PRIME-TIME JELLY VI­SION

IT’S TIME TO WATCH FRESH­WA­TER JEL­LY­FISH IN THE ME­DUSA STAGE WITH KYLE GABEHART

Chicago Sun-Times - - OUTDOORS - DALE BOW­MAN dbow­man@sun­times.com @Bow­manout­side

Two years ago, Kyle Gabehart found fresh­wa­ter jel­ly­fish at the Coal City Area Club. “Def­i­nitely thought I was hal­lu­ci­nat­ing the first time I saw them,” he said. “It be­came a run­ning joke with the older mem­bers, ‘Did you get your jel­ly­fish yet, Kyle?’ ”

Last year, Gabehart did not see any. But, in mid-August this sum­mer, he emailed, “The jel­ly­fish made it to the me­dusa stage, if you want to come down and see them. A friend took a pic­ture and said there were thou­sands vis­i­ble.”

In me­dusa stage, they look like clear, pale mini-um­brel­las puls­ing.

I met Gabehart two days later, the af­ter­noon his classes be­gan (on­line) at Joliet Ju­nior Col­lege, where is he is study­ing chem­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing.

I fol­lowed Gabehart, an avid wa­ter­fowler, around the maze of lakes at CCAC. He dropped his cam­ou­flaged 14-foot john­boat with a 9.9hp John­son mo­tor into the cat­fish pond at CCAC from an im­pro­vised launch.

Over the years, I’ve chased enough wild sto­ries to know there are no guar­an­tees.

But, in the mid­dle of the pond, Gabehart’s buddy, who goes by JC, said, “There they are.”

“Oh, thank God,” Gabehart said, echo­ing my ex­act thought.

Both of us vis­i­bly re­laxed. It took a few sec­onds, es­pe­cially for me. But, as JC pointed, I be­came more adept at pick­ing out the dozens of fresh­wa­ter jel­ly­fish puls­ing in the water. In a good hour, we prob­a­bly saw a cou­ple thou­sand.

Stun­ningly lit­tle is known or writ­ten about fresh­wa­ter jel­ly­fish in the United States.

When I reached out to Vic San­tucci, Lake Michi­gan pro­gram man­ager for Illi­nois, he emailed back, “I have only ob­served them in two or three lakes in my ca­reer, one be­ing Devil’s Kitchen in the Shawnee Na­tional For­est in the 1980s. I didn’t re­al­ize they were non-na­tive back then and was fas­ci­nated by the sheer num­ber of the lit­tle jel­ly­fish in the lake.”

He sug­gested I find an in­ver­te­brate spe­cial­ist. En­ter Ge­orge Par­sons, se­nior cu­ra­tor of fishes at the Shedd Aquar­ium, who is a self-de­scribed in­ver­te­bratephile, of which he said there are many.

“So un­seen, only in th­ese events [me­dusa] is when peo­ple take no­tice, when they see them swim­ming,” Par­sons said. “Lit­tle is known about them.”

He said the fresh­wa­ter jel­lies are found in most of the 50 states, ex­cept Alaska and Hawaii. The pre­vail­ing thought is that they are in­va­sives from China, but there is so lit­tle known about them that even that is un­der de­bate. The fresh­wa­ter jelly in ques­tion is Craspeda­custa sower­bii, also known as peach blos­som fish or jel­ly­fish.

He said they have four stages. They are al­ways around, of­ten at­tached to the un­der­side of leaves or rocks, things that are in the water.

Par­sons said the me­dusa stage is likely re­lated to en­vi­ron­men­tal change.

“They think they ran out of room or the water is warmer or there are water-qual­ity prob­lems, then they form the me­dusa,” Par­sons said. “It is of­ten in late August. [Me­dusae] will be around for a week or so, some­times a lit­tle longer. They’re only around a cou­ple of weeks.”

When I asked what their place is in the ecosys­tem, he said they do pro­vide food for some an­i­mals.

“Stingers are weak and small; hu­mans don’t have to worry about be­ing stung,” he added.

Gabehart has a sci­en­tist’s in­ter­est in the jel­ly­fish. He is hop­ing to do a re­search project on the jel­ly­fish for an honor so­ci­ety.

“I think that [cat­fish stock­ings] might have been how they came in or on the feet of wa­ter­fowl,” he said.

Gabehart pon­ders such things as, “How long are they in the me­dusa stage?” “Male or fe­male or re­pro­duc­ing asex­u­ally?” “What are pos­si­ble neg­a­tive ef­fects?” He won­ders if their life cy­cle could be stud­ied if put in a tank. He put his hand in and caught a cou­ple. “Weird how they stay to­gether,” he said. “They must have some way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing to the oth­ers.”

He shook some aquatic veg­e­ta­tion and several flared free. They went back to the plant. “How do they know?” he won­dered.

He in­spired me to catch one in my hand. JC won­dered if they sur­vived that, but we watched the re­leased ones pulse off.

“[Screw] it, for the sake of sci­ence,” said Gabehart, who then dipped his green Ga­torade ther­mos in and col­lected several jel­ly­fish. It was time.

“They are a cool crit­ter,” Par­sons said. “I think all jel­ly­fish are cool, but it is a won­der they are found around here.” ✶

DALE BOW­MAN/SUN-TIMES

Kyle Gabehart eyes some float­ing fresh­wa­ter jel­ly­fish this month at the Coal City Area Club.

DALE BOW­MAN/SUN-TIMES

A fresh­wa­ter jel­ly­fish in hand (some­thing dif­fi­cult to do) this month at the Coal City Area Club.

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