Jelly-fish  (Medusæ).—All agree in having a more or less bell or umbrella shaped body, with a proboscis hanging down in the place of the handle of the umbrella or the tongue of the bell. The mouth is at the end of the handle and leads into a stomach which divides and sends out branches, like the ribs of the umbrella, to the margin. The common name is due to its gelatinous consistency. Most of the species start in life as buds from attached animals, which later separate and henceforth lead a free existence, swimming by opening and closing the bell.

Jellyfishes, Namesakes of the Fabled Medusa

The type and simplest form of that great division of aquatic, and almost exclusively marine, animals constituting the phylum Cœlenterata, is the polyp. It consists of a soft-skinned body, typically cup-shaped, containing a baglike digestive cavity, or primitive stomach, open at the top, and surrounded by the soft mesenchyme. The open upper end is the mouth, which is usually encircled by few or many tentacles—hollow outgrowths from the wall of the tubular gullet. Currents of water are drawn in by waving cilia at one end of the slitlike mouth, and pass out as waste at the other side; they bring food and oxygen from which nourishment is absorbed by the cells of the wall of the stomach (endoderm). Certain outgrowths within the mesenchyme act as feeble muscles for lengthening and shortening the body and tentacles; but there are no blood vessels or excretory organs.

Most polyps are fixed on some support, but in many the young pass through a free, swimming stage before settling down for life. All cœlenterates, and these only, are provided with "stinging cells," the nature and importance of which will be explained presently.

The simplest class is that of the hydroids (Hydroida), the type of which is the fresh-water hydra, so-called because, like the Hydra of ancient myth, when it is cut to pieces each part will grow into a new animal. It lives in ponds and pools of stagnant water, and is so small that a magnifying glass is necessary to study it, especially in the case of the green one of our two common American species—the other is brown. Indeed, similar hydroids of salt water are often taken and dried by unscientific collectors under the impression that they are feathery seaweeds. It is stalklike in shape, has long tentacles which always turn toward the greatest light, influenced like certain plants by heliotropism, and feeds on minute crustaceans and other minute organisms. Sometimes hydras are so abundant as to form a velvety surface in warm pools. The sexes are combined in the same individual, and the embryo forms within the body, then protrudes as a bud, which finally breaks away and after a time sinks, attaches itself at the base to some support, and grows into a perfect hydra. When quiescent or alarmed the tentacles are withdrawn, and the whole animal shrinks into a little lump.

Such is the general natural history of the group; but the oceanic hydroids have developed a vast variety of forms, and, with increased breadth of life, have added many interesting features and habits. Many of them are single, rooted in mud, or upon seaweeds, rocks or shellfish both dead and alive, and look like flowers of lovely tints; and they reproduce by putting forth separate reproductive parts, called "zooids," of various kinds. Others are in colonies that spread by extensions of the base from which arise other hydroids until a bunch of them are growing side by side; but these groups consist of hydroids differentiated into separate functions, for some devote themselves to capturing food which nourishes all, through the common base, while others produce the buds and eggs by which the colony is increased.

(Medusa aurita. Rhizostoma cuvieri. Cyanea capillata.)

The most remarkable of these processes of reproduction is that which is represented by the jellyfishes so abundant in all seas, and so beautiful either when seen floating along just at the surface of the summer sea, or when at night they glow with phosphorescence like silvery, greenish rockets in the dark waves. Sometimes they occur in enormous "schools"—as we say of fish—all of one kind, filling the water thickly as far as one can see, and now and then in late summer are cast on the beach in long windrows. They range in size from a pinhead to ten or twelve feet in diameter. So big a Cyanea would probably weigh fifty pounds, but after a thorough drying would yield only a few ounces of semisolid matter, 99 per cent of the creature being water absorbed in its spongy tissues. Some are egg-shaped, others like a bell with a long clapper, but the ordinary form is that of an open umbrella, usually fringed about the edge with tentacles, sometimes short and fine, sometimes few and long, again a crowded circle of long snaky appendages. These elastic hanging tentacles are the means by which the medusa (as such a jellyfish is appropriately termed in science) captures its food, which consists not only of the minute things swarming in the plankton, but of other cœlenterates, small crustacea, fishes, anything in fact that it can entangle in its sticky net and sting to death. Every one of the filmy tentacles is thickly studded with microscopic cells (cnidocells) covered by a mere film, and having a spinelike trigger projecting from it. If this trigger is touched, or the film broken, out springs the coiled thread dart which is barbed and carries into the wound it makes a poison that benumbs. Thousands of these microscopic darts may prick the skin of a captive, and paralyze its strength—as it does that of a man who gets caught naked in the trailing net of one of the great northern medusæ. Being thus captured, the prey is drawn up to the mouth, which opens in the center of the under side of the umbrella float.

At intervals around the margin of the umbrella are small organs by which, it is believed, the creature maintains a sense of balance and direction, and perhaps of temperature or light, or both; for many medusæ sink out of sight by day and come to the surface at night; and when the sea is rough they descend to quiet depths. Thus they have the power not only to move ahead by the alternate contractionand dilatation of the disk, but to so alter their specific gravity as to sink or rise at will. They thus show the rudiments of both a muscular and a nervous system.

Very interesting, and often of great beauty, are the free-swimming, colonial, hydroid polyps called siphonophores. On a long stem or string are arranged, at the top, a bulb filled with gas or air, as a float, then a series of swimming bells whose pulsations carry the colony about, beneath which are various polyps and tentaclelike appendages, some to gather food, whose digested products circulate through the whole colony, others performing reproductive functions. The variety of form is considerable; and one of the most peculiar, and the only siphonophore familiar to most persons, is the exquisite Portuguese man-of-war, whose prismatically tinted bulb, as big as one's fist, is commonly met with in the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic, and often is seen in great flocks in the tropics, bobbing on the surface of the waves in calm weather. Beneath that bulb trails a long tuft of tentacles and zooids, performing various functions, and so foreshadowing the division of labor that in the higher animals is effected by the different limbs and organs.