Smithsonian Voices National Museum of Natural History
Live Jellyfish Make a Splash in Marine Education
The ocean holds incredible biodiversity like vibrantly colored sea slugs and blue-green algae with biomedical potential. But some of these creatures, like jellyfish, have a second home. Itâ€™s called the AquaRoom and its the brainchild of invertebrate zoologists at the Smithsonianâ€™s National Museum of Natural History.
â€œWeâ€™re always looking at these living animals and their biomechanics and trying to understand what they are like,â€ said Allen Collins, marine biologist, curator in invertebrate zoology at the museum and a NOAA Fisheries research zoologist.
Collins and his colleagues have been raising sea creatures behind the scenes in the AquaRoom for several years. Theyâ€™re doing so to learn more about these animalsâ€™ lives and to educate future generations about their marine neighbors.
â€œIt’s about giving people the confidence to do science and interact with scientists and, then, to also bring the science from the lab to the public,â€ said Cheryl Ames, a marine invertebrate zoologist at the museum and co-founder of the AquaRoom.
A stinging reputation
Over the years, people have studied and nurtured many species of marine invertebrates in the invertebrate zoology departmentâ€™s AquaRoom. But Collins and Ames focus on cultivating jellyfish.
â€œThereâ€™s all sorts of variations across jellyfish species, so I focus on their life cycles and their diversity when showing them to people,â€ said Collins.
Jellyfish and their similarly translucent, fleshy counterparts, comb jellies, are mostly made up of water. But while the two look somewhat alike, jellyfish are closer relatives to corals, some of which have equally impressive stings.
â€œGetting stung is often what people think of when they encounter Jellyfish,â€ said Collins. â€œBut most of them wonâ€™t harm you and they have important roles in ecosystems as predators and prey.â€
The DIY AquaRoom
Breaking jellyfishesâ€™ stinging stereotype is one of the reasons why Collins and Ames founded the AquaRoom with the support of the invertebrate zoology department over half a decade ago.
â€œWe had a room but didnâ€™t have any gear,â€ said Collins. â€œSo, Cheryl and I started collecting freebie aquarium stuff that people were getting rid of in the department, including a 55-gallon tank.â€
That 55-gallon tank now holds many young jellyfish, called polyps, which attach onto surfaces until they grow into their free-floating forms. Before the pandemic, high school and undergraduate interns and adult volunteers cared for the growing youngsters.
â€œItâ€™s a door for people to come into the museum and do outreach and learn more about the animals by interacting with them and caring for them,â€ said Collins.
The department gave tours to interested future scientists, bringing them beyond the exhibits into the museumâ€™s research area. Theyâ€™ve also brought live jellyfish to the museum floor to show visitors interested in jellyfish evolution and conservation.
â€œWe’ve used the animals in many ways, like bringing them down to Q?rius and setting up microscopes that people can look in,â€ said Ames.
Jellyfish for education
Although the Smithsonianâ€™s National Museum of Natural History was closed for the past year, the AquaRoom continued to be an active site for learning and outreach with virtual webinars that highlighted the living collections.
â€œNo matter what age group Iâ€™m trying to reach, I always want to make studying invertebrate marine animals seem like something people can do if they want to,â€ said Collins.
Recently, Collins spoke online with members of the Young Scientist Academy in North Carolina about jellyfish polyps he sent them. These students have been growing the polyps for their own experiments like studying jellyfishesâ€™ preferred habitats.
â€œThis event was for young kids and a lot of the young kids didnâ€™t have a lot of access to science,â€ said Collins. â€œIt was natural fit for our work.â€
Now that the museum is reopening soon, the AquaRoomâ€™s future could one day include a return to in-person programing and a whole new wave of internships.
â€œIt has been and will be a really fun place to do research, because itâ€™s different from the rest of the museum.â€ said Collins.
DNA Makes Waves in the Fight to Save Coral Reefs
Scientists Find Blue-Green Algae Chemical with Cancer Fighting Potential
Get to Know the Scientist Discovering Deep-Sea Squids
How Scientists Learn What Lives in the Deep Ocean
Can Technology Bring the Deep-Sea to You?