Heartless, Painful, Beautiful: Wildlife of Florida's Biscayne National Park

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BISCAYNE NATIONAL PARK, Fla. -- One truly amazing thing about national parks and Biscayne National Park in particular, is their ability to surprise and delight visitors with the intriguing, diverse and beautiful life they support. There are heaps of peculiar and stunning creatures in national parks that few people expect to find in their lifetimes. Discovering this abundant and unique wildlife fills hearts with gladness and lifts spirits. Even those long worn down by daily concerns and the seemingly inescapable noise of machinery and traffic.

I unexpectedly encountered one such bizarre creature while paddling through the shallow, translucent water of Jones Lagoon, in the southern part of Biscayne National Park. In the presence of this strange organism, and many of its nearby companions, the floor of the lagoon literally appeared to come alive. It was astounding to see even for an experienced paddler like me. With olive green, khaki, emerald, and turquoise speckles combined in unusual branch-like appendages, the creature appeared as a miniature clump of water plants positioned in the sand. It was the cassiopea, a.k.a. “upside-down,” jellyfish.

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A cassiopea jellyfish, floating in Biscayne National Park.

The cassiopea jellyfish lurks in the shallow lagoons of the park to feed on tiny fish, invertebrates, plankton and sunlight. Its sting is harmless to most people, yet this may depend on the individual. Like snowflakes of the sea, each appears different from the others of its kind. A form of algae provides nutrition for the jellyfish as it absorbs light like an immobile sunbather on Miami Beach. The cassiopea is one of the many beautiful jellies you may find in the park.

Jellyfish, in general, get a pretty bad rap. Heartless, brainless, spineless, no apparent means of support, merely floating from place to place, and it hardly needs to be mentioned, painful. Not a whole lot going for them. Yet jellyfish pack a mean punch. And not just with their sting.

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A moon jellyfish is a common sight when diving in Biscayne National Park.

When the dinosaurs lay dying, maybe the last thing they saw was a jellyfish. Half a billion years ago these delicate and harmless looking globules ruled the oceans. They may yet again. Jellyfish thrive in warm water, reproduce quickly, hardly need to worry about predators (even if they COULD shed a tear or work up a sweat), and expand where pollution, over-fishing and other human-made influences are occurring most. I have found jellyfish while paddling in Alaska as well as Florida. They may be small as a grain of sand or massive as a refrigerator.

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Can you find the cassiopea jellyfish in this image? Hint - it is in the center of the photograph. Photo by Matt Johnson.

As with everything in nature, jellyfish have their good side. They come in an immense variety of colors. They sparkle and glow and do not always sting. To sea turtles, jellyfish are like floating gummy bears of the sea, only more nutritious. Jellyfish are part of the natural world and circle of life. To survive half a billion years they must be doing something right!

The radiant and diverse jellyfish floating in the sun dappled water of Biscayne National Park are not the only amazing creatures you will find here. There are many mysterious and beautiful organisms in the park.

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The starfish is another interesting creature you will find in the lagoons of Biscayne National Park. Photo by Matt Johnson.

It is the mission of the National Park Service to safeguard this wildlife and to keep their web of life together as much as possible. Be part of your national park and get outdoors this summer! Immerse yourself in the tranquility and stillness that the park provides and discover some of these compelling, colorful and charming critters for yourself.

Matt Johnson is the Public Affairs Officer for Biscayne National Park.