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Jellyfish in Arkansas?

Strange little creatures amaze swimmers and boaters

By Keith Sutton/Contributing Writer

This article was published July 23, 2017 at 12:00 a.m.


The freshwater jellyfish, like its saltwater relatives, has an umbrella-shaped body with tentacles that help the jellyfish capture its prey.

We were swimming in Lake Ouachita just west of Hot Springs when we first saw them.

My friend Lewis and I had taken our sons Shannon and Zach to the lake for a weekend getaway in August. We set up our tents in a public campground, then headed straight for the shore to enjoy a refreshing dip in the cool, clear water.

As we floated and dove in the shallows with swim masks on, we saw many fish, including bluegills, longear sunfish and largemouth bass. The boys also collected the shells of freshwater mussels they found scattered across the lake bottom.

Then Zach spotted a very different creature.

“Hey, Dad. Come here!” he exclaimed. “What the heck are these?”

Swimming over and standing beside him, I could see dozens of little pulsating disks scattered about in the crystalline water. Each was about the size of a penny or nickel and looked like a tiny parachute or umbrella. They were translucent and difficult to see in the famously clear waters of Lake Ouachita.

I had come upon the same creatures once before in DeGray Lake, just a few miles away. I was fishing with a friend when he pointed them out, slowly moving through the water below our boat.

“They look like little jellyfish,” he said. “But we don’t have jellyfish in Arkansas, do we?”

Turns out we do. Checking the internet that night, I learned that these weird little creatures often appear in Natural State waters during summer. It seems strange to find jellyfish so far away from the ocean. Yet these interesting animals are common in several of our lakes.

I reached into the water beside Zach and cupped one of the parachutes in the palm of my hand. “What does it look like to you?” I asked.

“It looks like the jellyfish we saw in the Gulf of Mexico — only smaller,” he replied.

“That’s exactly what it is,” I said. “Only this jellyfish likes fresh water, not saltwater. Most people, when they’re out swimming or fishing or riding around in boats, see the jellyfish in summer.

Pretty cool, huh?”

Lewis and Shannon joined us, and we shared information about Zach’s find with them. All of us watched in amazement as scores of the round jellies swarmed about us. Using our masks and snorkels, we followed them for several minutes, observing the strange jerks and twitches that propelled them through the water.

At one time, there were no jellyfish in our state. The freshwater jelly originated in China’s Yangtze River. No one is sure when and how it spread from there, but the unusual little invertebrates were probably transported with ornamental aquatic plants such as water hyacinth from their native

region in Asia.

The freshwater jellyfish now lives in waters on every continent except Antarctica. It was first found in the U.S. in 1880 and has since spread to every state except Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota,

South Dakota, Alaska and

Hawaii. Perhaps no other aquatic species on Earth has spread so far and wide.

This jellyfish has two life phases, each giving “birth” to the other. One form, called the polyp, is tiny and rarely noticed. It attaches itself to underwater surfaces much like a sea anemone in the ocean. Little buds form on the polyps’ sides and then separate to become new individuals. In this way, the polyps often form colonies containing numerous individuals.

Much more likely to be seen are the free-swimming medusas. These have the rounded, concave shape of little umbrellas or parachutes. They are translucent, with a white, green, gray, tan or blue tint. Most are less than 1 inch in diameter. They have four long tentacles for swimming and many shorter ones for feeding. A fringe of up to 400 feeding tentacles may line the edges of the umbrella.

Freshwater jellyfish eat zooplankton — microscopic animals that are common in Arkansas waters. The jellyfish catch the plankton using those short stinging tentacles. As the jellyfish drifts, it waits for its prey to touch a tentacle. When contact is made, little stingers called nematocysts harpoon the prey. These inject poison that paralyzes the animal. The tentacle then coils around the prey and brings it into the mouth on the underside of the umbrella. The food is engulfed and will be digested.

No one can predict for sure when adult jellyfish may show up in Arkansas each year. They sometimes appear in a body of water in large numbers, even though they were never reported there before. The following year, they may be absent and may not reappear until several years later. It is also possible for the jellyfish to appear once in a body of water and never reappear. You may be surprised to know how many places jellyfish have been found in Arkansas. They have been collected in lakes Ouachita, Greers Ferry, Norfork, DeGray and Greeson, plus many smaller waters, such as ponds and gravel pits. Jellies don’t thrive in the running water of streams, but they’ve been reported in the Mulberry River, the White River and a few creeks around the state.

“They’ve never really occurred in high enough populations to cause any sort of impact to the health of a fishery,” Ben Batten, assistant chief of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Fisheries Division, said in a press release issued last September. “They’re more of a curiosity that we get calls about from time to time.”

One of the best places to see freshwater jellyfish is Lake Ouachita, where we had our encounter. The clean, crystal-

clear water there allows the jellyfish to reproduce in large numbers.

Sunny days in August and September, when the water is warm and food is abundant, are peak times to spot jellyfish in Ouachita. The jellies will be floating or swimming gently just below the water’s surface. They are more easily seen if you’re wearing polarized sunglasses that reduce glare on the water’s surface. The jellyfish often appear in large numbers called “blooms.”

Some people worry that freshwater jellyfish may sting them. The jellies do have stinging cells just like their saltwater relatives and, as mentioned, can use those stingers to paralyze the tiny aquatic animals they feed upon. But fortunately, the jellyfish’s stingers aren’t considered big enough to pierce human skin.

There’s no need to worry about swimming in Arkansas waters where freshwater jellies occur. Instead, enjoy your encounters with the miniature water-dwelling parachutes. They’re just one example of the many fascinating animals inhabiting The Natural State.


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