Episode 343: Mystery Jellyfish

This week we finish out Invertebrate August with some mysterious jellyfish, including a suggestion by Siya!

Further reading:

Mystery giant jellyfish washes up in Australia

New jellyfish named after curious Australian schoolboy

Mysterious jellyfish found off the coast of Papua New Guinea intrigues researchers

Newly discovered jellyfish is a 24-eyed weirdo related to the world’s most venomous marine creature

Rare jellyfish with three tentacles spotted in Pacific Ocean

The Immortal Jellyfish

A mystery jellyfish washed up on an Australian beach [photo by Josie Lim]:

The tiny box jellyfish found in a pond in Hong Kong:

The very rare Chirodectes:

The mystery jelly that may be Chirodectes or a close relation:

A mystery deep-sea jelly with only three tentacles:

Bathykorus, a possible relation of the three-tentacled mystery jelly:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

It’s hard to believe Invertebrate August is already ending, so let’s finish the month out with some mystery jellyfish, including a recent suggestion from Siya!

When you visit the beach, it’s pretty common to find jellyfish washed ashore. They’re usually pretty small and obviously you don’t want to touch them, because many jellies can sting and the stings can activate even if the jelly is dead. Well, in February 2014, a family visiting the beach in Tasmania found a jelly washed ashore that was a little bit larger than normal. Okay, a lot larger than normal.

The jellyfish they found measured almost five feet across, or 1.5 meters. It had flattened out under its own weight but it was still impressive. The family was so surprised at how big it was that they sent pictures to the state’s wildlife organization, who sent scientists to look at it. The scientists had heard reports of a big pink and white jellyfish for years, and now they had one to examine. Dr. Lisa-ann Gershwin thought it might even be a new species of lion’s mane jelly.

New species of jellyfish are discovered all the time. Dr. Gershwin has described over 200 new species herself. One example is a jellyfish discovered by a nine-year-old.

In 2013, a nine-year-old boy in Queensland, Australia was fishing in a canal with his dad and a friend, when he noticed a jellyfish and scooped it up with a net. Its bell was only about an inch long, or 2.5 cm, and the boy thought it was really cute and interesting. He wanted to know what kind of jellyfish it was, so after some pestering on his part, his dad helped him send it to the Queensland Museum for identification.

Dr. Gershwin was the jellyfish expert at the museum at the time, and she was as surprised as the boy’s dad to discover that the jellyfish was new to science! The boy’s name was Saxon Thomas, and to thank him for being so persistent about getting his jellyfish looked at by a scientist, the jellyfish was named Chiropsella saxoni. It’s a type of box jellyfish, which can be deadly, but this one is so small that it’s probably not that dangerous to humans. You still wouldn’t want to be stung by one, though, I bet.

In 2022, a diver visiting Papua New Guinea got video of several really pretty jellyfish. He sent the video to Dr. Gershwin, who realized the jelly was either a very rare jelly called Chirodectes, or it was new to science.

Chirodectes was only discovered in 1997 and described in 2005. It’s a type of box jellyfish and only one specimen has ever been collected, caught off the coast of Queensland, Australia near the Great Barrier Reef after a cyclone. Its bell was about 6 inches long, or 15 cm, but if you include the tentacles it was almost 4 feet long, or 1.2 meters. It’s pale in color with darker rings and speckles on its bell.

The 2022 video appears to show a jellyfish without speckles or other markings, and it’s also larger than the single known Chirodectes specimen. Its bell appears to be about the size of a soccer ball, or a football if you live in most of the world. However, Dr. Gershwin and other experts who have studied the video say that it’s similar in many ways to Chirodectes and may be a close relation. Since all we have is the video, there’s no way to tell for sure if it’s a species new to science.

Most box jellies live around Australia and New Guinea, but in 2020 scientists in Hong Kong studying organisms living in an intertidal shrimp pond noticed a jellyfish they didn’t recognize. It was tiny, even smaller than Saxon’s little box jelly, with a bell barely half an inch long, or about 15 mm. There were hundreds of the little jellies in the pond, which connects to the ocean with a narrow tidal channel, and they appeared to be eating the tiny shrimp living in the pond. Close study of the jelly determined that it was indeed a new species.

