With the advent of submarine warfare, the ability to locate large underwater objects with SONAR became of prime strategic importance. Active SONAR detects objects by listening for echos from pulses of sound. As SONAR became more widely used, though, some very strange things were seen in the open ocean. At times, the SONAR suggested that the ocean floor was much shallower than maps and direct depth measurements indicated. Ships sitting in one place would also find that the depth of the ocean would appear to change through the course of the day, as if the sea floor were heaving beneath them.
Something was creating a false bottom that the SONAR couldn’t see through. Submarines found that they could dive right through this layer, hiding beneath it and rendering the SONAR above useless. Details about these false bottoms in the open ocean were closely guarded military secrets during World War II.
It had been suspected that the false bottom was made of large groups of animals, but nets sent to this region usually came up empty. Then, in 1963, Eric Barham, a scientist at the US Navy Electronics Laboratory, reported his first-hand observations form aboard the research submarine Trieste. His dives were coordinated with ships above that monitored the position of the false bottom with SONAR. When Trieste arrived at the false bottom it did find animals, and lots of them. They were siphonophores, extremely fragile colonial jellyfish that are notoriously difficult to collect. They are so fragile that they usually turn to slime in nets and pass right through the mesh.
How could something so delicate and gelatinous have such a strong signature on the SONAR, powerful enough to hide entire submarines? Many species of siphonophores have a gas filled float that serves to regulate buoyancy, and possibly to sense which way is up. The siphonophore that was found in the false bottom, Nanomia bijuga (see photo above), has a float that is about a milimeter in diamater, which is predicted to resonate at a frequency very close to the sound pulse used by SONAR. This resonance scatters the sound, and when there are lots of siphonophores the scattering is so thorough that the SONAR can’t penetrate through the swimming jellyfish.
Besides revealing the important impacts of a poorly-known colonial jellyfish on military technology, these findings also indicate how difficult it can be to measure the abundance of jellyfish. They weren’t detected in nets sent to the false bottom, but there were enough of them to hide entire warships. This measurement problem is compounded when we try to establish whether jellyfish are rising or falling in abundance through time. Because they are so difficult to observe, their abundance has likely been dramatically underestimated in the historical record. As we see more jellyfish with improved sampling methods, it is hard to know if they are more numerous than they used to be.
The Nanomia bijuga photo above was taken by Claude Carré at Villefranche. The float is at the upper right of the image. More information on siphonophores can be found at siphonophores.org.