In our last post, we recounted our adventures from the 11th Annual Jellyfish Jamboree in Bonaire. The event host was Bud Gillan, a jellyfish researcher from Boca Raton, Florida.
Bud’s accomplishments as an educator and researcher are many. We had the opportunity to sit down with Bud to learn more about his scientific discoveries, his role in the research of the effects of sunscreens on our marine environments and current recommendations for the treatment of jellyfish stings.
Meredith: You are known in scientific and education circles as an expert in the field of jellyfish research and Cnidarian ecology. What first sparked your interest in these marine invertebrates?
Bud: I first visited Bonaire in 1966 and saw the pristine reefs and sea life. I grew up by the beach in Ocean Grove, NJ and was the son of an Atlantic Ocean fisherman. We had a boat, and I was out on the ocean at an early age. So there were many influences from surfing to fishing to snorkeling to an internship at Sandy Hook Marine Labs as a college freshman in the research dive department. So the bell was there, and the reefs on Bonaire were about to ring it.
Reef ecology is a passion and for me the keel of what I teach young people about. The intense focus on jellies started with stings from “sea lice” and Man-O-War in Florida. What could I, as a scientist and biologist, do about these stings? That started the whole shabang. My interest in jellies progressed to box jellies primarily in 2001 when we tried to identify a new (unknown) species in Bonaire that had banded patterns and amazing agility. I nicknamed this species the Bonaire Banded Box Jelly, and I was on the hunt.
Meredith: Among your accomplishments in the area of jellyfish research is the discovery of a new species. Can you tell us when you first discovered Tamoya ohboya (common name- Bonaire Banded Box Jellyfish or BBBJ) and give us insight into how a new species is officially declared?
Bud: In 2001-2002 I sent video and pics of the BBBJ to many of the major players in the jelly world (I call them Jellyologists). Not one of these experts knew what it was. I then contacted Dr. Bob Larson, then the jelly expert at The Smithsonian, and who has a PhD in box jellies of the Caribbean. He had never seen this species, and he believed it was an entirely new Genus (not just new species). Turns out he was almost right.
Over time I collected and documented sightings of BBBJ via a useful online tool called BonaireTalk. Folks were so helpful. Some took up the charge with interest and concern, particularly after a severe sting led to medical evacuation. The sting victim lived and is now living on Bonaire with scars and skin grafts. But in the first 5 years, it was interested people and Bob Larson that were so helpful. As more and more sightings were documented, a story was unfolding. Through a series of events, The Smithsonian’s jelly curator, Dr. Allen Collins, contacted me and asked if he could help with the research (since it was clear this project of determining a new species takes a team and technical resources).
Today, declaring a new species requires more than morphological and microscopic comparisons. Genetic sequencing and DNA analysis are required, in addition to the digital tools needed to compare sequences. Generally, a specimen requires at least a 4% difference in its genome (total gene sequences) to be considered a new species. For many years, we worked closely together to formulate the academics of the research. We were ready to publish the results, but we waited until we could collect another specimen of BBBJ – a good whole specimen. This was very difficult because it is a rare animal.
Almost as an act of God, I went for a snorkel on the next to last day of a trip to Bonaire in July 2010 with my snorkel buddy, Marijke Wilhemus (a dive master and nurse on Bonaire). As luck would have it, we spotted a beautiful, fast, agile, and holotype specimen. We collected it for final analysis, and the race was on to complete the academic and genetic research. The jelly team at The Smithsonian was wonderful in providing help and acumen to this project. They suggested letting the public name the new species, because that had not been done before. It was quite interesting to see the names that were suggested, and the final name, Tamoya ohboya, came from a group of high school students in Florida. Ohboya was the new species, but Tamoya was already established as the new Genus in the major Cubozoan reorganization at the same time. Then the academic world (from ZooTaxa) assigned 2 jelly experts and a referee to do the final declaration. In sum, after much discussion and points of clarification, a new species was declared in January 2012 and the work was published in ZooTaxa. It was also declared #2 in the 2013 New Species Top Ten worldwide out of 30,000 new species that year and made the Top 100 New Species for the Century. Not bad for a box jelly….and to date 73 specimens of Tamoya ohboya have been documented across the Caribbean.
Meredith: You identified a very interesting phenomenon in Bonaire – the regular swarming of Alatina alata (sea wasp) 8-10 days after a full moon. What is the significance of this discovery, and why was it so exciting to the scientific community?
Bud: This phenomenon was first discovered in Hawaii 18 years ago for this species which was then called Carybdea alata (see “Reef Creature Identification: Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas” by Paul Humann and Ned Deloach). In the major Cubozoa re-organization, select species were assigned to the new Alatina genus, including this one. It is also called the sea wasp, because, like Tamoya, it is a powerful stinger.
It was my hypothesis that the Bonaire species of Alatina was also involved in these swarms, and for many years I followed their patterns and appearances. At the same time, I went to the hospital to verify the timing through sting patterns. It was clear to me that the dates and patterns matched Hawaii’s (8 to 10 days after the full moon). My 2 cents included that they followed the same lunar patterns, and that they would come in on the high tide of those days.
So this was a testable hypothesis that my Bonaire jelly buddy, Johan van Blerk (a Dutch botanist) and I put to the test. Seven years ago we sat at the end of Karel’s Beach Bar and watched and waited, and sure enough, the Alatina came marching in. We where able to collect specimens and begin the work to determine if it was the same species that was swarming in Hawaii and other locations worldwide. This collection process sparked a lot of interest and discussion from bystanders, so we put these activities into a program which we called “The Jellyfish Jamboree”. This summer was the 11th annual Jellyfish Jamboree event.