The box jelly gets its name from its bell shape, which is shaped sort of like a cube. Most species are transparent to some degree, with tentacles that hang down from the corners of its cube-shaped bell. Most box jellies are fast swimmers, able to use jet propulsion to move around. Some species, including the newly discovered Tripedalia maipoensis from Hong Kong, even have paddle-like structures at the end of their tentacles to help them swim. Tripedalia probably isn’t dangerous to humans, but the scientists who studied it don’t know for sure because no one wanted to volunteer to be stung by it.

In 2015, the Ocean Exploration Trust was conducting an expedition in the Pacific Ocean, pretty much as far away from land as it’s possible to get, when they saw a mysterious little jellyfish. It was brown in color, but it only had three tentacles—and those tentacles emerge from the top of its bell, not from underneath. Then, in June 2023, another Ocean Exploration Trust expedition spotted the same type of jelly. It’s only the second time it’s been seen, and we know almost nothing about it.

The mystery jelly swims with its tentacles pointing forward, and scientists think that it hunts other jellies and small animals. When its tentacles touch an animal, it grabs it. But that’s pretty much all we know about it so far. Researchers think it might be related to the deep-sea hydrozoan Bathykorus, which was only described in 2010.

Bathykorus is sometimes called the Darth Vader jellyfish, because the shape of its bell kind of resembles Darth Vader’s helmet. Unlike Darth Vader, though, Bathykorus is mostly transparent and has eight tentacles. Four grow from the top of its bell, four grow from the bottom, and it holds the top tentacles up while it swims. It’s been found as deep as 8,200 feet below the surface of the Arctic Ocean, or 2,500 meters. And that’s pretty much all we know about this jelly, even though scientists have been able to carefully capture a few specimens and keep them alive for a few days in specially constructed tanks that mimic conditions found in the deep sea.

Let’s finish with a suggestion from Siya, the immortal jellyfish. It’s tiny, barely more than 4 mm across as an adult, and lives throughout much of the world’s oceans, especially where it’s warm. It eats tiny food, including plankton and fish eggs, which it grabs with its tiny tentacles. Small as it is, the immortal jellyfish has stinging cells in its tentacles. It’s mostly transparent, although its stomach is red and an adult jelly has up to 90 white tentacles.

The immortal jellyfish starts life as a larva called a planula, which can swim, but when it finds a place it likes, it sticks itself to a rock or shell, or just the sea floor. There it develops into a polyp colony, and this colony buds new polyps that are clones of the original. These polyps swim away and grow into jellyfish, which spawn and develop eggs, and those eggs hatch into new planulae.

Polyps can live for years, while adult jellies, called medusae, usually only live a few months. But if an adult immortal jellyfish is injured, starving, sick, or otherwise under stress, it can transform back into a polyp. It forms a new polyp colony and buds clones of itself that then grow into adult jellies.

This is all really interesting, and scientists are studying the immortal jellyfish to learn more about how it manages this incredible feat. It’s the only organism known that can revert to an earlier stage of life after reaching sexual maturity. But only an individual at the adult stage, called the medusa stage, can revert to an earlier stage of development, and an individual can only achieve the medusa stage once after it buds from the polyp colony. If it reverts to the polyp stage, it will remain a polyp until it eventually dies. However, it will bud off clones of itself that develop into medusae.

In other words, an immortal jellyfish isn’t technically immortal, but it can certainly prolong its life in an extraordinary way. It’s also really cute.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 342: Giant Snails and Giant Crabs

Thanks to Tobey and Anbo for their suggestions this week! We’re going to learn about some giant invertebrates!

Further reading:

The Invasive Giant African Land Snail Has Been Spotted in Florida

A very big shell:

The giant African snail is pretty darn giant [photo from article linked above]:

The largest giant spider crab ever measured, and a person:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to learn about some giant invertebrates, suggested by Tobey and Anbo. Maybe they’re not as big as dinosaurs or whales, but they’re surprisingly big compared to most invertebrates.

