Research News

Upside-down jellyfish teach land-locked teens about ocean conservation

First-year undergraduates are not the only new arrivals on Vanderbilt’s campus this week. Joining them are more than a dozen Cassiopea, more commonly known as “upside-down jellyfish,” provided by marine biologists at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga.

The upside-down jellyfish, so named because they cluster at the bottom of warm shallow mangrove swamps with their tentacles facing up toward sunlight, now reside in a 55-gallon aquarium in the Wyatt Center atrium. This new habitat will serve as a hands-on learning tool for Metro Nashville public high school students participating in the advanced science program School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt. The aquarium also will be available for viewing by the general public.

Tennessee Aquarium’s Senior Aquarist Sharyl Crossley introduced the jellyfish to their new home at the Wyatt Center on Aug. 14. Pictured with Crossley are (from left) Liam Dixon (son of Amanda Dixon, Admissions Coordinator, SSMV); and Isaac and Aaron Eeds, sons of Angela Eeds, director of SSMV). (John Russell/Vanderbilt)
Jordan Grigor (Photo provided)

SSMV instructor and marine biologist Jordan Grigor, who has a doctorate in oceanography, facilitated the jellyfish collaboration. He believes that SSMV students will benefit from learning about this unusual species and will come away with a better understanding of the need for ocean preservation and protecting marine life.

The algae that reside in the tissue of jellyfish are what give them their brownish color.  (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

“It’s really great to work with the Tennessee Aquarium, because they are helping us bring the oceans to students here in Nashville, which is some distance away from the nearest sea,” Grigor said. “We are currently very interested in upside-down jellyfish because they have very cool life cycles … and much of their lives is spent resting upside down on the bottom.”

The jellyfish have a symbiotic relationship with the algae that reside in their tissues, giving them their brownish color. The algae in turn receive shelter and use products produced by the jellyfish to survive.

“The upside-down jellyfish are interesting because the zooxanthellae (algae) in their tissues make them similar to some types of coral,” said Amanda Dixon, SSMV admissions coordinator. “They grow quickly and multiply under the right conditions, so it will be exciting to watch them adapt to this new habitat.”

Global warming and human interference disrupt the survival of this species, which can be found in shallow canals in warm coastal regions. These particular jellyfish are from the Florida Keys. (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

SSMV students spent the summer preparing the jellyfish habitat, including painting a mural of marine life on the base of the system, and cycling the water for the delicate creatures’ arrival.

SSMV students, who are all high achieving Metro Nashville high school students, painted a sea creature mural on the tank’s base. (photo provided)

“In adverse conditions, especially increasing temperatures due to global warming and other factors, the algae get stressed or die and the jellyfish expel them, leaving both partners to suffer,” Grigor said. “These types of lessons about jellyfish biology and ecology will help to reinforce our students’ interest and passion to help protect them.”

SSMV also has a 90-gallon reef tank, which provides students opportunities to learn about and care for fish, corals, starfish and algae. The students are learning how marine creatures interact, collaborate and rely on each other for survival.

“Getting to do research is the best part of being in SSMV,” said Carlos Salas, a Hume-Fogg senior and SSMV participant. “It’s such a great opportunity.”

Recently, he helped create a smartphone app to identify zooplankton, a first of its kind.

The upside-down jellyfish spend most of their time on the sand, with tentacles reaching up toward the sun. (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

SSMV is a program of the Vanderbilt Center for Science Outreach in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Peabody College of education and human development. It is a joint venture with Metro Nashville Public Schools.Students are selected as freshmen, based on their grades, aptitude and passion for learning.

Throughout high school, the students spend one day a week in the SSMV classroom/laboratory at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, learning from Vanderbilt instructors about a broad variety of topics, including computer science, marine biology, robotics and much more. As they progress, students specialize in a field of choice and conduct research alongside scientists in their labs, as well as enter research projects into national science competitions and submit to research journals.

A total of 171 students have graduated from the program since it was founded in 2007. (photo provided)

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