The Curious Case of Turritopsis nutricula
Common Name: The Immortal Jellyfish
A.K.A.: Turritopsis nutricula
Found: Tropical and temperate oceans around the world
It Does What?!
Ever been under a lot of stress and found yourself longing for the simplicity of childhood? What if, by force of will, you could actually turn back into your childhood self? And once you’d re-grown up, you could do it again. And again, and again… Welcome to the unusual lifestyle of Turritopsis nutricula, the so-called immortal jellyfish.
Jellyfish, also known as medusae (singular: medusa), are the mature life stage of Phylum Cnidaria, Subphylum Medusozoa. They start off as a bottom-dwelling structure that looks a lot like a series of plants connected by stolons (like strawberry plants… translucent, underwater strawberry plants). These “pseudo-plants” are called polyps, and when they mature, they bud and release many tiny medusae into the ocean, like a plant releasing pollen.
In most species, these medusae go off and live the jellyfish version of the good life- swimming, eating plankton, releasing sperm or eggs to be fertilized and form polyps for the next generation, and finally dying at the ripe old age of anywhere from a few hours to six months, depending on the species. Not so for the Immortal Jellyfish.
Reaching a size of only 4.5mm across, when Turritopsis nutricula becomes stressed, whether due to aging or a change in its environment, it can begin a process called transdifferentiation. First, its tentacles (80 to 90 of them in adults!) shorten and are re-absorbed into the body. The medusa becomes unable to swim and settles onto the bottom. It there transforms into a blob-like mass of cells and, within two or three days, forms a new polyp. In about a month, new jellyfish are ready to be released.
In theory, T. nutricula can pull this trick any number of times, which would effectively make it immortal. However, as scientists point out, these little guys frequently die from disease or predation before they can regenerate (Whovians, insert your own Doctor Who joke here), keeping the population under control. Not entirely under control, though, apparently- one researcher describes the spread of T. nutricula through the world’s oceans as a large-scale, “silent invasion.” Beware the Immortal Jellyfish.
- Miglietta & Lessios (2009) Biological Invasions 11: 825-834
- Piraino et al. (2004) Canadian Journal of Zoology 82: 1748-1754
[Thanks to The Marine Biology Image Database for the use of these images: Migotto AE, Vellutini BC (eds). 2011. Cifonauta: marine biology image database. Available at http://cifonauta.cebimar.usp.br/ ]