Lab grown meat? Kinda weird. Lab grown jellies? Kinda amazing.
For the first time ever, scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium have cultivated Leucothea pulchra, an incredibly delicate jelly whose Latin name translates to “beautiful sea goddess.” Even in the wild world of jellies, these goddesses, which are found up and down the California coast, stand out as one of the most stunning creatures in the ocean.
The lab-bred aquatic deities are on display at the aquarium, but it’s about more than wowing the public. Growing them will help scientists understand the life cycle of a sea creature so delicate, it would disintegrate in your hands if you tried to pick it up.
In plain English, the jellies are known as spotted comb jellies for the orange knobs that dot their body. (It should also be noted they aren’t a true jelly fish because they have sticky cells to catch prey instead of stinging ones.) They put on a psychedelic, rainbow light show courtesy of the rows of little plates that diffract light, according to the aquarium. Their bodies are like loose frocks that take on fantastic shapes according to their movements and the vagaries of ocean currents.
“Some people think they look like a Klingon ship,” Wyatt Patry, the scientist who bred the jellies, told Earther. “I think they look like tie fighters.”
Personally, I’m going with Bat Signal on acid.
Whatever fantastic shape they take in your mind, the transparent jellies have only ever been observed in the wild until now. Patry compared them to “barely organized water.” Their transparent bodies put everything on display, which makes for fascinating viewing. But their delicate nature makes them challenge to capture, let alone breed. In the ocean, the jellies even avoid wave action in order to not being torn asunder.
Previous attempts to grow them in a lab have failed. Patry unlocked the secret, though.
In the past, scientists tried growing the jellies in glass dishes. While they were able to get a few jellies to hatch, the larvae quickly died out either because the water turned foul or they bumped into the wall and died, which is definitely the saddest way to die ever.
“These are pelagic (open water) animals that never encounter walls, especially hard walls,” Patry said. “So my theory was why not build a tube tank that’s really tall and gives larvae space so they never hit the bottom.”
The ingenious solution worked, and Patry was able to get the jellies to grow past larvae for the first time ever. The biggest adults are around four inches long, and Patry said he hopes they reach their full adult potential of growing up to 18 inches.
Along the way, scientists and now visitors to the aquarium have been able to watch them grow. That includes a very intimate view of the jellies as they eat their meals of various types of shrimp, copepods, larval fish, and moon jelly bits.
“They have amazing cilia in stomach and tear that apart food like crazy,” Patry said. “These cilia strip that larval fish down. You see fat globules of fish moving through jelly as they’re broken down. We can trace [digestion] with brine shrimp because they’re bright orange. You can see all their canals in their bodies light up.”
Patry said he hopes the adult jellies on view at the aquarium keep growing through fall to their full potential of 12 to 18 inches in length.
Scientists are also sharing what they learn from observing the creatures with partners at the aquarium’s research institute, as well as the University of Miami and Yale. Until this point, researchers didn’t even know how long spotted comb jellies survived in the wild. They’d never seen babies, or even the basics of their life cycle. Having them in the lab changes all that.
Lastly, because I have no other place to really put this and I have a teen’s sense of humor, I’m going to finish by telling you about the way the jellies sense gravity with their butts. Some invertebrates use statocysts, essentially calcium crystals supported by a cluster of cilia, to sense gravity and balance themselves. Similar to the accelerometer in your phone, when the crystal moves—perhaps jostled by a gentle current—it sends a signal to the spotted comb about which way is up and down. Ctenophores like the spotted comb jelly typically have those statocysts in their anal pores.
Correction: An earlier version of this post referred to the jellies as cone jellies because the author had venomous cone snails on the brain. They are in fact, comb jellies.