“Gob-Smackingly Huge” Jellyfish Washes Up in Australia

Picture of a large lion's mane jellyfish
Australia’s largest jellyfish was found on the shores of a beach in Tasmania. (Photograph by Richard Lim)

A regular day at the beach led to a surprising scientific discovery for one family in Australia last month—local resident Richard Lim and his family spotted a shockingly large jellyfish at a beach in Howden, a small town in Tasmania.

The family did what anyone would do—take photos, of course—but they also shared the images with Lisa-ann Gershwin, a research scientist and jellyfish expert at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency.

Gershwin’s first reaction upon seeing the photos? Pure shock, despite the fact that she’d already known about the new species.

“I had seen what I thought were large specimens, but now we know they are practically babies in comparison,” she said. “In my 20-plus years of working with jellyfish, it is the largest jellyfish I have seen. It really is gob-smackingly huge.”

Classifying the Creature

The world’s largest known jellyfish is Cyanea arctica, and it can grow to 3 meters across the bell, the central body of the jellyfish. Gershwin said the newfound specimen should also belong to the Cyanea genus, which is called a lion’s mane jellyfish or a “snottie” thanks to its extremely slimy disposition.

This particular jellyfish is still new to science, however. “It belongs to a species that isn’t yet named and classified,” Gershwin said. “It has structural features that make it distinct from other species of lion’s manes.” (Related: “For a Nearly Hundred-foot-long Jellyfish, It’s Christmas All Year.”)

While there’s little doubt that this jellyfish is Australia’s largest, the researchers do not have an exact measurement for it because the bell is buried under the milky substance otherwise known as “oral arms” used for feeding and reproduction.

But when it comes to the sting factor for this specimen, Gershwin said its stings are painful, but not life threatening. She also added that while you could be well away from it in the water, you may still feel its stings—lion’s mane jellyfish tend to fragment when they get beached, leaving lots of “microscopic stingy bits” in the surrounding water. (Related: “Should Marathon Swimmers Suit Up Against Jellies?“)

Doing Better Science

In the last two months, southern Tasmania has experienced a jellyfish bloom that Gershwin said is unprecedented for the area—much bigger, denser, and longer than previous years. The researchers at CSIRO are working to determine what effect it is having on the ecosystem and whether or not this is an indicator that something may be out of balance.

The jellyfish in the photo washed back into the water with the next tide, but Gershwin is still working to learn more about the new species by studying a smaller preserved specimen. “About a month ago, I was able to finally get photos and specimens of this species, so that gave me the opportunity to study it and confirm that it’s new to science. Then this photo comes to me that is clearly the same species, but a whole lot bigger than I imagined it might get,” she said.

“It simply is a spectacular find, and I applaud the Lim family for going to the trouble to take the photo and send to it to us for ID. It’s a great example of the curious public helping scientists do better science.”

Sonia Harmon is the blog coordinator at National Geographic. She has also written for Ladies’ Home Journal magazine and Washingtonian magazine.

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