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Published in: The Biology Bulletin, Vol. 217, No. 3, 2009.


Scyphomedusae undergo a predictable ontogenetic transition from a conserved, universal larval form to a diverse array of adult morphologies. This transition entails a change in bell morphology from a highly discontinuous ephyral form, with deep clefts separating eight discrete lappets, to a continuous solid umbrella-like adult form. We used a combination of kinematic, modeling, and flow visualization techniques to examine the function of the medusan bell throughout the developmental changes of the scyphomedusa Aurelia aurita. We found that flow around swimming ephyrae and their lappets was relatively viscous (1 < Re < 10) and, as a result, ephyral lappets were surrounded by thick, overlapping boundary layers that occluded flow through the gaps between lappets. As medusae grew, their fluid environment became increasingly influenced by inertial forces (10 < Re < 10,000) and, simultaneously, clefts between the lappets were replaced by organic tissue. Hence, although the bell undergoes a structural transition from discontinuous (lappets with gaps) to continuous (solid bell) surfaces during development, all developmental stages maintain functionally continuous paddling surfaces. This developmental pattern enables ephyrae to efficiently allocate tissue to bell diameter increase via lappet growth, while minimizing tissue allocation to inter-lappet spaces that maintain paddle function due to boundary layer overlap.

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