The Lion’s Mane Jellyfish. The largest in the world. Before the dinosaurs. Over 650 million years ago. Among the oldest surviving species. Up to 6 meters in diameter with tentacles over 50 meters long. And here is the photo to prove it!
Perhaps someone shared this with you on Facebook this weekend. Or it wound up in your Tumblr feed in the past few months (it’s gotten more than 300,000 notes). Perhaps it was referred to you by The Week.
It’s an amazing picture. It makes you think about how the world is stranger than we ever imagined. That warming oceans are changing ecosystems. That primordial forms have amazing power, still relevant in this technological era. That something is seriously out of whack.
But where did this picture come from? With Tumblr, and Pinterest and Facebook the image’s provenance is obscure. This giant jellyfish picture, mostly accompanied by the same hyperbolic language, has been in the wild for more than seven years (see comments on the Unexplained Mysteries blog that go back to September 2004!). At this point, it is most accurate to say that the source of the image is “the internets,” to use usability guru Jared Spool’s memorable coinage. [Spool also colorfully refers to Twitter as “the Twitters,” a term you will have a hard time not using now that you have heard it!] A close reading of the traffic patterns and search results for this meme tells us a lot about how content particles gain mass online (Higgs boson style).
This is an image with many siblings (167 by TinEye’s count, 69,000 according to Google Images)—but no parents.
It’s also a fake.
How do we know? It’s not easy. When a friend first shared the image with me (this weekend), my first thought was, “Wow!,” and my second thought was, “Really?” Journalists have traditionally cultivated that second thought, and it could be said that the freedom of the world has relied on it.
The difficulty in the internet era is that it’s easy for the popular to displace the true. Of the 125,000 Google search results for “Lions Mane Jellyfish” (which oddly, has twice the results of the technically correct “Lion’s Mane Jellyfish”—I blame mobile users!) precious few actually debunk the image. To Google’s credit, this link from io9 is near the top of the first page. In typical internet fashion, the even more incorrect “Lions Head Jellyfish,” scores even more hits (184,000)! And if you happened to first be following that (mistaken) trail, as I did at first, you would not find a debunking link anywhere in the first ten pages or more of the search results.
I got to the io9 post (which actually refers to an original, but under-trafficked, post from Craig McClain, aka Dr. M, on Deep Sea News) through the back door, as it were. I used a little-known feature of Google image search to reverse search the image. Just go to Google and click on the “image” tab (or follow this link). Instead of typing in a search query, copy (or drag) the image you are looking for from any web page and paste (or drop) it into the input field. What you’ll get is something like the screen below. And notice how both debunking posts, the original here coming before the more popular, are right at the top of the first page.
Of the millions of people that have seen and shared this image, perhaps only tens of thousands have read the cautionary posts and very few have actually done their own fact checking, which, as you can see, is very easy to do.
Why am I convinced that millions of people are wrong and “Dr. M” is right? Simple, he’s a geek and he did his homework:
Lion’s Maine Jellyfish are indeed big. The world record had a bell diameter of 7 and half feet (2.29m) and 120 ft long tentacles (37m). I know this because for this paper, I needed data for the largest and smallest species for every animal phylum.
Being a connoisseur of photos of all size extremes, I immediately noted something was off. Let’s assume the scuba diver is only 5 feet (1.5m) in height. The width of the jellyfish’s bell is about 3 of the scuba diver’s length or 15 feet (4.57m). This would make it twice the size of the world’s largest known specimen. Zoom in on the diver in the photo and you can see a characteristic Photoshop halo. As well, the hue, shadows, and saturation of the diver don’t match the rest of the photograph. I also find it interesting I can’t locate any high resolution versions of this image.
A little searching around the internet and I found a photo without diver but it appears Photoshopped as well. Note the oddly light area where the diver was.
I agree with all of McClain’s arguments except the one about the Photoshop “halo.” The image of the diver does indeed seem to be in a different light than the surrounding image, but it is hard for anyone but a forensic image analyst to tell the difference between the artifact-ing that happens naturally through jpeg compression around contrasting edges in an image, and an actual “halo” of extra edge-pixels on a pasted-in element.
That’s a quibble, because it’s the scale that makes the image arresting (to millions) and the scale that is clearly off. But it is close enough to be “almost real,” and that accounts for a lot of the viral pull. I wrote about this phenomenon previously in relation to KONY 2012 and Mike Daisey, opining that, “The viral seems to have a close cousin in the almost true.” Would people have shared this image as much if they knew it was fake? These are clearly really big creatures, remarkable without exaggeration, but I think it was the WTF scaling factor that pushed this image into viral territory.
The biggest clue to the fabrication is the lack of an original source. Some news stories have multiple original sources, but in this case, no one has put their name either on the original, un-doctored image, or taken credit for the manipulation. I would encourage both parties to come forward, and I would be happy to moderate a conversation between the two. Did the fabricator have artistic intentions (i.e., science fiction), or did they just misapply the data (converting feet to meters, for instance, in a mistaken homage to “Spinal Tap”)? Or was this an attempt to visualize an actual sighting that was not documented in a credible enough way to pass muster, even with Wikipedia? (Not a low limbo bar!)
More likely, this is an example of what can now be dubbed the “Higgs boson effect,” whereby serious science becomes popular only in as far as it supplies amusement and Twitter hashtags. The fiction here was “retinal,” in that it was below the threshold of what would make most people question clicking the share or like button. How many other similar whoppers are out there?
BONUS ROUND: Lion’s Mane Jellyfish are quite variable in scale, some only a couple of feet in diameter. To see these amazing creatures at a true scale, next to an actual diver, have a look at this video:
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