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Jellyfish are not the ‘simple creatures’ once thought: New study may change an understanding of our own brains


Jellyfish could be much smarter than scientists previously thought, asserts a new study published in the journal Current Biology.

Poisonous Caribbean box jellyfish can learn at a far more complex level than ever imagined, despite only having 1,000 nerve cells and no centralized brain, according to new research from the University of Copenhagen.

Scientists say their findings change the fundamental understanding of the brain — and could reveal more about human cognitive functions and the process of dementia.

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Jellyfish have been around for over 500 million years — yet until now, they’ve been thought of as simple creatures with very limited learning abilities.

As the tiny box jellyfish approach mangrove roots, they turn and swim away. If they veer off too soon, they won’t have enough time to catch any copepods; yet if they turn away too late, they risk bumping into the root and damaging their gelatinous bodies, the new study noted. (SWNS)

The prevailing scientific opinion is that more advanced nervous systems equate with elevated learning potential in animals.

Jellyfish and their relatives, collectively known as cnidarians, are considered to be the earliest living animals to develop nervous systems.

“For fundamental neuroscience, this is pretty big news. It provides a new perspective on what can be done with a simple nervous system.”

Neurobiologist and professor Anders Garm has been researching box jellyfish — a group commonly known for being among the world’s most poisonous creatures — for more than a decade, the study noted.

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The fingernail-sized species lives in Caribbean mangrove swamps; there, they use their impressive visual system, including 24 eyes, to hunt for tiny copepods (small crustaceans) among the roots, as SWNS reported on the background of the research.

“Jellyfish have a much more refined ability to learn — and they can actually learn from their mistakes.”

Garm of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark said, “It was once presumed that jellyfish can only manage the simplest forms of learning, including habituation — the ability to get used to a certain stimulation, such as a constant sound or constant touch,” according to SWNS.

“Now, we see that jellyfish have a much more refined ability to learn — and that they can actually learn from their mistakes… [and] modify their behavior.”

One of the most advanced attributes of a nervous system, he said, is the ability to change behavior as a result of experience — to remember and learn.

box jellyfish

Assessing distances is crucial for jellyfish, Garm said — and the research team discovered that contrast is the key. (SWNS)

As the tiny box jellyfish approach the mangrove roots, they turn and swim away. If they veer off too soon, they won’t have enough time to catch any copepods. Yet if they turn away too late, they risk bumping into the root and damaging their gelatinous bodies, the study noted.

Assessing distances is crucial for them, Garm said — and the research team discovered that contrast is the key.

“Our experiments show that contrast — how dark the root is in relation to the water — is used by the jellyfish to assess distances to roots, which allows them to swim away at just the right moment,” he said, as SWNS noted.

The findings contradict previous scientific perceptions of what animals with simple nervous systems are capable of. 

“Even more interesting is that the relationship between distance and contrast changes on a daily basis due to rainwater, algae and wave action,” the professor continued. “We can see that as each new day of hunting begins, box jellyfish learn from the current contrasts by combining visual impressions and sensations during evasive maneuvers that fail.”

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“So, despite having a mere 1,000 nerve cells — our brains have roughly 100 billion — they can connect temporal convergences of various impressions and learn a connection, or what we call associative learning,” Garm said. “And they actually learn about as quickly as advanced animals like fruit flies and mice.”

The findings contradict previous scientific perceptions of what animals with simple nervous systems are capable of, the study indicated.

Jellyfish fossil found

Despite having a mere 1,000 nerve cells, jellyfish learn about as quickly as advanced animals like fruit flies and mice, said Professor Garm. (SWNS)

“For fundamental neuroscience, this is pretty big news,” Garm said. “It provides a new perspective on what can be done with a simple nervous system.”

“This suggests that advanced learning may have been one of the most important evolutionary benefits of the nervous system from the very beginning.”

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The research also indicated where the learning is happening inside the box jellyfish. The team said the discovery has given them unique opportunities to study the precise changes that occur in a nerve cell when it’s involved in advanced learning.

Box jellyfish

Caribbean box jellyfish, Tripedalia cystophora, is shown with a dead fish in its transparent stomach in Bocas del Toro, Panama. Poisonous Caribbean box jellyfish can learn at a far more complex level than ever imagined, despite only having 1,000 nerve cells and no centralized brain, the study found. (iStock)

Said Garm, “We hope that this can become a supermodel system for looking at cellular processes in the advanced learning of all sorts of animals,” as SWNS noted.

“We are now in the process of trying to pinpoint exactly which cells are involved in learning and memory formation,” he said. 

“Upon doing so, we will be able to go in and look at what structural and physiological changes occur in the cells as learning takes place.”

If the team is able to pinpoint the exact mechanisms involved in jellyfish’s learning functions, the next step will be to find out whether those apply only to them or if they can be found in all animals, Garm noted.

“Understanding something as enigmatic and immensely complex as the brain is in itself an absolutely amazing thing,” he said. “But there are unimaginably many useful possibilities.”

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“One major problem in the future will undoubtedly be various forms of dementia,” he added, as SWNS also reported. 

“I don’t claim that we are finding the cure for dementia — but if we can gain a better understanding of what memory is, which is a central problem in dementia, we may be able to lay a building block to better understand the disease and perhaps counteract it.”

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