Dr. John H. Costello, professor of biology and his colleague, Dr. Sean P. Colin ’93, professor of environmental science at Roger Williams University, achieved a remarkable feat — receiving three three-year grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to continue jellyfish research and to develop new research methods.
Awarded in a span of less than six months, the grants total more than $431,000 and incorporate opportunities for undergraduate research.
A $227,722 grant will allow them to quantify how jellyfish use fluid motion to capture prey and to define rules of jellyfish propulsion that apply generally to the more than 1,000 jellyfish species that exist — not just the few that have been studied.
With a $123,890 grant, they will study whether the rules of motion for jellyfish and other plankton apply to other swimming and flying animals. By determining how animals move efficiently, the researchers hope to establish principles that can be applied to vehicle design.
Costello and his team also were awarded a $79,421 NSF grant to adapt the methods currently used in their lab for the ocean. The new diver-operated technology will measure biological and physical processes that affect the ocean and wildlife health. Animals behave differently when removed from their environment, explained Costello, who has taught at PC since 1989.
“We need to go to them as opposed to expecting them to come to us,” he said.
Costello and his team also published a paper in Nature Communications on siphonophore propulsion. These plankton colonies are difficult to study because they are very elusive, preferring deep water away from coasts, but the researchers were able to capture some in Friday Harbor, Wash.
By analyzing video shot in the lab, Costello and his team were able to determine that of the nectophores — members of the colony that are specialized for locomotion — the youngest, smallest individuals are near the top and contribute most toward steering. As they age and grow larger, the animals provide more forward thrust to the colony.
“Based on the developmental stage of the nectophore, it performs different tasks for swimming,” he said.
The colonies are very agile in the water — able to make sharp turns by turning off the nectophores that push forward to go sideways, backward, or forward.
“You end up with highly complex motions using simple motion but a sophisticated control system,” Costello said.