Let’s start with Tobey’s suggestion, about a big gastropod. Gastropods include slugs and snails, and while Tobey suggested the African trumpet snail specifically, I couldn’t figure out which species of snail it is. But it did lead me to learning a lot about some really big snails.

The very biggest snail known to be alive today is called the Australian trumpet snail, Syrinx aruanus. This isn’t the kind of snail you’d find in your garden, though. It’s a sea snail that lives in shallow water off the coast of northern Australia, around Papua New Guinea, and other nearby areas. It has a coiled shell that’s referred to as spindle-shaped, because the coils form a point like the spindle of a tower. It’s a pretty common shape for sea snails and you’ve undoubtedly seen this kind of seashell before if you’ve spent any time on the beach. But unless you live in the places where the Australian trumpet lives, you probably haven’t seen a seashell this size. The Australian trumpet’s shell can grow up to three feet long, or 91 cm. Not only is this a huge shell, the snail itself is really heavy. It can weigh as much as 31 lbs, or 14 kg, which is as heavy as a good-sized dog.

The snail eats worms, but not just any old worms. If you remember episode 289, you might remember that Australia is home to the giant beach worm, a polychaete worm that burrows in the sand between high and low tide marks. It can grow as much as 8 feet long, or 2.4 meters, and probably longer. Well, that’s the type of worm the Australian trumpet likes to eat, along with other worms. The snail extends a proboscis into the worm’s burrow to reach the worm, but although I’ve tried to find out how it actually captures the worm in order to eat it, this seems to be a mystery. Like other gastropods, the Australian trumpet eats by scraping pieces of food into its mouth using a radula. That’s a tongue-like structure studded with tiny sharp teeth, and the Australian trumpet has a formidable radula. Some other sea snails, especially cone snails, are able to paralyze or outright kill prey by injecting it with venom via a proboscis, so it’s possible the Australian trumpet does too. The Australian trumpet is related to cone snails, although not very closely.

Obviously, we know very little about the Australian trumpet, even though it’s not hard to find. The trouble is that its an edible snail to humans and humans also really like those big shells and will pay a lot for them. In some areas people have hunted the snail to extinction, but we don’t even know how common it is overall to know if it’s endangered or not.

Tobey may have been referring to the giant African snail, which is probably the largest living land snail known. There are several snails that share the name “giant African snail,” and they’re all big, but the biggest is Lissachatina fulica. It can grow more than 8 inches long, or 20 cm, and its conical shell is usually brown and white with pretty banding in some of the whorls. It looks more like the shell of a sea snail than a land snail, but the shell is incredibly tough.

The giant African snail is an invasive species in many areas. Not only will it eat plants down to nothing, it will also eat stucco and concrete for the minerals they contain. It even eats sand, cardboard, certain rocks, bones, and sometimes other African giant snails, presumably when it runs out of trees and houses to eat. It can spread diseases to plants, animals, and humans, which is a problem since it’s also edible.

Like many snails, the African giant snail is a simultaneous hermaphrodite, meaning it can produce both sperm and eggs. It can’t self-fertilize its own eggs, but after mating a snail can keep any unused sperm alive in its body for up to two years, using it to fertilize eggs during that whole time, and it can lay up to 200 eggs five or six times a year. In other words, it only takes a single snail to produce a wasteland of invasive snails in a very short amount of time.

In June 2023, some African giant snails were found near Miami, Florida and officials placed the whole area under agricultural quarantine. That means no one can move any soil or plants out of the area without permission, since that could cause the snails to spread to other places. Meanwhile, officials are working to eradicate the snails. Other parts of Florida are also under the same quarantine after the snails were found the year before. Sometimes when people go on vacation in the Caribbean they bring back garden plants, without realizing that the soil in the pot contains giant African snail eggs, because the giant African snail is also an invasive species throughout the Caribbean.

Next, Anbo wanted to learn about the giant spider crab, also called the Japanese spider crab because it lives in the Pacific Ocean around Japan. It is indeed a type of crab, which is a crustacean, which is an arthropod, and it has the largest legspan of any arthropod known. Its body can grow 16 inches across, or 40 cm, and it can weigh as much as 42 pounds, or 19 kg, which is almost as big as the biggest lobster. But its legs are really really really long. Really long! It can have a legspan of 12 feet across, or 3.7 meters! That includes the claws at the end of its front legs. Most individual crabs are much smaller, but since crustaceans continue to grow throughout their lives, and the giant spider crab can probably live to be 100 years old, there’s no reason why some crabs couldn’t be even bigger than 12 feet across. Its long legs are delicate, though, and it’s rare to find an old crab that hasn’t had an injury to at least one leg.

