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Published in:The Journal of Experimental Biology, Vol. 205, 2002.


Jet propulsion, based on examples from the Hydrozoa, has served as a valuable model for swimming by medusae. However, cnidarian medusae span several taxonomic classes (collectively known as the Medusazoa) and represent a diverse array of morphologies and swimming styles. Does one mode of propulsion appropriately describe swimming by all medusae? This study examined a group of co-occurring hydromedusae collected from the waters of Friday Harbor, WA, USA, to investigate relationships between swimming performance and underlying mechanisms of thrust production. The six species examined encompassed a wide range of bell morphologies and swimming habits. Swimming performance (measured as swimming acceleration and velocity) varied widely among the species and was positively correlated with bell streamlining (measured as bell fineness ratio) and velar structure development (measured as velar aperture ratio). Calculated thrust production due to jet propulsion adequately explained acceleration patterns of prolate medusae (Aglantha digitale, Sarsia sp. and Proboscidactyla flavicirrata) possessing well-developed velums. However, acceleration patterns of oblate medusae (Aequorea victoria, Mitrocoma cellularia and Phialidium gregarium) that have less developed velums were poorly described by jet thrust production. An examination of the wakes behind swimming medusae indicated that, in contrast to the clearly defined jet structures produced by prolate species, oblate medusae did not produce defined jets but instead produced prominent vortices at the bell margins. These vortices are consistent with a predominantly drag-based, rowing mode of propulsion by the oblate species. These patterns of propulsive mechanics and swimming performance relate to the role played by swimming in the foraging ecology of each medusa. These patterns appear to extend beyond hydromedusae and thus have important implications for other members of the Medusazoa.

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