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The ‘Grand Duchess Of Jellyfish’ And Her Life Of Research In Puget Sound

Sept. 25, 2012 | KUOW
CONTRIBUTED BY:
Ashley Ahearn

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  • Claudia Mills, the "grand duchess of jellyfish," in her office at Friday Harbor Labs on San Juan Island. credit: Ashley Ahearn
  • About 200 days a year, for more than three decades, Claudia Mills has made her way down to a dock on San Juan Island to sample jellyfish. credit: Ashley Ahearn
  • Claudia Mills spots tiny floating translucent blobs that the average beach goer (or journalist) would never pick out. credit: Ashley Ahearn
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Claudia Mills, the "grand duchess of jellyfish," in her office at Friday Harbor Labs on San Juan Island. | credit: Ashley Ahearn | rollover image for more

The quaint town of Friday Harbor, nestled into the rocky coastline of San Juan Island, is a well-known tourist hot spot and orca-watching Mecca. It’s also the home of Claudia Mills, the Jellyfish Lady of Puget Sound.

Tanks bubble in the background as Mills shows me around her office at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs.

Anemones, sea slugs and urchins pulse and ooze beneath the surface. On Mills’ desk, stacks of papers cluster around her computer, like underwater seamounts.

Mills pries an old notebook out of one of the stacks and thumbs through it.

“My grandfather used to give me diaries and I was like, what am I going to do with these diaries?” Mills says. “I started writing jellyfish in them in 1976. And I’ve been doing it pretty much ever since.”

I look over her shoulder at the faded blue ball-point scribblings lining the pages – lists of obscure jellyfish species and how many of them Mills observed each day for the past… wait for it… 35 years.

Mills doesn’t sample every day but she’s a fixture of the scientific community based at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs, where she is an affiliate professor of biology.

Mills is also a well-respected expert on jellyfish on the West Coast. She’s down on the docks here about 200 days out of the year, though she’s quick to state that her data is qualitative not quantitative. It gives the broad-brushstroked portrait of the jiggly undulating inhabitants of these waters and how those populations have shifted over the years. It doesn’t provide hard statistics.

“A lot of us see her as the grand duchess of jellyfish,” says Laurence Madin, Executive Vice President and Director of Research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, “She’s such a wonderful academic and distinguished person and the detail with which she works on things - she’s got an interest in all the life history aspects and biolgocial aspects of these animals.”

Madin has collaborated with Mills on various research projects over the past 25 years or so. He says her massive data set has contributed a lot to scientists understandings of all aspects of the jellyfish lifecycle.

“She does an almost 19th century type of biology where you’re a critical observer,” he says, “and the access to so many live animals means she’s able to pursue all kinds of interesting questions about their biology, their daily life, their reproductive behavior and even locomotion.”

As we walk out of her office and down the gangplank to the docks where Mills conducts her regular jellyfish samplings, the jellyfish duchess is already searching for subjects.

“There’s 75 different species of jellies up here,” Mills says, holding the tool of her trade: a beaker attached with electrical tape to the end of what looks like a broomstick.

I can’t see anything beyond the undulating kelp. But with a quick flick of the wrist, Mills lifts a beaker of water up to eye level.

“This is Eutonina,” she says, peering in at a translucent orb, less than an inch in diameter, floating at the bottom of the glass.

“That’s the circulatory system,” she says, pointing at four tiny white lines inside the clear dome. “It doesn’t have blood. See that thing in the middle? That’s its mouth.”

Mills lowers the beaker back into the water then shoves her spectacles back up into her shaggy silver hair and moves on down the dock, her green eyes piercing the water.

“This place is really amazing because there were so many jellyfish,” she says.

“We still have high diversity but the abundance seems to be lower.”

That, in a nutshell, is the trend Mills has observed here over the past three decades: the usual suspects are still floating around in Puget Sound, but there are fewer of them.

Mills’ findings somewhat contradict new research that suggests that the manmade environment –- armored shorelines, docks, sea walls and the like – is contributing to a global increase in jellyfish populations.

She’s not seeing an increase in jellyfish here in Puget Sound, nor does she think there’s enough data to prove that this is actually happening globally. In February Mills co-authored a paper that said as much.

But that doesn’t mean she disagrees with the thesis that jellyfish populations may be on the rise around the world. In fact, she was one of the first to propose the idea in a paper in 1995 and in more depth in another paper in 2001. These creatures are designed to capitalize on environments that may not be as hospitable for fish and other marine organisms – environments that have more pollution or higher water temperatures, for example.

“There are pretty diverse jellyfish in most coastal areas in the world that are positioned to take over when things get out of kilter,” Mills says, as she peers down into the water.

“They’re beautiful but most people don’t know they’re here, and there’s a lot of mysteries about why some do well and some don’t do well.”

They’re mysteries that Mills hopes her data will help solve. She’ll be out here tomorrow and the next day and the next.

“The longer the database, the better,” she chuckles, and walks off down the dock.

© 2012 KUOW
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