The giant spider crab is orange with white spots, sort of like a koi fish but in crab form. Its carapace is also bumpy and spiky. You wouldn’t think a crab this size would need to worry about predators, but it’s actually eaten by large octopuses. The crab sticks small organisms like sponges and kelp to its carapace to help camouflage it.

The giant spider crab is considered a delicacy in some places, which has led to overfishing. It’s now protected in Japan, where people are only allowed to catch the crabs during part of the year. This allows the crabs to safely mate and lay eggs.

There’s another species called the European spider crab that has long legs, but it’s nowhere near the size of the giant spider crab. Its carapace width is barely 8 ½ inches across, or 22 cm, and its legs are about the same length. Remember that the giant spider crab’s legs can be up to six feet long each, or 1.8 meters. While the European spider crab does resemble the giant spider crab in many ways, it’s actually not closely related to it. They two species belong to separate families.

The giant spider crab spends most of its time in deep water, although in mating season it will come into shallower water. It uses its long legs to walk around on the sea floor, searching for food. It’s an omnivore that eats pretty much anything it can find, including plants, dead animals, and algae, but it will also use its claws to open mollusk shells and eat the animals inside. It prefers rocky areas of the sea floor, since its bumpy carapace blends in well among rocks.

Scientists report that the giant spider crab is mostly good-natured, even though it looks scary. Some big aquariums keep giant spider crabs, and the aquarium workers say the same thing. But it does have strong claws, and if it feels threatened it can seriously injure divers. I shouldn’t need to remind you not to pester a crab with a 12-foot legspan.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 341: The Leaf Sheep and the Mold Pig

Thanks to Murilo and an anonymous listener for their suggestions this week!

Further reading:

The ‘sheep’ that can photosynthesize

Meet the ‘mold pigs,’ a new group of invertebrates from 30 million years ago

A leaf sheep:

Shaun the sheep:

A mold pig:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week let’s learn about two animals that sound like you’d find them on a farm, but they’re much different than their names imply. Thanks to Murilo for suggesting the leaf sheep, which is where we’ll start.

The leaf sheep isn’t a sheep or a leaf. It’s actually a type of sea slug that lives in tropical waters near Japan and throughout much of coastal south Asia. The reason it’s called a leaf sheep is because it actually looks a lot like a tiny cartoon sheep covered with green leaves instead of wool.

Back in episode 215 we talked about the sea bunny, which is another type of sea slug although it’s not closely related to the leaf sheep. The leaf sheep is even smaller than the sea bunny, which can grow up to an inch long, or about 25 mm. The leaf sheep only grows about 10 mm long at most, which explains why it wasn’t discovered until 1993. No one noticed it.

The leaf sheep’s face is white or pale yellow with two tiny black dots for eyes set close together, which kind of makes it look like Shaun the Sheep. It also has two black-tipped protuberances that look like ears, although they’re actually chemoreceptors called rhinophores. The rest of its body is covered with leaf-shaped spines called cerata, which are green and often tipped with pink, white, or black. This helps disguise it as a plant, but there’s another reason why it’s green.

The leaf sheep eats a particular kind of algae called Avrainvillea, which looks like moss or fuzzy carpet. While algae aren’t exactly plants or animals, many do photosynthesize like plants. In other words, they transform sunlight into energy to keep them alive. In order to photosynthesize, a plant or algae uses a special pigment called chlorophyll that makes up part of a chloroplast in its cells, which happens to be green.

The leaf sheep eats the algae, but it doesn’t digest the chloroplasts. Instead, it absorbs them into its own body and uses them for photosynthesis. That way it gets nutrients from eating and digesting algae and it gets extra energy from sunlight. This is a trait shared by other sea slugs in the superorder Sacoglossa. Because they need sunlight for photosynthesis, they live in shallow water, often near coral reefs.

