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Much More to Jellyfish Than Plasma and Poison - NYTimes.com

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Science

So Much More Than Plasma and Poison

By NATALIE ANGIER
Published: June 6, 2011

BALTIMORE — Until I met Doug Allen, the wiry, ponytailed senior aquarist who guided me through the extremely popular jellyfish exhibit at the National Aquarium, my personal experience with jellyfish consisted mainly of using them as yet another excuse not to go swimming: “Hey, I could get stung by a jellyfish!” Isn’t that what happened to 1,800 people off the coast of Florida last week? So when Mr. Allen suddenly stopped, clambered a ladder to the top of one of the tanks and called down, “You want to try holding a moon jelly?” my first impulse was to knock a few schoolchildren out of the way as I bolted for the door. My second impulse ...

Anders Garm and Jan Bielecki

The Caribbean box jellyfish, Tripedalia cystophora, has two complex eyes with a lens, cornea and retina, as well as one or more simple eyes that can distinguish light and dark. More Photos »

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George Grall/National Aquarium

The upside-down jellyfish, Cassiopea xamachana, which lives in the Carribbean, Hawaii and Florida, appears as a flower on the seafloor and tends to aggregate in large groups. More Photos »

Too late. A three-inch-wide moon jellyfish had been plopped in my hands, and my fear quickly dissolved into fascination. The jellyfish shimmered and glowed. With its tendrils retracted, it looked like a round bar of glycerin soap, or maybe a translucent diaphragm, and it felt equal parts firm, jiggly and slimy, like a slice of liver coated in raw egg. And for all the vigor of my fondlings, I detected no sting.

“The poison of a common moon jellyfish is very weak,” said Anders Garm, who studies jellyfish at the University of Copenhagen. “You’d have to kiss the jellyfish to feel it.” There was no risk of that, but when we parted, the jellyfish left behind a kiss of its own on the palm of my hand: a sticky film that was surprisingly hard to remove. Thanks, my little honey moon.

Among nature’s grand inventory of multicellular creatures, jellyfish seem like the ultimate other, as alien from us as mobile beings can be while still remaining within the kingdom Animalia. Where is the head, the heart, the back, the front, the matched sets of parts and organs? Where is the bilateral symmetry?

Yet if any taxonomic dynasty is entitled to the originalist mantle, to the designation of genuine emblematic earthling animal, and also to brand the rest of us the alien arrivistes, it is the jellyfish. A diverse group of thousands of species of gooey, saclike invertebrates found throughout the world, the jellyfish are preposterously ancient, dating back 600 million to 700 million years or longer. That’s roughly twice as old as the earliest bony fish and insects, three times the age of the first dinosaurs.

“Jellyfish are the most ancient multiorgan animal on earth,” said David J. Albert, a jellyfish expert at the Roscoe Bay Marine Biological Laboratory in Vancouver, British Columbia.

For all their noble antiquity, jellyfish have long been ignored or misunderstood by mainstream science, dismissed as so much mindless protoplasm with a mouth. Now, in a series of new studies, researchers have found that there is far more complexity and nuance to a jellyfish than meets the eye — or eyes. In the May 10 issue of the journal Current Biology, Dr. Garm and his colleagues describe the astonishing visual system of the box jellyfish, in which an interactive matrix of 24 eyes of four distinct types — two of them very similar to our own eyes — allow the jellies to navigate like seasoned sailors through the mangrove swamps they inhabit.

In The Journal of Experimental Biology, Richard A. Satterlie, a marine biologist at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, recently disputed the conventional wisdom that jellyfish lack any semblance of the central nervous system that we higher vertebrates are so proud of. The distribution of a jellyfish’s nerve cells may be comparatively more diffuse than in an animal with an obvious brain and spinal cord, said Dr. Satterlie, but the layout is hardly helter-skelter. Recent detailed investigations of jellyfish neural architecture and activity reveal evidence of “neuronal condensation,” places where the neurons coalesce to form distinctive structures that act as integrating centers — taking in sensory information and translating it into the appropriate response.

“The bottom line is, jellyfish do a lot more than people think,” said Dr. Satterlie, “and when college textbooks claim they have no centralized nervous system, that’s flat-out wrong.”

Dr. Albert goes further, insisting it is fair to declare that a jellyfish has a brain. He spent years studying the resident population of moon jellyfish in Roscoe Bay, starting with the simple question, how can there even be a resident population? The tides flow in and out of the bay each day. The jellies were supposed to be like plankton, at the mercy of the tides. So why aren’t they simply flushed by the tides into the open sea, without so much as a goodnight moon?

Dr. Albert discovered that the jellies aren’t passive floaters at all. When the tide starts flowing out, they ride the wave until they hit a gravel bar, and then dive down to reach still waters. They remain in the calm oasis until the tide starts flowing back in, at which point they come up and get swept back into the bay. He also learned that the jellies have salinity meters and in summer avoid the fresh water dumped into the bay from mountain snowmelt, again by diving until they find salt enough to suit their taste. They like to aggregate into schools and through molecular signatures on the outside of their bells can distinguish between a friendly fellow jelly and any predatory species of jellyfish that might eat them.

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A version of this article appeared in print on June 7, 2011, on page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: So Much More Than Plasma And Poison.
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