Juli Berwald: 'Climate change is real and we need to grow a spine and deal with it'
credit: Madeleine Tilin
Former ocean scientist Juli Berwald dives into subject of jellyfish and what they say about some of the world's most complex questions in Spineless.
With a few notable exceptions, jellyfish have been somewhat understudied and underrepresented in media in recent years. But as author Juli Berwald discovered while researching her book, Spineless: The Science of Jellyfsh and the Art of Growing a Backbone, they represent a valuable source of information and insight into some of the most pressing questions we have about the world we live in.
What do you think it is about jellyfish that means they've been often overlooked?
At the turn of the twentieth century jellyfish actually had a moment of glory. Following Darwin's revelations about evolution, both the public and scientists looked at nature to understand more about ourselves and how we got here. Jellyfish, being on that critical branch on the tree of life between simple, single-celled creatures and complex us were the focus of much attention.
Then the motor roared into our lives. And we realized that we could study the oceans so much faster and more extensively using motorized research vessels with mechanized winches that pulled massive nets through the sea and dumped the catch on board to study it. Jellyfish don't tolerate that kind of rough treatment, creating a strong bias for more durable things that can. Our baseline for understanding jellyfish literally slipped through our nets and we'll never be able to get it back.
Another reason jellyfish have been neglected is that they are, by nature, unpredictable. They have a complicated life cycle that involves both the familiar swimming medusa and the mysterious polyp that lives attached to a hard surface like a sea anemone does. What makes jellyfish flip from one form to another remains an enigma.
And last, for the average swimmer, jellyfish are admittedly hard to relate to. They don't have normal animal parts: no face, no fins, no arms, or legs, so we often don't know what to make of them. And besides that, they sting!
With that in mind, did you feel as though they needed a champion? When did you think it could be you?
When I stumbled on jellyfish working on an article about ocean acidification, I quickly realized that there was a lot to their story that hadn't been told. I discovered that most of the major problems in the oceans benefit jellyfish; overfishing removing predators, coastal development creating favorable habitats, warming waters even increasing reproduction rates for some species and so on. Looking at these problems through the lens of jellyfish, seemed like a really interesting way to do it.
However, I wasn't sure I was the one who could be their champion for a long time. I kept hoping I'd find a really quirky jellyfish scientist who I could follow around and who could help me tell the story. But a jellyfish scientist like that never showed up.
There was another piece to my hesitance. A lot of the science books I read were ten chapters that could also be stand-alone essays. As a reader, storytelling really speaks to me, so I would put down science books and think, I could never write like that. One day I changed the emphasis and said to myself: I could never write like that but I could write like this, the this being a book about jellyfish that also told a personal story – my story. And with that, I finally stepped into the role of both scientific storyteller and memoirist.
Your fascination with all things jellyfish arose at an opportune time for you, do you think you would have found your way to them eventually or do you feel like it was a lucky catch?
A little of both. The jellyfish story was a slow burn. It took six years to research and write it, and if I would have stumbled on them a year or two earlier or later the book could have still happened. A lot more jellyfish science continues to happen, so if it would have come a bit later, it would include some of those new exciting learnings--like the fact that jellyfish sleep, which was discovered after Spineless went to print.
Personally, though, there was something about catching the jellyfish when I did. I had been an oceanographer, but had drifted far from the ocean, moving inland to Austin, Texas, starting a family and moving into textbook writing. All was well and the kids were growing up but I had a sense that if there was something I wanted to get done in my life, I'd better get started. So when jellyfish swam into my world, I had both the physical and the emotional space, as well as a sort of urgency, to take them on.
The research you undertook was often demanding physically as well as mentally but jellyfish also became a real part of family life, how did you strike a balance?
The way I funded most of the research was by hijacking our family vacations so that I could go talk to jellyfish scientists. At the beginning, I'd figure out a reason why our family should take a trip nearby a research lab or aquarium or museum where there was an expert I wanted to interview. Luckily, jellyfish science is mostly done near nice places.
All along, I wanted my kids to fall in love with jellyfish like I had. I often felt like I was wiping the seawater from my eyes when they arrived home from school, extracting myself from the amazing jellyfish stories I was reading and writing about all day. But they were uninterested no matter what cool science I brought up at the dinner table so jellyfish became my own world, my private intellectual playground, and I really grew to relish that space that the jellyfish provided.
What's the strangest jellyfish-related experience you've had so far?
There's an episode toward the end of Spineless where I was trying to find a bloom of an invasive species called the nomadic jellyfish that have taken over the eastern Mediterranean. They blanket the coast for tens of kilometers every summer clogging power plants, ruining fishermen's catches, and chasing swimmers from beaches.
On a research/family trip to Israel and I had wanted to see the bloom for over a week, but every time I went to a beach they had drifted off--jellyfish are nothing if not unpredictable. On my very last night I got a tip that some guy in Haifa named Moti had spotted the bloom. The next morning, I woke at 6 am and drove two hours to Haifa, hoping to locate jellyfish somewhere along its 30 km stretch of beach before I had to return to the airport for my flight home.
All kinds of random occurrences happened: I couldn't find an open coffee shop so I didn't stop; I ignored my GPS and just made up my own directions; I found a great parking space right by the boardwalk. And at the very moment I walked out to the beach in Haifa, a man rose up out of the sea holding a giant underwater camera just in front of me. Unbelievably, that very man turned out to be Moti and he agreed to be my guide into that bloom of jellyfish, which was one of the most extraordinary experiences I've ever had.
Spineless plumbs the depths of a complex question - how jellyfish fit into an ongoing dialogue about climate change - do you think people always want an easy answer?
Yes, we all want an easy answer. But we also know answers to hard questions are rarely simple and it usually takes a long time to appreciate complexity.
In Spineless, I discovered an ongoing debate about jellyfish abundances that reminded me of the climate change debate. Because we systematically ignored jellyfish in the twentieth century, the baseline for jellyfish abundances will always be missing. The jellyfish scientists have to decide how to deal with that absence. Some want to use all the available data, sparse as it is, to determine global trends in jellyfish abundances. Others want to limit their analyses to more recent times when there is more robust data. Both ideas have scientific value.
In the US, the question of whether climate change is real and whether humans are the cause is not based in the scientific processes that maintain integrity. The 'debate' has been corrupted by an intentional campaign to sow doubt in the public's perception of the problem. Not only does this 'debate' not have scientific value, it is dangerous. It turns out that this is case, the answer is simpler than it seems. Climate change is real and we are causing it and we need to grow a spine and deal with it.
You have lots of amazing jellyfish facts and anecdotes in the book, what's the one that surprised or intrigued you most?
Just one!? Maybe the one that was the most powerful to discover was the story of George Romanes and the jellyfish nervous system. By looking very carefully at jellyfish nerves, Romanes (a mentee of Darwin's) predicted the existence of the synapse decades before it was finally defined, which I found astonishing. And beyond the discovery itself, I love knowing that the same structures that course through a jellyfish and allow it to react to its world are the same ones that allow us to feel all those things that connect us to the rest of the planet we share: from pain and despair to passion and hope.
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