Aurelia aurita (moon jelly, moon jellyfish, common jellyfish, saucer jelly) is one of a suite of more than ten morphologically nearly identical jellyfish species in the genus Aurelia. In general, it is nearly impossible to identify Aurelia medusae without genetic sampling, so most of what follows about "Aurelia aurita", should actually be considered to be information about the genus, not any particular species. The medusa is translucent, usually about 25-40 cm across, and can be recognized by its four horseshoe-shaped gonads that are easily seen through the top of the bell. It feeds by collecting medusae, plankton and mollusks with its mucusy bell nematocyst-laden tentacles and bringing the prey into its body for digestion, but is capable of only limited motion; like other jellies it primarily drifts with the current even when it is swimming.
The cosmopolitan genus Aurelia is found throughout most of the world's oceans, from the tropics to as far north as 70° latitude and as far south as 40°. (J.E. Purcell, et al. 2001). The species Aurelia aurita, whose distribution has been confirmed by Michael Dawson using genetic analysis, is found along the eastern Atlantic coast of Northern Europe and the western Atlantic coast of North America in New England and Eastern Canada. In general, Aurelia is an inshore genus that can be found in estuaries and harbors (Russell, 1953). It lives in ocean water temperatures ranging from 6 °C to 31 °C; with optimum temperatures of 9 °C to 19 °C (Rodriguez, 1996). A. aurita prefers temperate seas with consistent currents (Rodriguez, 1996). It has been found in waters with salinity as low as 3 ppt salinity, but is typically found only in water with salinity above 23 ppt.
A. aurita and other Aurelia species feed on plankton that includes organisms such as mollusks, crustaceans, tunicate larvae, rotifers, young polychaetes, protozoans, diatoms, eggs, fish eggs, and other small organisms. Occasionally, they are also seen feeding on gelatinous zooplankton such as hydromedusae and ctenophores (Rodriguez, 1996). Both the adult medusae and larvae of Aurelia have nematocysts to capture prey and also to protect themselves from predators. The food is tied with mucus, and then it is passed down by ciliated action down into the gastrovascular cavity where digestion|digestive enzymes from serous cell break down the food. There is little known about the requirements for particular vitamins and minerals, but due to the presence of some digestive enzymes, we can deduce in general that A. aurita can process carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids (Arai, 1997).
Filtering Grid of Tentacles on the Bell Margin
Aurelia does not have respiratory parts such as gills, lungs, or trachea. Since it is a small organism, it respires by diffusing oxygen from water through the thin membrane. Within the gastrovascular cavity, low oxygenated water can be expelled and high oxygenated water can come in by ciliated action, thus increasing the diffusion of oxygen through cell (Rees, 1966). The large surface area membrane to volume ratio helps Aurelia to diffuse more oxygen and nutrients into the cells.
The basic body plan of Aurelia consists of several parts. The animal lacks respiratory, excretory, and circulatory systems (Arai, 1997). The adult medusa of Aurelia, with a transparent look, has an umbrella margin membrane and tentacles that are attached to the bottom (Russell, 1953). It has four bright circular gonads that are under the stomach (J.E. Purcell, et al. 2001). Food travels through the muscular manubrium while the radial canals help disperse the food (Russell 1963). There is a middle layer of mesoglea, gastrodervascular cavity with gastrodermis, and epidermis (Solomon, 2002). There is a nerve net that is responsible for contractions in swimming muscles and feeding responses (Arai, 1997). Adult medusa can have a diameter up to 40 cm (Arai, 1997).
The medusae are either male or female (Arai, 1997). The young larval stage, a planula, has small ciliated cells and after swimming freely in the plankton for a day or more, settles on an appropriate substrate, where it changes into a special type of polyp called a "scyphistoma", which divides by strobilation into small ephyrae that swim off to grow up as medusae. (Gilbertson, 1999). There is an increasing size from starting stage planula to ephyra, from less than 1 mm in the planula stage, up to about 1 cm in ephyra stage, and then to several cm in diameter in the medusa stage (Russell, 1953).
Aurelia aurita is known to be eaten by a wide variety of predators including the Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola), the Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), the scyphomedusa Phacellophora camtschatica (Strand and Hamner, 1988; Towanda and Thuesen, 2006), and a very large hydromedusa (Aequorea victoria) (Arai, 1997). Moon jellies are also fed upon by sea birds, which may be more interested in the amphipods and other small arthropods that frequent the bells of Aurelia, but in any case, birds do some substantial amount of damage to these jellyfish that often are found just at the surface of bays.
Aurelia jellyfish naturally die after living and reproducing for several months. It is probably rare for these moon jellies to live more than about six months in the wild, although specimens cared for in public aquarium exhibits typically live several to many years. In the wild, the warm water at the end of summer combines with exhaustive daily reproduction and lower natural levels of food for tissue repair, leaving these jellyfish more susceptible to bacterial and other disease problems that likely lead to the demise of most individuals. Such problems are responsible for the demise of many smaller species of jellyfish (Mills, 1993). Arai (1997) summarizes that seasonal reproduction leaves the gonads open to infection and degradation.
Some metazoan parasites attack Aurelia aurita (Arai, 1997), as well as most other species of jellyfish.
Aurelia sp. from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
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