Juli Berwald is the author of Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. She studied at the University of Southern California, where she obtained a Ph.D. in ocean science. She joined me for an interview during her visit to the 2018 Library of Congress National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.
What was one surprising thing you learned about jellyfish while you were researching them?
Well, there are a lot of things, but one thing I really went down the rabbit hole on was the stinging cell. What an incredible piece of a biological miracle it is in my mind … the fact that what we think of as such a simple animal could have such a sophisticated means of survival, the fact that it’s the fastest motion in the animal kingdom.
It’s super small, yet it has two or more different passcodes that are required to trigger it. Its sophistication really is the reason the jellyfish can survive and maintain a simple structure. They hunt with it and they defend themselves with it. It’s really important to their lives.
There’s a part I like where you’re discussing jellyfish as “goo and string” and the issue that they don’t seem to have “charisma.” Do you think jellyfish have public relations difficulties and do they have a long way to go in overcoming those?
They probably do have a long way to go. (laughs) You know, I did my best to be a PR machine for them. Most people’s interactions with jellyfish in the wild are negative. That’s because of their amazing stinging cell actually.
I didn’t know that jellyfish were dying because they got stuck in the intake pipe at power plants. Is there something businesses could do to be more sensitive to that and protect them?
There are ideas out there. Like for power plants, jellyfish avoid bubbles, so they could put bubble nets in front of their intake filters. There are mechanical ideas out there. One thing we should probably be doing is thinking more coherently about how we develop coastlines. As you know, the polyp stage of the jellyfish, that planted stage is the medusa factory. If we put a lot of hard substrates for polyps to land on, we’re creating the medusa factories.
I don’t think people have really tried to think holistically about coastlines. We’re just going at it for whatever we need. Overfishing is another issue because if there were more fish to eat the medusa, then again it could offset some of these problems. I don’t know if businesses can necessary do that one-on-one.
Well, I wondered since recently we’ve seen a push for businesses trying to be more environmentally conscious. It’s something readers may be wondering about, too.
Yes, exactly. Dealing with climate change and ocean acidification would be another important step to deal with jellyfish.
I loved the robotic jellyfish and 3D printing technology. Do you envision researchers using that a lot more?
I think one of the coolest things about the robotic jellyfish section is that when things go through the water, they wiggle. That wiggle produces a low pressure in front of the animal that actually sucks it through the water. But all the things we make to go in the water don’t wiggle. They’re rigid. I think there really is a huge potential for wiggly underwater vehicles that use a lot less energy like the jellyfish do. They have lowest cost of transport of any animal we ever looked at.
We use it when you think of what a flipper does when we put it on the end of our feet. It propels us forward and it’s got that wiggle to drive us. I remember hearing this story: you know how airplanes the little tips that go up? It was a guy who studied falcons who thought about it, because falcons have that to deflect turbulent eddies. It got incorporated into airplanes to deflect turbulence and make them easier to fly. Who knows if in the future [whether] boats will have some sort of flipper on them to decrease energy costs.
How did working as a science textbook writer prepare you for writing this book?
It’s a lot of research first, interviewing scientists, and reading a lot of science journal articles. What I learned the most from textbook writing is that in textbooks you’re given – and I’m making a like square here that is three inches by two inches wide with my fingers. You’re given this much space to write something really complicated like about how waves deflect.
Everywhere it has to matter with [word] count. The textbook really taught me what’s the simplest way to really tell the science and the story that’s the clearest to my reader. It has to make the most sense and doesn’t make them work very hard. That’s really, really important. Now that things are online, everything on the page has to be laid out like a poster. You get copy space that is super small.
We know school just started, but some people are still traveling on the coasts. What’s some advice for us to keep in mind if we’re visiting places that have a lot of jellyfish (aka blooms)?
There have been an enormous amount of blooms this year. South Carolina and Florida were inundated. Strangely off of Washington here, there’s been a lack of jellyfish this year. Jellyfish are unpredictable. You should always check in with the lifeguards.
If there have been jellyfish sightings, beware and if you do get stung, the collective wisdom is to use vinegar and hot water or anything hot. If you’re going to the beach, throw in a hot pack and a little jar of vinegar in with your suntan lotion. There are also suntan lotions that have jellyfish sting protection in them.
I didn’t know that some fish have a natural protection against jellyfish stings and they even hang out by the jellyfish.
Isn’t that amazing? The similar thing is – jellyfish and sea anemones are cousins. The sea anemone is just a jellyfish sitting on its head. If you think about the clownfish, it lives in the sea anemone’s tentacles.
Some fish live in the jellyfish tentacles and swim around with it. I said it in the book and I think it’s so fun to think about that jellyfish are sort of these centers of swimming ecosystems in the ocean. Animals use them for food and as a support to live on.
Now that you’ve been on the book tour, is there a memory that keeps coming back to you when you look back?
The two are the still the two that I celebrated the most in the book. I swam in that giant bloom of jellyfish in the Mediterranean near Haifa. That was a really intense experience because there were just so many jellyfish around me.
They were all doing different things, pulsing, dancing, stinging, and being eaten. It was a really special moment and also had a sort of a scary and sad element, too. Going to Japan and chasing the giant jellyfish was a really amazing trip! (laughs)
I won’t be spoiling it for the readers, but I do want to congratulate you for sticking with Monty. (laughs)
He did give me a hard time. (laughs) He helped build my character.
Spine building there.
He really did! I think it’s a good lesson. When someone gives you an answer you don’t want, just keep trying. Prove to them that they need to give you an answer, not exactly what you want to hear, but to give you an answer. He made me work for it.