Jellyfish-Like Creatures Remove Carbon From Ocean Surface Waters

Written by on January 7, 2014 in Jellyfish, Marine Life, Other Marine Life
Jelly biomass at 20 m in the Mediterranean Sea.

Jelly biomass at 20 m in the Mediterranean Sea. Photo courtesy of Veronica Fuentes.

A new study reveals that jellyfish-like creatures play an important role in the carbon cycle that is tied to environmental variables and climate change.

When carbon dioxide from the atmosphere dissolves in seawater, marine organisms like plankton can convert it to organic carbon and other organic compounds through photosynthesis. Jellyfish and pelagic tunicates (mostly sac-like filter feeders, like salps) eat plankton, thus consuming carbon. When they die and sink to the seafloor they bring that carbon with them, essentially removing carbon from the surface waters and depositing it on the seafloor where it can either be consumed by other organisms or simply stored in deep waters.

This means that more CO2 can be dissolved in the oceans depending on where and how deep the gelatinous zooplankton sink and decompose. Increasing the number of gelatinous plankton might regionally help mitigate the rising CO2 problem by taking more CO2 out of surface waters.

Although scientists knew that this “jelly-carbon” sinks to the seafloor, they were unclear as to how the process relates to environmental variables or climate change.

New research from Dr. Mario Lebrato from Scripps Institution of Oceanography (San Diego) and colleagues from Germany, Spain, and Italy describes for the first time the relationship between jelly-carbon and climate and environmental variables.

Here you can see the individual sampling sites, showing the large scale of the depositions.

Here you can see the individual sampling sites, showing the large scale of the depositions. Image courtesy of Lebrato et al.

By analyzing 11 years of field data, Dr. Lebrato and colleagues were able to show that sinking jelly-carbon in the Mediterranean Sea echoes climate variability. Their findings will increase our understanding of how gelatinous plankton will respond to climate change and how carbon fluxes will vary in the future.

“The sinking speed of jelly-carbon is very high, above 1000 m per day, which means the carbon arrives at shelf and slope depths very quick,” Dr. Lebrato explained.

The puzzling part, Dr. Lebrato continued, “Is that the jelly-carbon trends are coupled with climate change in the Mediterranean Sea, which means these fluxes may be predictable.”

Currently, no climate models include jelly-carbon, but there is increasing evidence that jellyfish-like creatures play a big role in sinking carbon in the oceans.

“Our dataset shows jelly-carbon export along an entire continental margin. This is enough evidence to take these organisms seriously as major players in the carbon cycle,” Dr. Lebrato said.

You can read the full study here: Sinking Jelly-Carbon Unveils Potential Environmental Variability along a Continental Margin.

Jelly biomass at 1300 m in the Atlantic Ocean.

Jelly biomass at 1300 m in the Atlantic Ocean. Photo courtesy of Dr. Mario Lebrato.

Copyright © 2014 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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