The life of a jellyfish may seem like a real snooze. Until now, though, biologists were never certain if the gelatinous blobs actually slept. Now it appears that at least one group of jellyfish needs its beauty sleep just like us.
Some species of upside-down jellyfish (Cassiopea) meet all of the criteria for entering a “sleeplike state,” a new study finds. It appears September 21 in Current Biology. The jellyfish seem groggy after a sleepless night. And they quickly waken when fed, tests show.
Sleep and sleeplike states have been documented in a wide range of animals. These states have been found in creatures ranging from microscopic wormlike nematodes to, of course, humans. But until now, the behavior has been observed only in animals with a centralized nervous system and brain. These jellies lack both. That’s what makes the new findings such a surprise.
Jellyfish operate on a decentralized net of nerve cells. “It’s the first animal that doesn’t have a centralized nervous system that also sleeps,” says Ravi Nath. At least, he notes, they’re the first his team knows of. Nath is a graduate student in biology. He and the rest of his team work at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Sleep is not solely generated by animals with brains,” Nath concludes.
The finding is raising new questions about when — and why — sleep evolved. Though sleep has been linked to improving memory in complex animals, such as people, the same can’t be said of jellies. Jellyfish are cnidarians (Nih-DAIR-ee-uns). This ancient line of animals evolved at least 542 million years ago. So if Cassiopea do sleep, that would suggest such rest is among the most basic needs in animals.
“Finding sleep in jellyfish thus raises the question of whether sleep and nervous-system functions are intertwined,” says William Joiner. He is a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego. Perhaps instead, he posits, sleep might have emerged in animals before the nervous system (including brain).” If true, he says, it might “fulfill an as yet unidentified physiological need.”
Upside-down jellyfish spend most of their time with their gelatinous bodies, or bells, sitting on the seafloor. This leaves their stubby arms and tentacles sticking up. The animals regularly pulse their bells to filter food from the water and to get rid of wastes.
To qualify as sleeping beings, the jellyfish had to pass three tests. First, did they become less active at a particular time? To find out, the research team monitored the pulsing of 23 upside-down jellyfish. They observed them day and night for six days.
The animals pulsed 32 percent less at night, the researchers learned. The team could easily reverse this sleepy state by dropping food into the tank. “The jellyfish immediately responded,” Nath says, by starting to pulse more.
Second, did these jellies respond less while in their sleeplike state? The human equivalent would be the fact that while sleeping, “You are less likely to respond to someone talking to you,” explains Michael Abrams. He was a coauthor on the new paper.
Cassiopea prefer to swim down to settle on a surface. So the researchers hoisted up a jellyfish in a plastic pipe with mesh on the bottom. They then let the animal settle for five minutes. Afterward, they quickly lowered the pipe. That action effectively placed the jellyfish free-floating into the water column. At night, the researchers found, it took the jellyfish longer to begin pulsing and reach the bottom of the tank than during the day.
Finally, do these jellyfish need regular periods of sleep in order to survive? The researchers kept the jellyfish active for up to 12 hours overnight by squirting them with pulses of water. The jellyfish were significantly less active the next morning. That shows the jellyfish needed to make up for the loss of rest, explains Claire Bedbrook. She also worked on this project.
“The authors do a good job of demonstrating that jellyfish fulfill the most fundamental criteria for sleep,” Joiner concludes.
A bigger question for cnidarians, and most animals, is not only if they sleep, but why. Sleep in jellyfish can hardly be compared to human sleep, Abrams says. However, by studying these creatures “we might be able to get at those core, fundamental components of why something sleeps.”
behavior The way something, often a person or other organism, acts towards others, or conducts itself.
biology The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.
cell The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall
coauthor One of a group (two or more people) who together had prepared a written work, such as a book, report or research paper. Not all coauthors may have contributed equally.
component Something that is part of something else (such as pieces that go on an electronic circuit board or ingredients that go into a cookie recipe).
criteria (sing. criterion) The standards, rules, traits or other things used to make a judgment or determination about something.
filter (in chemistry and environmental science) A device or system that allows some materials to pass through but not others, based on their size or some other feature.
fundamental Something that is basic or serves as the foundation for another thing or idea.
graduate student Someone working toward an advanced degree by taking classes and performing research. This work is done after the student has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).
microscopic An adjective for things too small to be seen by the unaided eye. It takes a microscope to view objects this small, such as bacteria or other one-celled organisms.
nematode A type of roundworm, usually found in soil, that can also live within other creatures as a parasite. It is very small, with no eyes, ears or nose.
nerve A long, delicate fiber that transmits signals across the body of an animal. An animal’s backbone contains many nerves, some of which control the movement of its legs or fins, and some of which convey sensations such as hot, cold or pain.
nervous system The network of nerve cells and fibers that transmits signals between parts of the body.
neuroscientist Someone who studies the structure or function of the brain and other parts of the nervous system.
physiology The branch of biology that deals with the everyday functions of living organisms and how their parts function. Scientists who work in this field are known as physiologists.
range The full extent or distribution of something. For instance, a plant or animal’s range is the area over which it naturally exists.
species A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.
waste Any materials that are left over from biological or other systems that have no value, so they can be disposed of as trash or recycled for some new use.