The freshwater jellyfish could be Lake Erie’s longest surviving invasive species that you’ve never heard of.
New research by Canadian scientists shows freshwater jellyfish are thriving along Lake Erie’s shoreline, including in Fort Erie.
Biologists also located the translucent, coin-sized creatures in several spots of the Welland Canal, Port Dover and near Long Point, Ont., according to mapped data.
Does that mean they’re on the American side of the border, too?
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you got a report from someone near Buffalo,” said Terry L. Peard, a retired Indiana University of Pennsylvania science professor who specializes in studying the species biologists call “craspedacusta sowerbyi.”
Peard has logged thousands of reports of freshwater jellies from across the world, including in 44 of the lower 48 states, and five Canadian provinces.
In other words, they are almost everywhere. And, as far as preliminary findings go from Canada, they’re not going anywhere.
“There’s no known way to remove freshwater jellyfish from a lake ecosystem once it is there,” Jeff Brinsmead, senior invasive species biologist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, told the London Free Press.
Brinsmead led the recently published Canadian data that mapped more than 200 reports of freshwater jellyfish across Ontario.
These jellyfish are similar to their ocean-dwelling relatives in some ways, and different in others.
Freshwater jellyfish are typically about the size of a penny. They eat plankton, float along in the water column and provide food sources for crayfish and turtles.
But they also have stinging cells like marine jellyfish.
“They’re so tiny, so microscopic that it’s not believed they can penetrate human skin,” Peard said.
Peard’s data collection effort feeds much of the modern-day reports of freshwater jellyfish on the U.S. Geological Survey’s non-indigenous aquatic species map.
The same database also identifies Lackawanna as the site of one of the earliest freshwater jellyfish discoveries in Lake Erie. That was in 1934.
That was also the last known report on Lake Erie in New York’s waters.
“I do know that the jellyfish have been spotted in Pennsylvania waters and around the Bass Islands in the western basin since the 1970s,” said Helen Domske from New York Sea Grant. “I have not heard of anyone around here reporting them.”
There could be a reason for that.
“I think they have been around quite a while, but they can be hard to see,” said Alison Morris, a monitoring specialist with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunter’s Invading Species Awareness Program.
Peard said the freshwater jellyfish aren’t easily spotted. They either blend in with the water, or look like something else.
“They are about 100 percent water,” he said. “There’s almost no tissue to them.”
The best chance to see one is in the late summer months. That's when waters are warm and food is plentiful.
Three major theories exist as to how the jellyfish got into North American waters, Peard said.
One theory is that they came from China’s Yangtze River and traveled to England in aquatic plants imported for the Royal Gardens and then to America. Another is that they originated in the Amazon River, hitch-hiked to England in imported plants used in botanical gardens and were introduced here and spread by bilge water, migrating birds, boat propellers or on plants in the species’ young polyp stage.
“We know you can find them everywhere – except Antarctica,” Peard said.
Freshwater jellyfish, while fragile in the water, are also amazingly resilient during the polyp stage.
They can dry out and rehydrate and even survive being frozen.
“They can withstand some pretty harsh conditions,” Peard said.
A data entry shows scientists believe the jellyfish got into the lake near Lackawanna all those years ago as a “hitch hiker with stocked fish.”
Of the database that consists of 1,785 reports of freshwater jellyfish, the notation from Lackawanna is the fourth-earliest record in the nation.
Since that first logged discovery, the species has been documented in Lake Erie in Ohio as well as in about 100 inland lakes across New York State.
In Western New York, Peard has logged freshwater jellyfish reports at a sandstone quarry near Albion; Bear Lake in Chautauqua County twice in the early 2000s; private ponds off Zimmerman Road in Boston, Route 77 near Darien Center; the LaFarge Quarry near Lancaster in 2012; a pond at Bethany Camp near Sinclairville in 2014; and a pond on a Holland farm and a pond near Attica last year.
Are they spreading?
“It’s hard to say,” Peard said. “I’m getting a lot more reports, but it maybe is because I have a new website and a convenient way to report them.”