When the leaf sheep’s eggs hatch, the larvae have shells, but as they mature they shed their shells.

This is a good place to talk about cyanobacteria, which was requested ages ago by an anonymous listener. Cyanobacteria mostly live in water and are also called blue-green algae, even though they’re not actually classified as algae. They’re considered bacteria, although not every scientist agrees. Some are unicellular, meaning they just consist of one cell, while others are multicellular like plants and animals, which means they have multiple cells specialized for different functions. Some other cyanobacteria group together in colonies. So basically, cyanobacteria looked at the chart of possible life forms and said, “yes, thanks, we’ll take some of everything.” That’s why it’s so hard to classify them.

Cyanobacteria photosynthesize, and they’ve been doing so for far longer than plants–possibly as much as 2.7 billion years, although scientists think cyanobacteria originally evolved around 3.5 billion years ago. The earth is about 4.5 billion years old and plants didn’t evolve until about 700 million years ago.

Like most plants also do, cyanobacteria produce oxygen as part of the photosynthetic process, and when they started doing so around 2.7 billion years ago, they changed the entire world. Before then, earth’s atmosphere hardly contained any oxygen. If you had a time machine and went back to more than two billion years ago, and you forgot to bring an oxygen tank, you’d instantly suffocate trying to breathe the air. But back then, even though animals and plants didn’t yet exist, the world contained a whole lot of microbial life, and none of it wanted anything to do with oxygen. Oxygen was toxic to the lifeforms that lived then, but cyanobacteria just kept producing it.

Cyanobacteria are tiny, but there were a lot of them. Over the course of about 700 million years, the oxygen added up until other lifeforms started to go extinct, poisoned by all that oxygen in the oceans and air. By two billion years ago, pretty much every lifeform that couldn’t evolve to use or at least tolerate oxygen had gone extinct. So take a deep breath of life-giving oxygen and thank cyanobacteria, which by the way are still around and still producing oxygen. However, they’re still up to their old tricks because they also produce what are called cyanotoxins, which can be deadly.

That brings us to another animal in our imaginary farm, the mold pig. It’s not a pig or a mold, and unlike the leaf sheep and cyanobacteria, it’s extinct. At least, we think it’s extinct.

The mold pig is a microinvertebrate only discovered in 2019. The only reason we know about it at all is because of amber found in the Dominican Republic, on an island in the Caribbean Sea. As we’ve discussed in past episodes, especially episode 108, amber is the fossilized resin of certain types of tree, and sometimes the remains of small animals are found inside. Often these animals are insects, but sometimes even tinier creatures are preserved that we would otherwise probably never know about.

The mold pig was about 100 micrometers long, or .1 millimeter. You’ve probably heard of the tardigrade, or water bear, which we talked about in episode 234, and if so you might think the mold pig was a type of tardigrade just from looking at it, since it looks similar. It had four pairs of legs like tardigrades do, but while scientists think they were related, and that the mold pig was probably also related to mites, it was different enough that it’s been classified in its own genus and may need to belong to its own phylum. Its official name is Sialomorpha.

The mold pig probably ate mold, fungus, and microscopic invertebrates. It lived around 30 million years ago, and right now that’s about all we know about it. There’s a good chance that it still survives somewhere in the world, but it’s so tiny that it’s even easier to overlook than the leaf sheep. Maybe you will be the person who rediscovers its living descendants.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 340: Whale Lice and Sea Lice

Thanks to Eilee for suggesting the sea louse this week!

Further reading:

Secrets of the Whale Riders: Crablike ‘Whale Lice’ Show How Endangered Cetaceans Evolved

Parasite of the Day: Neocyamus physeteris

A whale louse [By © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19259257]:

The salmon sea louse [By Thomas Bjørkan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7524020]:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

It’s now officially August, so we’re officially kicking off Invertebrate August with two invertebrates with the word louse in their names, even though neither of them are technically lice. Thanks to Eilee for suggesting sea lice, and thanks to our patrons because I used some information from an old Patreon episode for the first part of this episode.

