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Australian ‘technicolour’ jellyfish may be new species

Schools of magenta jellyfish could be floating, unknown to marine science, around the Australian coastline.

Since a bright pink-purple jellyfish washed up on a Queensland beach, reports have come in of sightings of similar creatures across eastern Australia.

“Wouldn’t that be spectacular?” said marine biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin, from the CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research centre in Victoria. “Can you imagine anything more amazing than a school of technicolour purple jellyfish?”

On Wednesday last week, a fisherman contacted lifeguards at Coolum Beach, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, after pulling a long-tentacled magenta jellyfish on to the sand. They in turn contacted scientists at CSIRO.

“It’s straight out of science fiction,” Dr Gershwin said. “It’s an electric, vibrant, wow purple. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The jellyfish’s body is roughly the size of a football. Its metre-long tentacles – known as “oral arms” – are covered in microscopic mouths, which it uses to consume as much plankton as possible.

Dr Gershwin believes that the jellyfish may either be a new species or a species previously unknown in Australia.

The length of its tentacles suggests that it may belong to the Thysanostoma group. However, most of the literature on this species is written in German. Dr Gershwin has been reliant on the efforts of a British woman, who offered to translate the literature after reading an online article about the find.

Thysanostoma are usually brown or beige and are not indigenous to Australia. Dr Gershwin said that the magenta jellyfish may have travelled in the ballast water of a ship from the Red Sea, Malaysia or the Philippines.

The Australian government estimates that there are now more than 250 non-indigenous species around the country’s coasts, introduced during the dumping of ballast waters. These can affect local marine life by preying on local species, crossbreeding with them, and competing for food and space.

But changes in jellyfish populations can also be caused by global warming, as well as over-fishing.

Since the discovery of the Coolum jellyfish was reported, around 10 people have contacted Dr Gershwin with reports and photographs of similar jellyfish found in Queensland and New South Wales. Some of these reports date back to 2008.

However, the New South Wales jellyfish have shorter and slimmer tentacles than the recent find. “It makes me wonder – as bizarre as it sounds – whether we could be dealing with two different forms of jellyfish, both of which are purple and both of which have been overlooked,” Dr Gershwin said.

Adi Bloom

Questions for debate and discussion

  1. What is a jellyfish? How does it differ from other animals?
  2. Why are researchers so excited about these purple jellyfish?
  3. Dr Gershwin said, “People can really make a difference to science by being the eyes and ears of scientists.” What does she mean by this?
  4. Why is it important to protect our oceans?

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