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Spineless
Cover of Spineless
Spineless
The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone
Borrow Borrow
"A book full of wonders" —Helen Macdonald, author of H Is for Hawk
"Witty, insightful. . . .The story of jellyfish. . . is a significant part of the environmental story. Berwald's engaging account of these delicate, often ignored creatures shows how much they matter to our oceans' future." —New York Time Book Review

Jellyfish have been swimming in our oceans for well over half a billion years, longer than any other animal that lives on the planet. They make a venom so toxic it can kill a human in three minutes. Their sting—microscopic spears that pierce with five million times the acceleration of gravity—is the fastest known motion in the animal kingdom. Made of roughly 95 percent water, some jellies are barely perceptible virtuosos of disguise, while others glow with a luminescence that has revolutionized biotechnology. Yet until recently, jellyfish were largely ignored by science, and they remain among the most poorly understood of ocean dwellers.
More than a decade ago, Juli Berwald left a career in ocean science to raise a family in landlocked Austin, Texas, but jellyfish drew her back to the sea. Recent, massive blooms of billions of jellyfish have clogged power plants, decimated fisheries, and caused millions of dollars of damage. Driven by questions about how overfishing, coastal development, and climate change were contributing to a jellyfish population explosion, Juli embarked on a scientific odyssey. She traveled the globe to meet 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 more than just a quest for answers. It's a call to realize our collective responsibility for the planet we share.
"A book full of wonders" —Helen Macdonald, author of H Is for Hawk
"Witty, insightful. . . .The story of jellyfish. . . is a significant part of the environmental story. Berwald's engaging account of these delicate, often ignored creatures shows how much they matter to our oceans' future." —New York Time Book Review

Jellyfish have been swimming in our oceans for well over half a billion years, longer than any other animal that lives on the planet. They make a venom so toxic it can kill a human in three minutes. Their sting—microscopic spears that pierce with five million times the acceleration of gravity—is the fastest known motion in the animal kingdom. Made of roughly 95 percent water, some jellies are barely perceptible virtuosos of disguise, while others glow with a luminescence that has revolutionized biotechnology. Yet until recently, jellyfish were largely ignored by science, and they remain among the most poorly understood of ocean dwellers.
More than a decade ago, Juli Berwald left a career in ocean science to raise a family in landlocked Austin, Texas, but jellyfish drew her back to the sea. Recent, massive blooms of billions of jellyfish have clogged power plants, decimated fisheries, and caused millions of dollars of damage. Driven by questions about how overfishing, coastal development, and climate change were contributing to a jellyfish population explosion, Juli embarked on a scientific odyssey. She traveled the globe to meet 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 more than just a quest for answers. It's a call to realize our collective responsibility for the planet we share.
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Excerpts-
  • From the cover

    1

    If You Dare

    Hiroshima's downtown is a garden of modern architecture interspersed with swaths of lovely green parks. In the center, there is a single structure, in ruins, capped by a skeleton of curved iron. This is the Atomic Bomb Dome, located at the destruction's epicenter, the sole building that managed to remain standing amid the massive force that flattened everything else for miles in all directions. It is an astonishing memorial to both our capacity for horrifying devastation and our awesome resilience. The dome sits along the side of one of six tidal streams that flow through Hiroshima. In the murky, green water, I watched thousands-maybe hundreds of thousands-of pale pink disks parade by, a flood of jellyfish. Juxtaposed with the dome, the endless stream of jellyfish seemed to square off nature's power against our own, a battle as old as civilization that continues to play out in the decisions we make today. They were the first wild jellyfish I saw in years of chasing jellyfish. The milky creatures pulsed slowly, slower than my heartbeat, which dropped as I watched. The movements of their bells trailing gossamer tentacles were like millions of eyelashes blinking open and closed and open again, giving me a feeling that these alien animals could peer deep into the soul of the sea. I found it impossible to fathom the source of this endless river of life. The jellies continued to flow by for as long as I stood and watched.

    Maybe you remember the first time you saw a jellyfish. Maybe you were lucky enough to stick your head under the ocean's surface, wearing a mask, and watch the primal undulations of a jellyfish dancing to some internal rhythm. Maybe you felt a biting sting in the water and turned to see a gelatinous blob disappear like sinking mucus. Maybe you stood against the glass and watched the elegant clover on the back of a moon jellyfish or the graceful train of a sea nettle in an aquarium. Or maybe it was footage of jellyfish hawking a cure for memory loss.

    I don't remember the very first jellyfish I saw. I grew up in a time before aquaria were full of jellyfish tanks, in a very landlocked in St. Louis. I never spent an extended period near the ocean until I was in college. In my junior year, 1987, I attended an English-speaking study-abroad program in Tel Aviv. From a New England school where getting ready to go to a party meant putting on tattered jeans, a flannel shirt, and duck boots, I was a misfit among the other American students, who were a lot less style-challenged. I found the Israelis my age no easier to get along with. At nineteen, they were required to serve in the army, while I had the freedom to jaunt off to college unencumbered.

    I stuffed my loneliness down with the hummus and baba ghanoush sold from a cart on the street corner near my cinder-block dorm. At about the same rate that my weight increased, my spirits sank. One day, I opened the door to the building where my class on Middle Eastern politics was held and spotted a sign out of the corner of my eye. It advertised a marine biology course: a week in Eilat, at the southern tip of Israel, studying the ecology of the Red Sea. Knowing next to nothing about biology or Eilat, not to mention the fact that I was hardly able to squeeze into my swimsuit anymore, I scrawled my name at the bottom of the list. It was clear I needed to put some distance between me and the pita cart.

    A few days later, with about twenty other students, I boarded a bus headed south at dawn. After a five-hour ride through the desert, we were offloaded and handed snorkels, masks, and fins. I think there was a quick instruction on keeping hands away from urchin spines and fire coral. I...

About the Author-
  • Juli Berwald received her Ph.D. in Ocean Science from the University of Southern California. A science textbook writer and editor, she has written for a number of publications, including The New York Times, Nature, National Geographic, and Slate. She lives in Austin with her husband and their son and daughter.
Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine Juli Berwald's fascination with brainless blobs of seaborne gelatin and stinging tentacles makes 10 hours of stories about seeking and studying--and even eating--jellyfish a pleasure for armchair (or beach chair) naturalists. Berwald is not a professional audiobook narrator. Her delivery is a bit too frenetic at times, but she is telling her own story, and her emotions clearly enter into her vocal style, making this audiobook not only a scientific study but also the story of a personal life journey. Many characters from around the world, from fishermen to scientists, weave through the story, and to the narrator's credit, she does not attempt to duplicate their accents. Those who live in coastal communities will especially enjoy this audiobook. C.M.A. � AudioFile 2018, Portland, Maine
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    All copies of this title, including those transferred to portable devices and other media, must be deleted/destroyed at the end of the lending period.

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Spineless
The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone
Juli Berwald
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