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Lake Erie is home to freshwater jellyfish

Tom Jackson • Oct 10, 2013 at 12:19 PM

You’re not likely to see a whale splashing in Lake Erie, or a shark circling your boat. But here’s something you might not know: The lake does have jellyfish, just like the oceans do.

This fact, although known by biologists, stunned Huron resident Shaun Bickley when he was working at the Huron lagoons about three weeks ago, about a mile from the mouth of the river.

Bickley said he saw thousands of the small creatures.

Fascinated, he shot videos of them and posted the clips on his Facebook page. Bickley also caught two and gave them to Brenda Culler, a spokeswoman for the Office of Coastal Management in downtown Sandusky.

Watch video of the swimming jellyfish in the player below

Bickley, for years an avid lake enthusiast, said it was the first time he ever saw the jellyfish. He talked to dozens of people since the incident and has not found anyone else who knew about them.

“I can’t find anybody, to tell you the truth, that’s seen them,” he said.

The creatures Bickley saw were most likely a freshwater jellyfish, Craspedacusta sowerbii, said Terry Peard, a retired biology professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Peard maintains the freshwaterjellyfish. org website, which records appearances of the creatures in bodies of water all over the U.S.

Culler dispatched her fifth-grade daughter to school with two of the creatures, wowing the teacher and the girl’s classmates.

“I’ve been teaching fifth-grade science now probably for seven to eight years, and never seen that kind of specimen coming to the classroom,” said Leah LaCrosse, a teacher at Woodlands Intermediate School in Huron. “It was immediately high interest. None of them even knew it existed.”

Culler said her jellyfish, translucent and about the size of a quarter, died a few days after she took them home.

But she shouldn’t feel bad. They always die after a few days in captivity, even though scientists have tried all kinds of ways to make them happy, including putting them in a special tank, Peard said.

“We never could keep the adults alive,” he said.

Given that few people have ever seen them, freshwater jellyfish are sometimes described as rare.

But this a misconception, said Peard, who knows of documented locations of the critters in 56 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. His website invites people to document freshwater jellyfish sightings. Peard still has 150 recent reports he needs to record.

“They’re certainly not rare,” said Meg Daly, an associate professor at The Ohio State University, who runs the school’s Laboratory of Marine Invertebrate Diversity. “They are found throughout the world in freshwater systems.”

Like their oceanic counterparts, freshwater jellyfish have stingers. But their stings are not a big deal, Bickley said.

“They were like little mosquito bites,” he said.

Peard said he’s never felt anything handling the creatures, but he felt obliged to mention the jellyfish stingers on his website, as others have reported being stung.

Other fun facts about the freshwater jellyfish: When the creatures are translucent, it’s only one stage of its life. They begin as polyps, quietly clinging to rocks on the bottom of the lake. They reproduce sexually, but telling a boy jellyfish apart from a girl is very difficult, Daly said.

The professors said they’ve noticed many people are fascinated to discover the creatures. Daly was talking to her boss at OSU, just a few days after beginning her job, when someone came up with a jar of jellyfish. It gave her a chance to show off her expertise.

“It looked like I’d paid them,” she said.

Said Peard: “One person sent me a beautiful video with narration and music. People have sent me photographs with kids holding jars of these things.”

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