How Do Jellyfish Have Sex?
Jellyfish sex is really weird. Although if they could speak, jellies would argue they're ancient animals who mastered sexual reproduction long before us. Frankly we're the ones odd-balling it with our penises and vaginas and miserable, painful childbirth.
So how do jellyfish have sex?
Not like that. This is the real jellyfish way of making babies.
1. The Male Releases a Joyless Mist of Sperm
The male's role in procreation begins and ends with a release of sperm into the ocean. It's a little presumptuous, but it's effective. Ocean currents disperse the sperm until it's sucked up by a female jellyfish.
"Sucked up? But how?" you ask, wide-eyed and captivated.
The sperm wafts into an opening in the female jelly—an opening which functions as a vagina, a mouth, an anus, and any other specialised orifice you care to imagine.
Jellyfish are simple animals and evolution didn't bestow them with complex internal systems. (Indeed, if it did, they would no longer be jellyfish.) They have no blood, no brain, and no organs. In fact, the entire body of a jellyfish is basically a glob of internal glue, surrounded by a one-cell-thick layer of skin.
That's pretty much it for jellyfish anatomy.
2. Fertilisation Produces Jellyfish Larvae
Inside the female, the sperm do their thing and fertilise her eggs-in-waiting. This is the crux of sexual reproduction—where the DNA of two parents mingle to produce a genetically original offspring.
The genital dance we associate with sex here on land is completely unnecessary in the ocean. The water provides a top notch medium for the eggs and sperm to meet. In fact, many aquatic species (including some jellyfish) see fertilisation take place outside the body all together, with females doing an unfertilised egg dump of their own.
Even when internal fertilisation takes place, the female's role is brief. She hosts the zygotes for a few days until they hatch into free-swimming larvae. These are flat, immature jellies that look absolutely nothing like jellyfish. Ready to meet the world, they swim off into the ocean and the mother buggers off.
This seems like a sensible time for the larvae to develop into adults and complete the reproductive cycle of jellyfish. But that would be far too easy. The whole story of jellyfish sex gets a lot more convoluted...
3. The Larvae Hunker Down and Become Polyps
After a few days of furiously beating their cilia against the ocean currents, the larvae settle down on the sea bed or any other convenient substrate. Rocks, shells, shipwrecks, car tyres, pool tables—you name it.
The larvae develop into polyps: stalk-like structures that look more like plants than jellyfish. In fact, jelly polyps most closely resemble their sister class, the humble sea anemone, in a another wink to the theory of evolution.
They do, however, have the characteristic tentacles of jellies which ring the upward-facing mouth/anus/vagina.
You might think that because we can sort-of see a jellyfish emerging here, the cycle is almost complete. Don't think that! There's an even weirder thing about to happen. Not only will the polyps drop their tentacles, they'll also go through a round of asexual reproduction.
4. The Polyps Clone Themselves to Form a Colony
As the polyps grow, they go through a process called strobilation where they divide in half to produce a genetically identical twin. Then each twin divides again. And again. Soon, an entire colony of clones emerges, all from a single original larva.
(By the way, these cartoons are totally not to scale. in reality, the polyps would be hideously dwarfed by the crab.)
This budding process is a type of asexual reproduction. Only a single parent is involved, so there's no genetic variation produced, except in rare circumstances where a mistake is made in DNA replication.
Why do this? As with literally everything we do in life, this part of the jellyfish lifecycle arose randomly and stuck around because it conveyed some kind of survival advantage. The main consequence of strobilation is that it produces many more jellies, multiplying the chances that the parent DNA will be passed on to the next generation.
What's really bizarre is the colony now undergoes polymorphism. Different clones develop different structures to fulfil specialised roles. Some capture prey (dactylozooids), some feed (gastrozooids), some reproduce (gonozooids), and some provide defence with stingers (nematophores).
In this way, the colony covers every base, functioning extremely well despite being a small, primitive, sessile animal with multiple personality disorder.
5. The Polyp Colony Disbands
"But where are the goddamn jellyfish!?" I hear you scream from within this convoluted rabbit hole.
They're almost here.
The colony, is now called a strobila, matures and begins to separate. The uppermost clone peels away from the strobila and floats free, now a jeuvenile jellyfish. It's now called an ephyra.
The little squirts have just a few months to mature and reproduce before they die. Will they make it? Five hundred million years of evolution says yes.
6. Ephyrae Mature into Adult Jellyfish
Contrary to my illustrations the ephyrae are really, really small when they leave the colony. They're about the size of that freckle you don't know about on your butt.
But they get bigger, developing into the classic jellyfish form known as the medusa. While Irukandji jellyfish max out at 1-2cm in size, the largest species, Lion's mane jellyfish, can reach two metres across.
Jelly Sex Round-Up
The lifecycle of jellyfish is a wild ride and, strictly speaking, this is only one version of events. Different jelly species undergo equally strange variations of the process above.
Depending on how much you enjoyed this article, you'll be overjoyed or disappointed to learn that comb jellies have a much simpler lifecycle altogether. They're hermaphrodites—possessing both the sperm and eggs to self-fertilise if needed—and the larvae grow directly into adult comb jellies.
What's truly amazing to me is the jellyfish lifecycle evolved entirely at the hands of evolution. When the ocean environment created new pressures on these physiologically basic animals, the mutants among them provided novel solutions to parent a new generation of ocean-savvy mutants.
And this is what we end up with. A bizarre, twisty rollercoaster ride of submarine jellyfish sex.