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Published in: Biology Letters, Vol.6, No. 3, 2010.


Locomotion and feeding in marine animals are intimately linked to the flow dynamics created by specialized body parts. This interaction is of particular importance during ontogeny, when changes in behaviour and scale challenge the organism with shifts in fluid regimes and altered functionality. Previous studies have indicated that Scyphozoan jellyfish ontogeny accommodates the changes in fluid dynamics associated with increasing body dimensions and velocities during development. However, in addition to scale and behaviour that—to a certain degree—underlie the control of the animal, flow dynamics are also dependent on external factors such as temperature. Here, we show phenotypic plasticity in juvenile Aurelia aurita medusae, where morphogenesis is adapted to altered fluid regimes imposed by changes in ambient temperature. In particular, differential proportional growth was found to compensate for temperature-dependent changes in viscous effects, enabling the animal to use adhering water boundary layers as ‘paddles’—and thus economize tissue—at low temperatures, while switching to tissue-dominated propulsion at higher temperatures where the boundary layer thickness is insufficient to serve for paddling. This effect was predicted by a model of animal–fluid interaction and confirmed empirically by flow-field visualization and assays of propulsion efficiency.

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