To date we have had several teams of world class scientists come to Bonaire from The Smithsonian, University of Hawaii, University of Maryland, and elsewhere, to study this species. We determined that this species is swarming as part of a reproductive event, and through the generous resources at CIEE Research Station, we have been able to study Alatina in great detail (including raising juvenile jellies).
The Alatina research in Bonaire and Hawaii, and now Saipan and Guam, has led to a new educational video called “Science of the Sting” created by Dr. Angel Yanagihara and me for use in schools. Through a grant from the Pew Foundation, the video is now available to all schools worldwide on Vimeo. The video uses the story of Alatina to teach children about how scientists think and work, and it encourages young students, particularly girls, to consider careers in the sciences. Dr. Yanagihara (University of Hawaii Med School), Dr. Allen Collins (Smithsonian Institute), Dr. Dennis Kunkel (University of Hawaii), and Dr. Rita Peachey (CIEE Bonaire Director) are all involved in the new Pew Grant, of which I am the Principal Investigator, to extend the way students learn and teachers teach using real science.
An additional item of note is that Dr. Yanagihara has successfully produced an antidote for box jelly stings which is more effective than any anti venom or current first aid product. Her toxicological expertise is directly tied to the overall work on Alatina on Bonaire, Hawaii, and now Saipan, where Alatina was responsible for 2 deaths in 2014. Worldwide, more people die from jelly stings than shark attack, and certainly, the number of stings has risen astronomically due to jelly swarming of a wide variety of species.
Meredith: In addition to your work in jellyfish research, you have been active in researching the effects of sunscreens on our marine environments. What has your research unveiled? What can we, as consumers, do to protect our oceans while still protecting our skin?
Bud: Jellies, as we call them, are from their coral cousin’s Phylum: Cnidaria. Corals, worldwide, build reefs and ecosystems that sustain the sea life in the entire ocean. It is not a mystery that coral reefs are in trouble worldwide. It is very clear that elements in the water are a key factor contributing to the collapse of coral reef systems. There are other contributing factors, but water chemistry is one factor in which we have some direct control. In 2008, we saw the first academic work declaring that chemical sunscreens are one of the pollutants directly causing coral disease and death. This includes the viral attack on the coral animals symbiotic algal partner called zooxanthellae. This research was verified by National Geographic scientists.
Since the 2008 research was published, between 4,000 and 6,000 metric tons of chemical sunscreens have been added to the world’s water systems each year. Subsequent research about the nature and danger of chemical sunscreens has risen to alarming heights. This is particularly true of the family of sunscreens called oxybenzone and BP1-3. These sunscreens are effective at screening the sun’s rays, but they cause other documented damage to cells of many species including vertebrates and humans. The list of potential dangers includes DNA breakage, hormone disruption, cancers and a whole host of dermatological problems and allergies. This is a much longer discussion, and I am only highlighting the key points here.
In 2014, a new and very significant study done by 12 PhD’s showed the impact of oxybenzone and BP’s on coral and coral larvae. The results are clear and require action. When non-polluting natural sunscreens with zinc oxide (not titanium oxide), and its new formulations, are completely effective and broad spectrum across UVA1, UVA2, and UVB wavelengths, these products are a much better alternative to the problem of solar exposure. I have called for a ban on oxybenzone, starting with Bonaire and Barbados, having met with officials on both islands. We are doing this in Florida as well, starting in the Florida Keys. Personally, I use Raw Elements, which is a top-rated natural sunscreen according to the Environmental Working Group. It contains 23% zinc oxide, and it is the only non-nano and non-GMO certified product.
Clearly, there are other chemical sunscreen ingredients that are in question, including the water resistance ingredients which effectively glue the chemical sunscreen to the skin. But the first wave of compelling research published in Ecotoxicology is the new lighthouse upon which we must act. There is also compelling Korean research on human dermatology and chemical sunscreen which is just as concerning. For Bonaire, an island that is known as a world leader in coral conservation, and which has an economy that depends on the health of its coral reefs, banning oxybenzone is a necessary next step.
Meredith: Please help us settle this longstanding debate once and for all. What is the current recommended treatment for jellyfish stings?
Bud: The debate about what to do for first aid of jelly stings RAGES on. Certainly do not use fresh water, urine, alcohol, ice, compression bandages, and now, vinegar (which has been shown to accelerate Man-O-War and other jelly stings). The newest Australian protocol (in my opinion the US is not in a leadership role here yet, although DAN is moving in this direction) for the treatment of jelly stings includes instruction for the treatment of anaphalaxis and allergic reactions for sting victims that experience these complications.
Current recommendations include applying heat directly on the sting area. This works to varying degrees as the temperature and location can be problematic. How hot is hot, and how long should the heat be applied? No definitive research has answered these key questions, nor has it addressed the problem of heat expanding vascular tissue (and thus speeding up venom transfer). So use heat with caution. And certainly do not apply scalding water to the skin.
For several years a team of scientists and first aid/ER providers have used proteolytic enzymes including papain and bromelain (but not meat tenderizer itself) to denature venom (which is a protein). Debriding pads have been successfully used with these enzymes to remove sting cells (nematocysts) and biochemically inhibit venom spread. In addition, tests by marine biologists have shown that medicinal grade lidocaine performs as both a pain analgesic and a nematocyst inhibitor, limiting the firing of unfired stinging cells. These are the tools that I use on myself and others, and they have been used by lifeguards, first responders and dermatologist on hundreds of sting victims.
My friend and jelly colleague, Dr. Angel Yanagihara, has successfully tested a new first aid antidote of a zinc compound that will work on stings of cubozoans and other jellies, including the blocking of hyperkalemia and heart collapse. This product is due out early next year for the general public and earlier for medical professionals.
We extend a special thanks to Bud for lending us his time and expertise. If you have questions for Bud, please post them in the comments section, and we will try to obtain answers.