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Website lets beachgoers and others track jellyfish sightings along the N.C. coast

jellyfish_t.jpgBOONE—Scientists know a lot about jellyfish – after all, these animals have been around for millions of years. But when, where and why they show up along the North Carolina coast isn’t always clear.

A new website, www.jellyfish.appstate.edu, developed at Appalachian State University will help researchers discern patterns and track movement of jellyfish along the state’s coastal waters, inlets and rivers by analyzing data provided by “citizen scientists,” including beach goers, coastal residents and those in the coastal fishing industry.

The site was created by biology professor Vicki Martin, research operations manager Monique Eckerd and Web specialists Michelle Melton and Zach Seifts who custom built the site using Drupal, an open source content management system. Melton handled all of the design and content layout, including the logo design. Seifts created a custom map that displays where and when jellyfish are spotted by the public. “By involving citizen scientists, we hope to raise awareness of how environmental changes affect our everyday lives,” Eckerd said.

“The number of jellyfish worldwide has been increasing as well as the number of sightings along our coastline,” Martin said. “The increase is affecting the state’s seafood industry and ultimately could have an effect on tourism.”

The interactive website allows individuals to log information whenever they spot a jellyfish, including date, time of day, weather and water conditions, and type of jellyfish seen.

The website includes pictorial descriptions of eight species of jellyfish common to the N.C. coast, such as moon jellyfish and cannonball jellyfish, and allows individuals to upload photos of jellyfish they have spotted.  Spotters can also record the size of the jellyfish seen, which can range from smaller than a dime to larger than a beach ball.

Jellyfish generally appear along the coast from April to November, but with changing weather patterns, they have been spotted much earlier in some locations.  “Jellyfish are showing up along the coast at the wrong time of the year, and that’s because the water conditions are changing,” Eckerd said.

Martin, Eckerd and students at Appalachian grow jellyfish in a laboratory setting and know the temperatures, lighting and pH conditions in which they thrive in the lab. They now are collecting similar data from the coast.

“Changing conditions within our ocean, including increased acidity and warmer water temperatures are killing some organisms but not jellyfish,” Martin said. And the sea turtle, a natural predatory of jellyfish, is on decline as the result of human impacts, Eckerd said.

“They are thriving in these conditions,” Martin said.

Martin is optimistic that information gathered over time from jellyfish spotters along the coast will help add to scientists’ understanding of the growth and migration of jellyfish along the N.C. coast.

“We need data from the field to identify numbers and types of jellyfish occurring along our coastline, to look for new exotic species that might be entering the area, and better understand the conditions in the environment that we could correlate with a particular bloom of jellyfish,” Martin said. That information could help scientists predict when and where blooms of jellyfish might occur, she added.

She hopes the newly created website will lead to a spotter network among coastal communities’ residents, schools, home schooled children, aquariums and the seafood industry.

“This is a real scientific problem and it affects a lot of different people,” Martin said. “This data is essential for understanding the biology of these animals as their numbers are increasing along our coastline,” Martin said. “The box jelly fish have arrived along our coast in just the past 10 years. What’s coming next?”

Because jellyfish can deliver a painful sting even after they are dead, individuals are urged to observe them carefully but not to touch.

Read about Martin’s and Eckerd’s work to learn more about the box jellyfish at www.news.appstate.edu/2009/04/10/box-jellyfish/

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