That would be the whale louse. The whale louse isn’t actually a louse, although it is a parasite. Lice are insects adapted for a parasitic lifestyle on the bodies of their hosts, but whale lice are crustaceans—specifically, amphipods specialized to live on whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

There are many species of whale louse, with some only living on a particular species of whale. In the case of the sperm whale, one species of whale louse lives on the male sperm whale while a totally different species of whale louse lives on the female sperm whale and on calves. This was a fact I found on Wikipedia and included in the Patreon episode, but at the time I couldn’t find out more. It’s puzzled me ever since, which is one of the reasons I wanted to revisit this topic. I couldn’t figure out how the male calves ended up with male sperm whale lice, and I couldn’t figure out why males and females would have different species of lice. I’m happy to report that I now know the answers to both questions, or at least I can report what experts hypothesize.

Male sperm whales spend more time in polar waters while females spend more time in warmer waters to raise their calves. Sperm whales are actually host to three different whale lice species, but one species prefers colder water and is much more likely to live on males, while another species prefers warmer water and is much more likely to live on females and calves. Any sperm whale might have lice from any of the three species, though, and whale lice are spread when whales rub against each other. This happens when the whales mate, but it also happens when males fight or when whales are just being friendly.

The whale louse has a flattened body and legs that end in claws that help it cling to the whale. Different species are different sizes, from only five millimeters up to an inch long, or about 25 mm. Typically the lice cling to areas where water currents won’t sweep them away, including around the eyes and genital folds, ventral pleats, blowholes, and in wounds. Barnacles also grow on some whales and the lice live around the barnacles. But even though all that sounds horrible, the lice don’t actually harm the whales. They eat dead skin cells and algae, which helps keep wounds clean and reduces the risk of infection.

The right whale is a baleen whale that can grow up to 65 feet long, or almost 20 meters. Right whales have callosities on their heads, which are raised patches of thickened, bumpy skin. Every whale has a different pattern of callosities. Right whales are dark in color, but while the callosities are generally paler than the surrounding skin, they appear white because that’s where the whale lice live, and the lice are white. This allows whales to identify other whales by sight. It’s gross but it works for the whales. Right whales also usually host one or two other species of louse that don’t live on the callosities.

Dolphins typically have very few lice, since most dolphins are much faster and more streamlined than whales and the lice have a harder time not getting washed off. Some dolphins studied have no lice at all, and others have less than a dozen. Almost all whales have lice.

Scientists study whale lice to learn more about whales, including how populations of whales overlap during migration. Studies of the lice on right whales helped researchers determine when the whales split into three species. But sometimes what researchers learn from the lice is puzzling. In 2004 researchers found a dead southern right whale calf and examined it, and were surprised to find it had humpback whale lice, not southern right whale lice. Researchers hypothesize that something had happened to the calf’s birth mother and it was adopted by a humpback whale mother. Another study determined that a single southern right whale crossed the equator between one and two million years ago and joined up with right whales in the North Pacific. Ordinarily right whales can’t cross the equator, since their blubber is too thick and they overheat in warm water. Researchers suggest that the right whale in question was an adventurous juvenile who crossed in an unusually cool year. The lice that whale carried interbred with lice the North Pacific whales carried, leaving a genetic marker to tell us about the whale’s successful adventure.

Some animals do eat whale lice, including a little fish called topsmelt. Topsmelt live in shallow water along the Pacific coast of North America. It grows up to around 14 inches long, or 37 cm, and has tiny sharp teeth that it uses to eat zooplankton. But in mid-winter through spring, gray whales arrive in the warm, shallow waters where the topsmelt live to give birth. Then schools of topsmelt will gather around the whales, eating lice and barnacles from the whale’s skin. Good for those little fish. That makes me feel better for the whales.

