UWC marine biologist Verena Ras helps find new jellyfish species
Many jellyfish species are known to science but now, thanks to UWC marine biologist and taxonomist Ras, there is one more.
“Historically, two species of Chrysaora jellyfish are known from the Benguela current ecosystem: C.fulgida and C.africana. However, a third morphotype is now seen that bears a resemblance to both,” Ras says.
“And now, using a comprehensive collaborative approach analysing statistical and molecular data, we’ve officially discovered a new species of jellyfish in South African waters: Chrysaora agulhensis.”
The species, which appears to be endemic to the Agulhas current system (hence the name) is described from 31 specimens, mostly collected in False Bay in the Western Cape. The species can be readily separated in the field by a combination of tentacle/lappet number and shape, colour patterns and the form of the oral arms.
Ras is currently completing a PhD in Marine Genetics at UWC, looking at the identities and population biology of West African jellyfish.
But she has been working on jellies for eight years.
Chrysaora has always been a highly enigmatic genus, and sorting out the species required a co-ordinated effort combining the fields of marine biology, genomics, oceanography and more under the leadership of UWC’s Professor Mark Gibbons, Ras’s marine biology mentor.
“We’re a wonderfully multifaceted team, all with our own areas of expertise ranging from molecular biology to oceanography,” Ras says, “so nothing ever becomes monotonous, and there’s always something new to learn.”
The inherent interdisciplinary nature of the work has kept Ras enthralled - and on her toes.
The study, titled “There are three species of Chrysaora (Scyphozoa: Discomedusae) in the Benguela upwelling ecosystem, not two”, is her first official published academic article.
“It took me four years to complete my BSc, three years to complete my MSc and I am in the fourth year of my PhD, because I had to work multiple jobs to pay for my studies - and although I’ve been in research for years this is my first publication,” she says.
“So it’s never too late - just keep going, and let’s see what you can do!”
Ras’s passion for all things marine began long before she got to UWC. Growing up on the Cape Flats, the ocean was part of her heritage.
“I come from a family of big fishers, and I grew up at sea - line fishing, crayfishing, spearfishing. That sparked my passion for the ocean, and just drove me to want to know more.”