Friday, January 20, 2012

Jellies at Shedd

We're in the middle of getting 6-8 inches of snow here in Chicago.  We've been putting off going to the museums until the winter weather really kicked in, and today was the perfect day to have an indoor adventure.  We spent a couple of hours at Shedd Aquarium, and we could have spent several more there.  My favorite exhibit was of the animals formerly known as jellyfish, currently known as jellies since they really don't have anything to do with fish other than the fact that they live in water.  I could watch them for hours - they are mesmerizing and fascinating.  Another museum-goer called them living lava lamps.

Northeast Pacific Sea Nettle, Chrysaora fruscescens
 I've written about jellies before, so I'll take a different approach here.  I'd like to point out some interesting anatomical structures and explain a little bit of their life cycle.  Let's start with anatomy.

The jellies above are swimming upside down.  The main body is called the bell.  There are two types of structures that trail behind the bell: tentacles and oral arms.  Tentacles are darker in the Pacific Sea Nettle, and they extend off of the edge of the bell.  Oral arms are usually whitish, four in number, and extend from the center of the bell.  Both appendages are covered in microscopic stingers.  The tentacles are for initial stinging of food and defense.  The oral arms are for more stinging and for moving food toward the center of the bell for digestion.

Jellies have only one orifice on their bodies, which has to serve for the in and out orifice of the digestive, reproductive and respiratory systems.  Food goes in, gets dissolved, is carried out through the rest of the body, and whatever isn't digestible is 'spit' back out.  Reproductive organs, visible as the four ring-shaped white structures in the moon jellies below, connect to the single orifice.  Males release sperm into the ocean water.  Females can release eggs into the ocean water, hopefully to find a sperm somewhere, or more commonly, they take in sperm, allow fertilization, and even allow development of the next generation inside their body cavities. 

Moon Jelly, Aurelia aurita
Jellies have a ring of muscle one-cell-thick around the edge of the bell that they can contract and relax to move.  Also around the edge of the bell, it is common for jellies to have light-detecting tissue for knowing when to swim up to the surface of the ocean.

Good view of the two types of appendages attached under the bell.

The jelly life cycle is pretty head-scratching.  The pictures on this page show all adult forms, but they have juvenile forms that look completely different - like butterflies and caterpillars look different.  Fertilized jelly eggs grow into larvae called planulae.  Planulae are almost microscopic and swim free in the ocean.  Some planulae can sting, and those invisible stings that sometimes get trapped inside your bathing suit could be planulae or they could be broken-off adult stingers.  Planulae swim to a hard surface, like a pebble or a rock, and they stick and grow into a polyp.  A polyp is a cup-shaped, usually transparent animal with tentacles in a ring around the top of the cup.  The bottom of the cup is stuck fast to a surface.  Polyps can grow mini-polyps off the side of themselves, which can fall off and become independent organisms (this is asexual reproduction by fragmentation).  Eventually, polyps grow a beret-like structure, let go of their substrate, and become an adult medusa to roam the ocean, sting at will, and reproduce the next generation.  Here is a nice diagram of the jellyfish life cycle.

Flower Hat Jelly, Olindias sp.

I'll end with a picture of an extremely strange jelly, the flower hat jelly.  It keeps its tentacles tucked up underneath its bell, and it extends them quickly when they are needed.  It is a benthic species, spending most of its time on the sea floor.  Those tentacles that extend off the top of the bell are mysterious, but I do know they are called exumbrella tentacles.  They might be lures to attract prey, or they could be stinging tentacles for self-defense.  If you are searching for a creature to study to make a name for yourself as a scientist, this might be a good subject, because little is known about it.

If you'll be in Chicago sometime in the next year, you're invited to come with me to the Shedd Aquarium - we have a membership!

1 comment:

  1. I want to come see Shedd With you!

    I would like to hear what you know about treating jelly stings.