Eilee suggested the sea louse a while back, and when I looked it up initially I was horrified. Sea lice is another name for a skin condition called seabather’s eruption that consists of intense itching and welts on the skin, that occurs after someone has been swimming in some parts of the world. That includes around parts of New Zealand, off the coast of Queensland, Australia, off the eastern coast of Africa, parts of south Asia, the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, and many other places. It usually shows up a few hours after a swimmer gets out of the water, and since it almost always shows up in people who keep wearing their bathing suit for a while after swimming, or wear their suit into a shower to rinse off, people used to think the itching was due to a type of louse that got caught in the suit. They were half-right, because it is due to a microscopic animal that gets trapped against a person’s skin by their bathing suit. It isn’t a louse, though, but the larvae of some species of jellyfish. The larvae aren’t dangerous to humans or anything else, but they do each have a single undeveloped nematocyst. That’s a stinging cell, the same kind that adult jellyfish have. In the case of the larvae, the sting only activates when a larva dies, and it dies if it dries out or gets soaked in fresh water. Fortunately, seabather’s eruption isn’t a very common occurrence and while it’s uncomfortable for a few days, it’s not dangerous and can be treated with anti-itch cream.

There is a type of animal called the sea louse, of course, but it doesn’t want anything to do with humans and wouldn’t bite a human even if it could. It’s a parasitic crustacean like the whale louse, but it only lives on fish. It’s also not related to the whale louse and doesn’t look anything like the whale louse. The whale louse looks kind of like a flattened shrimp without a tail, while the sea louse is hard to describe. It has a flattened shield at the front, with a thinner tail-like section behind, although it’s actually not a tail but the louse’s abdomen. Its legs are underneath its body and are short and hooked so it can keep hold of its host fish, although the shape of its shield acts as a sort of suction cup that also helps it remain attached.

Like the whale louse, different species of sea louse live on different species of fish. It’s usually quite small, less than 10 mm long, although at least one species can grow twice that length. Males are much smaller than females. It eats the mucus, skin, and blood of its host fish, and its mouthparts form a sharp cone that it uses to stab the fish and suck fluids out. Naturally, this isn’t good for the fish.

Most of the time a fish only has a few sea lice, if any, but sometimes when conditions are right a fish can have a much heavier infestation. This can lead to the fish dying in really bad cases, sometimes due to diseases spread by the lice, infected wounds caused by the lice, or just from anemia if the lice drink too much of the fish’s blood.

Conditions are right to spread sea lice when fish are crowded in a small space, and this happens a lot in farmed fish. It’s especially bad in salmon, so while we don’t know a lot about most sea lice, we know a whole lot about the species of sea louse that parasitizes salmon. It’s called Lepeophtheirus salmonis and it’s the sea louse that grows bigger than most others. Salmon are big fish, with the largest growing over 6 ½ feet long, or 2 meters.

The salmon sea louse has a complicated life cycle and only lives on fish part of the time, which is probably true of all sea lice. The female louse develops a pair of egg strings that hang down from the rear of her body, and each string has around 150 eggs. The eggs hatch into tiny larvae that mostly just drift along through the water, although they can swim. A larva molts its exoskeleton every few days as it transforms into new stages of development, and all the time it’s looking for a host fish.

Once it finds a salmon, the sea louse grabs hold and stays put until it molts again and reaches the next stage of its development, which doesn’t take long. Then it’s able to walk around on the fish and it can swim too if it needs to.

The sea louse can’t survive very long in fresh water, but that’s weird if you know anything about salmon. Salmon are famous for migrating from the ocean into rivers to spawn, and after spawning, most adult salmon die. Some Atlantic salmon will survive and return to the ocean, but most salmon die within a few days or weeks of spawning. Because all the sea lice die once the salmon enter fresh water, the new generation of salmon don’t get sea lice until they make their way into the ocean.

That’s a natural way that sea lice populations are kept under control. The salmon sea louse will also live on a few other species of fish, including the sea trout. But people like eating salmon, and farming salmon is an important industry. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, having lots of fish in one place means the sea louse can also increase in numbers easily.

Salmon farmers have tried all kinds of things to get rid of sea lice, from underwater lasers that zap the lice to kill them, to putting cleaner fish among the salmon to eat the lice. Scientists are even trying to breed a variety of salmon that’s much more resistant to sea lice infestation, although this is controversial since it makes use of genetic modification. Not all countries allow genetically modified fish to be sold as human food.

For the most part, though, wild fish generally don’t have a lot of sea lice—and if they do, they can just visit a cleaner fish. Thank goodness for cleaner fish!

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