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Jellyfish map could help conservationists protect marine ecosystems

By Brooks Hays
Scientists can measure biochemical characteristics in different ecosystems by surveying chemical signatures in jellyfish. Photo by University of Southampton
Scientists can measure biochemical characteristics in different ecosystems by surveying chemical signatures in jellyfish. Photo by University of Southampton

Jan. 16 (UPI) -- By analyzing the chemical composition of jellyfish caught across a sizable swath of the Atlantic, scientists can map important differences among an array of marine habitats.

The analysis technique could offer important insights to ecologists and conservationists -- a new tool for protecting the health of important fisheries.

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According to a new study published this week in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, chemical signals measured in jellyfish reflect the chemistry, biology and physical processes unique to the region where they were caught.

"The chemical differences detected in the jellyfish are also present in other animals throughout the food chain, like seabirds, seals and fishes," Katie St. John Glew, researcher at the University of Southampton, said in a news release. "This means that we can measure the same signals in, for example feathers from seabirds or fresh fish fillets, then match them back to the jellyfish map and work out where the birds have been feeding or where the fish was most likely caught."

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Chemical maps built by surveying jellyfish can help scientists track the movements of important species and gauge the health of regional food chains. Building a geographical database of chemical signals measured in jellyfish could also help track the origin of commercial seafood and identify instances of fraud. Similar chemical fingerprinting methods are used to track the authenticity of land-based foods.

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"In our changing political climate, it is likely that the authorities will need new ways to manage our waters so it will be critical to have a better understanding our local marine environment and those animals that live within it," said Southampton researcher Clive Trueman. "Being able to verify where seafood products have been caught may also become essential for protecting our fisheries and combating food fraud in a future with more borders, boundaries and regulations."

Scientists have previously used free-floating DNA to map biological activity in marine waters, as well as a variety of mapping techniques to identify conservation priorities.

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