Lessons learned

Pass Christian, Mississippi
14 July 2013

Mama and I are standing in the bath-water warm July waters of the Gulf.  Shrimp boats scud on the horizon.  The water gently rolls into our legs.  In the small waves a translucent brown balloon sloshes about.  I cup my hands and gently bring it out of the water.  It’s watery skeletal support drained, it deflates from a balloon to a blob.  Mama is worried about the blob stinging me.  I’m not.  The blob is a comb jelly.

Gulf of Mexico comb jelly, Beroe ovata, Pass Christian, Mississippi
Mama holding a Gulf of Mexico comb jelly in Pass Christian, Mississippi

I explain what a comb jelly is to Mama, who listens with a mama’s patience.  As I hand the blob to Mama I tell her that comb jellies are not jellyfish and that the biggest difference is that comb jellies don’t sting.  Jellyfish use stinging cells (called cnidae or nematocysts) that explode into prey or a tender leg like a poison-tipped harpoon.  Comb jellies use sticky cells called colloblasts, like a harpoon but instead of sharp, painful points, ultra-sticky mushroom head to snag prey.  I tell Mama that comb jellies are in Phylum Ctenophora, which gets it’s name from the rows of cilia – like the teeth of a comb – that line the body and are used for locomotion (‘cteno’ = comb, ‘phora’ = bearing, Thank you Greeks!).  Jellyfish (Cnidarians), use jet propulsion to move.  

“If he can move with his little combs, why do I find so many on the beach?” Mama asks.

I tell her that the combs are only so strong and that as a sac of jelly that relies on the water to support you, you are sometimes at the mercy of the wind and water.

She looks at the blob and is worried about it drying out.  I tell her we can toss it back into the water.

It’s my fault.  I used the word “toss.”

Mama cocks her arm back and throws the comb jelly overhand like a baseball.  She thinks she’s saving it by throwing it past the small waves that will carry it to it’s death on the beach.  A comb jelly was never designed to fly.  And until now, this comb jelly may have never been out of the water.  As its gelationous body sails through the air, at a speed that must be terrifying for a normally languid comb jelly, I see the body rip along a seam, possibly along a row of combs.  Smack!  It hits the water.

“Hm.”  I said.  “Well, that’s okay.  Someone will have an easy meal.”
“Well shoot.”

Lessons learned.

A fun Invert-a-fact:  The collective noun for jellyfish is a ‘smack of jellyfish’ (like a herd of cows).  I don’t know about a group of comb jellies, but based on the experience with Mama, I think ‘smack’ still applies.


Useful resources:  Guide to Common Tidal Marsh Invertebrates of the Northeastern Gulf of Mexico


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