Jellyfish sex is really alien, at least in the eyes of humans. If they had vocal chords, or brains, or cognitive processing abilities, jellies would argue that they’re an ancient group of animals who mastered sexual reproduction a long time before us. Frankly, we’re the ones who are odd-balling it with our penises and vaginas and miserable, painful childbirth.
Let’s look at the jellyfish way of making babies.
Jellyfish Sex Part 1: The Male Sprays Sperm Everywhere
We begin with the male jelly releasing a joyless mist of sperm into the water. It drifts around in the ocean until it’s sucked up by a female jellyfish.
“Sucked up? But how?” You ask, wide-eyed and captivated.
The sperm is gobbled up by a single opening in the female – an opening which functions as a mouth, an anus, a vagina, and any other specialised orifice you care to think about.
Jellyfish are fairly simple animals in terms of their physiology and evolution has not bestowed them with complex internal systems.
No blood, no brain, no organs, no respiratory system, no circulatory system and no digestive system. The body of a jellyfish is basically a glob of glue (mesoglea = “middle glue”) surrounded by a layer of skin that’s one-cell-thick (epidermis = “outer skin”) which takes a slightly different form upon lining the inner cavity (gastrodermis = “stomach skin”).
And that’s pretty much it.
Jellyfish Sex Part 2: The Female Releases Free-Swimming Larvae
The sperm make their way inside the female jellyfish and fertilise her eggs-in-waiting.
She hosts the zygotes for a brief time until they hatch into free-swimming planula larva. These are flat, immature jellies that look absolutely nothing like jellies. The hairy little grains are then released into the ocean to swim about and get a feel for the place.
You’d think this would be a sensible time for the larvae to develop into adult jellies and complete the cycle. But that would be too easy.
The story of jellyfish sex gets a lot more convoluted.
Jellyfish Sex Part 3: Hunker Down and Become a Polyp
After a few days of furiously beating their cilia only to be tossed around by ocean currents, the larvae settle down on the sea bed.
Jellyfish have two official body forms. The medusa form is the pulsating bell-shaped jelly with tentacles. The polyp form takes a little more explanation.
On landing on a substrate, jellyfish larvae develop into polyps: stalk-like structures that look more like plants than jellyfish at this stage.
They do, however, have the characteristic tentacles by now, which ring the upward-facing mouth.
Fun fact for evolutionary biologists: at this point in its lifecycle, the immature jellyfish polyp looks at lot like a member of its sister class: the humble sea anemone.
Jellyfish Sex Part 4: Clone Yourself and Form a Colony
As the polyps grow, they go through a process of strobilation. They reproduce themselves asexually by budding off bits here and there, which fully grow into genetically identical polyps for the colony, all the while sharing the same “stomach”. These are clones.
It’s the equivalent of growing a third arm out of your chest. Then a fourth arm. Then a fifth arm. Then a leg (or two). Then another head. And then calling yourself a colony.
Colonies are great for survival, though. In the case of jellyfish, a colony can undergo polymorphism, where different individual polyps can develop different structures in order to fulfil specialised roles.
Some polyps specialise for feeding (gastrozooids), some capture prey (dactylozooids), some reproduce (gonozooids), and some protect the colony with their stingers (nematophores).
In this way, the colony covers every base and functions extremely well despite being a relatively small, primitive and, for now, sessile (immobile) animal with multiple personality disorder.
Crucially, budding also results in star-like blobs called ephyra. These go on to become adult medusa jellyfish.
Jellyfish Sex Part 5: Break into Bits and Swim Away
In the final stage, the ephyrae break off from the main polyp body and swim away.
They will soon develop into the medusa jellyfish forms we all know and love, and the whole insane cycle starts anew.
The processes surrounding jellyfish sex may sound complicated, but it has evolved entirely at the hands of nature. When the ocean environment creates new pressures on these marine creatures, the mutants among them provide novel solutions and go on to parent a population of mutants. And this is what we end up with. A bizarre, twisty rollercoaster ride of sub-marine jellyfish sex.