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Department of Invertebrate Zoology

Sapphirina auronitens
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Setting the Scene

How do you pronounce this thing anyway? Christine Hoekenga finds out as she interviews Cheryl (Lewis) Ames. (25 seconds) Copula sivickisi (originally described as Carybdea sivickisi)

For most jellyfish, reproduction is not a particularly romantic affair. Typically, males release sperm into the water so that their genetic material can bump into and fertilize eggs released by female jellyfish in a similar fashion. This behavior, known as mass spawning, allows jellyfish to “mate” without the lovers even needing to meet. But Cheryl (Lewis) Ames, a Research Assistant with the National Systematics Lab of NOAA's Fisheries Service at the Smithsonian, has found that at least one species, Copula sivickisi (originally described as Carybdea sivickisi), has a more intimate courtship routine.

A mature female Carybdea sivickisi jellyfish

Fig 1a. A mature female Copula sivickisi jellyfish. The long white speckled leaf-like structures are the female gonads (ovaries and gastric pockets). There are eight in total, of which only six are visible in the photo. Image courtesy: Alvaro Migotto.

A mature male Carybdea sivickisi jellyfish

Fig 1b. A mature male Copula sivickisi jellyfish. The eight hemispherical orange structures are the male gonads. Image courtesy: Alvaro Migotto.


Copula sivickisi medusae are probably not the animals that come to mind when one pictures a jellyfish. They are among the species known as box jellies, or Cubozoa, because their bodies are boxier (Fig 1a) than the more familiar bell-shaped jellyfish that sunbathers usually encounter. Despite their orange banded tentacles and the males’ crimson-colored gonads (Fig 1b), they are easy to miss. The ones Ames collected for study were between four millimeters and ten millimeters across (smaller than a dime), and they can shrink their already small bodies by folding their four tentacles up inside their bells or attaching themselves to seaweed (Fig 2) and flattening like a Chinese lantern (Fig 3).

A mature female Carybdea sivickisi jellyfish

Fig 2. A male Copula sivickisi jellyfish adheres to a piece of wood using sticky pads on the top (apex) of its bell. These jellyfish stay attached to seaweed and various other surfaces for hours at a time during the daytime. Image courtesy: Cheryl (Lewis) Ames.

A mature male Carybdea sivickisi jellyfish

Fig 3. A mature female Copula sivickisi jellyfish squashed like a Chinese lantern. A nocturnal animal, this jellyfish will likely stay in this 'resting' position until nightfall, when it starts its regular feeding and mating activities. Image courtesy: Alvaro Migotto.



What does it look like? Listen to Cheryl Ames' physical
description of the Copula sivickisi. (70 seconds)

Using an underwater light to attract these nocturnal jellyfish, Ames scooped up hundreds of Copula sivickisi off the coast of Japan, separated males from females, and took their measurements. She grouped them in threes – one female, one smaller male, and one larger male – and put them through “courtship trials” to observe their mate choices and courtship behaviors. “You turn the lights down low,” Ames says jokingly of the experiments. “You put on a bit of music in the background.”

Watching hundreds of these blind dates by flashlight, Ames confirmed something scientists had suspected but never been sure about: these tiny jellies pair up to mate and perform a ritual more akin to copulation seen in higher animals than to the anonymous mass spawning most other jellies engage in. “Over the last twenty or thirty years, scientists had hypothesized that this courtship, ‘wedding dance,’ or interaction between one male and one female might potentially be a form of copulation,” Ames says. “But it was never documented.”

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