How do Comb jellies make rainbows?
Comb jellies are a common sight around British waters, particularly the sea gooseberry (Pleurobrachia bachei). With a clear body and measuring only a couple of centimetres long, it’s easy to overlook these beautiful little animals apart from one thing, stunning rows of rainbow coloured hairs running along their body. With no skeleton and composed of 99% water, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these were very simple creatures, but actually they have some pretty neat stuff going on.
Firstly, let’s start with where the comb jellies fit in, they are not the same phylum as jellyfish. Jellyfish (Cnidaria) have complex lifecycles and stinging cells. Comb jellies (Ctenophora) have a simple life cycle and make glue to catch prey. The problem for scientists trying to study the evolution of the Ctenophores is that they don’t make very good fossils so the records are patchy at best. Genetic studies indicate that Ctenophores are much older in origin than other animals, and predate the bilaterian animals (those with bilateral symmetry) by millions of years.
There are 2 major cell layers, the external epidermis and the internal gastrodermis. Between these layers is the mesoglea, a jelly like layer. The Ctneophores have muscles running through them and the outer epidermis contains a basic nervous system known as the nerve net. Comb jellies are named for their unique feature, plates of giant fused cilia (small hair-like cells) which run in eight rows up and down their bodies. These cilia are used to propel the comb jelly through the water.
Many comb jellies have a single pair of tentacles and often these tentacles are branches and give the illusion of many tentacles. The branched tentacles are used to catch prey, but unlike the toxins from jellyfish, comb jellies use glue. Special cells called colloblasts respond to touch by firing a spiral filament and releasing sticky glue. Once the prey is stuck the comb jelly reels in the tentacles and brings the food to its mouth. Most comb jellies are carnivorous and will eat anything. Until recently it was believed that comb jellies spat out the indigestible waste particles, but it now seems like they release them through pores in the rear end – which is probably part of the evolutionary puzzle in explaining when animals developed anuses.
What about the beautiful rainbow coloured pulses of light? Whilst some comb jellies can produce light by a special chemical reaction to give photoluminescence, our sea gooseberry can’t. The rainbow colouring is caused by refraction of light through the hair like cilia cells. Light travels at a constant speed in a vacuum, but when light encounters a material that is more dense, it slows and its pathway bends. The different wavelengths in visible light bend at slightly different angles. This means that the cilia act like the glass prism you played with in physics classes as a schoolchild, splitting the light into separate wavelengths. The refractive index (how much the light will bend is almost the same for the comb jelly tissue as it is for the salty sea water. The hair like cilia amplify the refractive effect creating an iridescent pulse that is mesmerising to watch. The effect works across the visible and UV light wavelengths, meaning a fluorescent torch will also give a great image.
Lastly, there’s a few things you should know about comb jelly reproduction. Comb jellies are hermaphrodites (both sexes in one individual) and can spawn eggs and sperm freely into the sea, through their mouths. They do this on a continuous basis unless they are starved of food, when they will shrink down and stop breeding. But feed them up again and they will start spawning again. Rainbow coloured hair, sticky glue fishing nets and continual reproduction – what’s not to admire?
Michelle has been scuba diving for nearly 30 years. Drawing on her science background she tackles some bits of marine science. and sometimes has a sideways glance at the people and events that she encounters in the diving world.