Data Sheet: Scyphozoa - Science Label

Data Sheet: Scyphozoa


Scyphozoa is a class of marine cnidarians, commonly known as the true jellyfish. This group is distinguished by a dominant medusa stage in their life cycle, contrasted with other cnidarians which may exhibit more prominent polyp stages or different life cycle structures altogether. Scyphozoans are characterized by their gelatinous, umbrella-shaped bodies and trailing tentacles, which they use for locomotion and to capture prey. This class includes some of the most recognizable jellyfish species, ranging from the large, often colorful, open-ocean dwellers to those found in deeper and sometimes less accessible parts of the sea.

1. Morphology of Scyphozoans

Basic Anatomy

Scyphozoans, or true jellyfish, are distinguished by their prominent medusa stage, which showcases a bell-shaped body from which tentacles and oral arms dangle. The bell, or umbrella, facilitates locomotion through contractions, propelling the jellyfish through the water. The body's structure is largely composed of mesoglea, a thick, jelly-like substance that sits between two layers of cells (the epidermis on the outside and the gastrodermis on the inside), providing buoyancy and structural support. The mouth, located on the underside of the bell, leads to the gastrovascular cavity, where digestion occurs.

Cnidocytes: The Stinging Cells

One of the most remarkable features of Scyphozoans, shared with all cnidarians, is the cnidocyte: a specialized cell type that contains a nematocyst, a microscopic harpoon-like structure. Upon contact with prey or a threat, the nematocyst is ejected rapidly, delivering a sting that can immobilize prey or deter predators. This mechanism is unique to the cnidarian phylum and is a defining characteristic of these animals.

Comparison with Hydrozoans and Anthozoans

Scyphozoans differ from Hydrozoans in their life cycle and morphology. Hydrozoans typically have a more significant polyp stage and can form colonies, whereas Scyphozoans are predominantly solitary medusae. Anthozoans, which include corals and sea anemones, lack a medusa stage entirely and are sessile as adults. Morphologically, the structure of the medusa in Scyphozoans—particularly the thickness and composition of the mesoglea, and the development of the medusa stage as the primary life stage—sets them apart from the often smaller, less structurally complex medusae of Hydrozoans.

2. Life Cycle of Scyphozoans

Detailed Life Cycle

The life cycle of Scyphozoans is complex and includes both asexual and sexual phases. The cycle begins with sexual reproduction, where the medusa releases sperm and eggs into the water, resulting in fertilized eggs that develop into planula larvae. These larvae settle on a substrate and metamorphose into polyps. Through a process known as strobilation, these polyps asexually produce ephyrae, juvenile medusae, which then grow into adult medusae. This alternation between polyp and medusa stages is a hallmark of Scyphozoan biology.

Comparison with Hydrozoans and Anthozoans

Hydrozoans also exhibit a life cycle that alternates between polyp and medusa stages, but they often emphasize the polyp stage more and can form polyp colonies. In contrast, Anthozoans do not have a medusa stage; they reproduce either asexually (by budding or fragmentation) or sexually, with larvae that settle and grow directly into polyps, remaining sessile.

3. Habitat and Feeding


Scyphozoans are primarily pelagic, living in the open ocean, though some species inhabit coastal waters. They can be found in a range of habitats from the surface to the deep sea. This pelagic lifestyle exposes them to a variety of water conditions and available food sources.

Diet and Feeding

Scyphozoans are opportunistic feeders, encountering a wide array of prey as they drift or swim through the water column. Their diet typically includes small fish, zooplankton, and other jellyfish. They capture prey using their tentacles, which are equipped with cnidocytes for stunning or killing before ingestion.

Unlike some cnidarians that may rely more on passive feeding (e.g., Anthozoans capturing suspended particles or small creatures with their tentacles), Scyphozoans can actively hunt. Their ability to move through the water allows them to encounter prey more directly, although they do not chase prey in the manner of more active predators. The combination of passive drifting and active movement during feeding makes them versatile in their feeding habits.

Common Scyphozoan Species

Aurelia aurita (Moon Jelly)

The Moon Jelly is one of the most widely recognized jellyfish species, known for its translucent, moon-like bell. Typically, it reaches up to 40 cm in diameter, with short, fringe-like tentacles around the edge and four horse-shoe shaped gonads visible through the bell. Aurelia aurita is found in a variety of temperate and tropical oceans worldwide and feeds on small planktonic organisms. The species is known for its relatively benign sting to humans. A key study on its distribution, behavior, and ecological impact is "Aurelia aurita (L.) and its impact on the zooplankton community of Darss-Zingst Bodden Chain, southern Baltic," by H. J. Hirche (1996) in Marine Biology.

Chrysaora quinquecirrha (Sea Nettle)

The Sea Nettle is notorious for its potent sting and distinctive appearance, featuring a large, bell-shaped body and long tentacles that can extend several meters. The bell can grow up to 30 cm in diameter and displays a range of colors from white to deep reddish-brown, often with radiating stripes. This species primarily inhabits the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America. It preys on a variety of marine organisms, including fish and other jellyfish. Research into its venom and impact on human activities is extensive, with notable work including "Stinging mechanisms in the Scyphozoa: Morphology, Ecology, and Evolutionary Implications" by N. A. Mariscal (1974) in the Coelenterate Biology.

Cyanea capillata (Lion's Mane Jellyfish)

Known for being one of the largest jellyfish species, the Lion's Mane Jellyfish can exhibit a bell diameter of over 2 meters with tentacles extending up to 30 meters or more in the largest specimens. Its common name is derived from the dense array of long, hair-like tentacles that resemble a lion's mane. Predominantly found in the cold waters of the Arctic, Northern Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans, this species feeds on small fish, zooplankton, and other jellyfish. The sting of the Lion's Mane Jellyfish can be painful but is rarely fatal to humans. An important reference is "Giant Jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) in Norwegian waters: distribution, abundance, and predation impact" by A. B. Jarms, S. Båmstedt, and L. E. Wild (1999) in Ambio.

Pelagia noctiluca (Purple-striped Jelly)

The Purple-striped Jelly is known for its striking bioluminescent displays, emitting light when disturbed. This jellyfish has a relatively small, translucent bell up to 10 cm in diameter, adorned with vivid purple stripes and long tentacles. Pelagia noctiluca is a pelagic species found in warm and temperate open oceans, especially in the Mediterranean Sea. It is a carnivore, feeding on a variety of zooplankton. The species is of particular interest due to its periodic blooms, which can impact local fishing industries and tourism. A comprehensive study on its ecology and impact is "Ecology of the jellyfish Pelagia noctiluca in the North Western Mediterranean" by G. M. Hays, A. J. Richardson, and C. Robinson (2005) in Hydrobiologia.


For further reading on the specific topics discussed:

  • Brusca, R. C., & Brusca, G. J. (2003). Invertebrates. Sinauer Associates. Offers detailed insights into the morphology and life cycles of cnidarians, including Scyphozoans.
  • Arai, M. N. (1997). A Functional Biology of Scyphozoa. Chapman & Hall. Provides an in-depth look at the biology, life cycle, and ecology of Scyphozoan jellyfish.
  • Mills, C. E. (2001). Jellyfish blooms: are populations increasing globally in response to changing ocean conditions? Hydrobiologia, 451(1-3), 55-68. Discusses changes in jellyfish populations and their ecological roles, including feeding habits.

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