Skip to main content

Embrace the Gulf 2020 – the jellyfish

I’d like to be a jellyfish… cause jellyfish don’t pay rent…

They don’t walk and they don’t talk with some Euro-trash accent…

Their just simple protoplasm… clear as cellophane

They ride the winds of fortune… life without a brain

The classic form of a jellyfish.
Photo: University of California

These lyrics from Jimmy Buffett’s song Mental Floss sort of sums it up doesn’t it.  The easy-going lifestyle of the jellyfish.

Everyone who visits the Gulf coast knows about these guys, but few people… very few… like them.  For most, the term jellyfish signals “pain”, “fear”, and “death”.  The purple flag is flying, and no one wants to enter the water.  Folks from the Midwest call local hotels and condos asking, “when are the jellyfish going to be there?”  It’s understandable.  Who wants to spend their week vacation on the Gulf inside a hotel because you can’t go swimming?

 

I would almost (…almost) rather be diving with a shark than hundreds of jellyfish.  When you spot them, they are everywhere.  Quietly swarming like ghosts.  You push them off and they appear to move towards you – almost like smoke from a campfire, you can’t get away.

 

They are creepy things.  But amazing too!

As Mr. Buffett’s points out, they are simple “protoplasm”.  Their body is primarily a jelly-like substance called mesoglea – and most of that is water.  If you place a dead jellyfish on your dock and come back that afternoon, you will probably find just a “stain” of where it was – there is almost nothing to them.

The common “sea nettle”.
Photo Janet Krenn

The “bell” of the jellyfish is mostly mesoglea.  Some jellyfish have thick layers of this, others much thinner.  Some have a small flap of skin along the margins of the bell called the velum which they can undulate and swim – but they are not strong swimmers.  If the tide is going out, swim as they may… their heading out also.

 

Many species of jellyfish have interesting markings within the bell.  One has a white-colored structure that forms a 4-leaf clover.  Another has red triangles all connecting at the center of the bell.  For many, these structures are the ones that produce the gametes.  Jellyfish reproduce sexually but are hermaphroditic – meaning they produce female eggs and male sperm in the same animal.  There is no physical contact between animals, they just release the gametes into the ocean when they are in thick swarms and wah-la… new jellyfish – many new jellyfish.

 

On the bottom of the bell is a single opening that leads to a single pouch.  This opening is the mouth, and the pouch is called the gastrovascular cavity.  Jellyfish are predators – carnivores.  There are no teeth, and most do not seek their prey – their prey finds them.  Hanging from their bell are the tools of the killing trade, the part of this animal we do not like… the tentacles.  Some tentacles can extend for several feet beyond the bell, others you can hardly notice them – but this is where the killing happens.

 

Along the tentacles there are small capsules called cnidoblasts which contain small cells called nematocyst.  These nematocyst contain a coiled dart which at the end contains a drop of venom.  There is a trigger associated with this cell.  The jellyfish does not fire it – instead, the prey bumps the trigger and the nematocyst “fires”.  The drop of venom is injected, along with the hundreds of other nematocysts along the tentacle the fish just bumped.  This venom paralyzes the prey, other tentacles coil around it firing more nematocysts, and the tentacles retract towards the mouth – bingo… lunch.

This box jellyfish was found near NAS Pensacola in 2015.
Photo: Brad Peterman

Of course, the same happens when people bump into them.  For us it is painful and unpleasant – but we are not consumed.  That said, some species are quite painful.  Some will force people to the hospital, and some have even killed people.  The Box Jellyfish is the most notorious of these deadly ones.  Known for their habits in Australia, there are at least two species found in the Gulf.  The ones found here are not common, and there are no reported deaths, but they do exist.  The Four-Handed is the one more widespread here.  It actually has eyes, can detect predators and prey and swim towards or away from them, and the male fertilizes the female internally – not your typical jellyfish.

 

The more familiar painful one is the Portuguese Man-of-War.  This creature is more like a sponge in that it is not just one creature but a large “condo” of many.  Some cells are specialized in feeding, these are found on their long tentacles.  Others specialize in reproduction; these are found near the blue colored air bag.  They produce this blueish colored air bag which is exposed above the surface.  The wind pushes on the bag like a sail and this moves the creature across the environment in search of food.  Hanging from the bag are long tentacles which are made up of individuals whose stomachs are all connected.  So, when one group of cells makes contact and kills a prey – they consume it and the tissue is moved through the connecting stomachs to feed the whole colony.  To feed a whole colony, you need a big fish – to kill a big fish, you need a strong toxin, and they have it.  These are VERY painful and have put people in the hospital, some have died.  Some say that the Portuguese man-of-war is not a “true” jellyfish.  This is true in the sense that they belong to a different class of jellyfish.  There are three classes, the Scyphozoans being what we call the “true” jellyfish – Portuguese man-of-wars are not scyphozoans, but rather hydrozoans.

The blue body and “air bag” of the Portuguese man-of-war.
Photo: NOAA

Another interesting thing about jellyfish, is that they are all not jellyfish-like.  As we just mentioned, there are two other classes and one other phylum of jellyfish-like animals.  Hydrozoans and anthozoans are not your typical jellyfish.  Rather than being bell-shaped and drifting in the ocean looking for food, they are attached to the seafloor and look more like flowers.  Their tentacles are usually smaller but do contain nematocysts.  Their toxin can be strong, some do eat fish, but most have a weaker toxin and feed on very small creatures – some only eat plankton.  These would include the hydra, sea anemones, and the corals.  As mentioned above, this also would include the Portuguese man-of-war.

This nonvenomous comb jelly lacks stinging cells.
Photo: Bryan Fluech

Comb jellies are those jellies that drift in the currents and have no tentacles.  We commonly collect them and toss them at each other.  When I was growing up, we referred to them as “football jellies” because of this.  The reason they do not sting is not because they do not have tentacles (some species do) but rather they do not have nematocyst and cannot.  Rather they have special cells called colloblast that produce a drop of sticky glue at the end which they use to capture prey.  Not having toxins, they cannot kill large prey but rather feed on smaller creatures like plankton and each other – they are cannibals.  For this reason, they are in a whole different phylum.

The jellyfish of the Gulf are a nuisance at times but are actually amazing creatures.