoing Census of Marine Life, another project featuring research by Smithsonian scientists, offers more images and information on jellyfish and the other strange and gorgeous creatures in the oceans.

Diane Shaw

One Comment

  1. Despite having had a sting or two in my time from jellyfish I have equally been fascinated by these mysterious creatures. Their unique appearance and effortless swimming have made lasting impressions on me.

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