The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone
Jellyfish have been swimming in our oceans for over half a billion years, longer than any other animal that lives on the planet. Their sting is the fastest known motion in the animal kingdom, their venom so toxic it can kill a human in three minutes. Made of roughly 95 percent water, some jellies are barely perceptible virtuosos of disguise, while others’ luminescent glow has revolutionized biotechnology. Yet until recently, jellyfish were largely ignored by science, and they remain among the most poorly understood of ocean dwellers.
Over a decade ago, ocean scientist Juli Berwald left her career to raise a family in landlocked Austin, Texas, but jellyfish drew her back to the sea. Driven by questions about how overfishing, coastal development, and climate change were contributing to a jellyfish population explosion that has caused millions of dollars of damage, Juli embarked on a scientific odyssey that took her across the globe. She met the biologists who devote their careers to jellies, hitched rides on Japanese fishing boats to see giant jellyfish in the wild, raised jellyfish in her dining room, and throughout it all marveled at the complexity of these alluring and ominous biological wonders.
Gracefully blending personal memoir with crystal-clear distillations of science, Spineless is the story of how Juli learned to navigate and ultimately embrace her ambition, her curiosity, and her passion for the natural world. She discovers that jellyfish science is a call to realize our collective responsibility for the planet we share.
Cover design by Grace Han Author photograph by Madeleine Tilin