Researchers discover jellyfish superpowers

Updated: January 24, 2015
Researchers discover jellyfish superpowers

Few marine creatures are as mesmerizing as jellyfish; their bizarre and beautiful forms undulating along with the rhythm of the sea, their tentacles trailing behind them. Yet although we think of them as languid drifters just going with the flow, new research reveals something entirely different.

Scientists from Deakin University in Australia have found that one species, the barrel jellyfish, has a remarkable ability to not only detect the direction of ocean currents, but to swim strongly against them.

“Detecting ocean currents without fixed visual reference points is thought to be close to impossible and is not seen, for example, in lots of migrating vertebrates including birds and turtles,” said Professor Graeme Hays who is currently with Deakin University in Australia.

“Jellyfish are not just bags of jelly drifting passively in the oceans,” he added. “They are incredibly advanced in their orientation abilities.”

Professor Hays along with his Swansea University colleague Dr Sabrina Fossette tracked the movements of the jellyfish with GPS loggers and used GPS-tracked floats to record the current flows. They also directly observed the swimming direction of large numbers of jellyfish at the surface of the ocean.

The data show that jellyfish can actively swim at counter-current in response to drift, they report. Their model of the jellyfishes’ behavior and ocean currents helps to explain how jellyfish are able to form blooms including hundreds to millions of individuals for periods up to several months.

It’s not yet clear exactly how the jellyfish figure out which way to go. Dr Fossette and Professor Hays say it’s possible that the animals detect current shear across their body surface or they may indirectly assess the direction of drift using other cues, such as the Earth’s magnetic field or infrasound.

Understanding the distribution of jellyfish in the open ocean may be practically useful for predicting and avoiding troublesome jellyfish blooms, especially if it turns out that the findings in barrel-jellyfish apply to other species. While jellyfish do play an important role in ocean ecosystems as prey for leatherback sea turtles and other animals, Hays noted, they can also clog fishing nets and sting beachgoers.

“Now that we have shown this remarkable behavior by one species, we need to see how broadly it applies to other species of jellyfish,” Hays said. “This will allow improved management of jellyfish blooms.”