12 Fascinating Facts About Jellyfish

These odd animals are ancient, adaptable, and in some cases, possibly immortal

fun facts about jellyfish

Treehugger / Ellen Lindner

Jellyfish are some of the Earth's most ancient extant animals. They're also immensely diverse—most organisms that are called jellyfish are part of the phylum Cnidaria, which includes more than 10,000 species. Needless to say, they occur in abundant numbers all over the world, in cold and warm water, deep in the sea or near the surface. Most people are afraid to swim alongside them because of their painful sting, but not all jellyfish threaten injury.

Find out 12 facts about the oddly charismatic gelatinous ocean dwellers, from their literal lack of heart to the rumor that they're immortal, below.

Fast Facts

  • Common Name: Jellyfish
  • Scientific NameCnidaria
  • Average Lifespan in the Wild: 3 to 6 months
  • Average Lifespan in Captivity: 1 to 3 years
  • IUCN Red List Status: Least concern to critically endangered, depending on the species
  • Current Population: Unknown

1. Jellyfish Could Be Older Than Dinosaurs

Jellyfish have no bones, so fossils are hard to come by. Nevertheless, scientists have evidence these creatures have been bobbing along in the world's oceans for at least 500 million years. In fact, it's likely the jellyfish lineage goes back even further, possibly 700 million years. That's roughly three times the age of the first dinosaurs.

Some of the oldest known jellyfish fossils have been found in Utah, dating back to when the entire U.S. West was under the Pacific Ocean.

2. They're Adapting Well to Climate Change

Unlike most marine creatures, jellyfish are thriving in our oceans despite marine heat waves, ocean acidification, overfishing, and various other human influences. While corals, oysters, and any marine organisms that build shells are considered the biggest losers of increasingly acidic oceans, jellyfish don't seem to be as susceptible.

But as the climate crisis worsens, experts expect to see jellyfish populations increase in some areas and decrease in others. Mostly, they expect to see an imbalance between jellyfish and other organisms. For example, because jellyfish are more resilient to low-oxygen environments, they could soon far outnumber plankton, which need more oxygen and make up the bulk of the jellyfish's diet.

3. They Aren't Really Fish

Jellyfish glowing orange and pink with tentacles outstretched, swimming

Gerard Soury / Getty Images

One look at a jellyfish and this might seem rather obvious, but they aren't actually fish. They are invertebrates from the phylum Cnidaria and are so varied as a taxonomic group that many scientists have taken to simply referring to them as "gelatinous zooplankton."

Jellyfish do not have scales, gills, or fins like fish. Instead, they swim by opening and closing their "bells."

4. Jellyfish Are 98% Water

The human body is composed of 60% water and the jellyfish's 98%. When they wash ashore, they can disappear after just a few hours, their bodies promptly evaporating into the air. They have a rudimentary nervous system, a loose network of nerves located in the epidermis called a "nerve net," and no brain. They also don't have a heart; their gelatinous bodies are so thin they can be oxygenated solely by diffusion.

5. They Can Have Eyes

Despite their simple body design, some jellyfish have vision. In fact, for a few species, their vision can be surprisingly complex. For instance, the box jellyfish has 24 "eyes," two of which are capable of seeing in color. It's also believed this animal's complicated array of visual sensors makes it one of the few creatures in the world to have a full 360-degree view of its environment.

6. Some Jellyfish Might Be Immortal

At least one species of jellyfish, Turritopsis nutricula, may be able to cheat death. When threatened, this species is capable of undergoing cellular transdifferentiation, a process whereby the organism's cells essentially become new again.

This jellyfish is colloquially called the "immortal" jellyfish and it inhabits the warm waters of the Caribbean and Mediterranean. Its unique transdifferentiation ability is a major subject of research, as it could help the medical field understand how to turn cancerous cells into noncancerous cells like muscles, nerves, or skin.

7. They Eat Where They Poop

It might not sound very appetizing, but jellyfish don't use separate orifices for eating and pooping. They have one orifice that does the job of both the mouth and the anus. The jellyfish is known as a simple or "primitive" animal, and its lack of a dual-hole system—which developed way down the line of evolution—is proof of that.

Still, the multifunctional gut opening is being constantly studied. In 2019, scientists discovered that one jellyfish species sprouts a new anus every time it poops.

8. They Rarely Travel in Groups

Close-up of a jellyfish swarm in dark blue water

Aonip / Getty Images

Many refer to a group of jellyfish as a bloom or a swarm, but they can also be called a "smack." In any case, seeing a group of jellyfish is rare considering these animals are mostly lone drifters. They're solitary animals, only clumping together when they're all following a singular food source or because they're traveling in the same water current.

9. They Are Among Earth's Deadliest Creatures

All jellyfish have nematocysts, or stinging structures, but the power of their stings can vary widely depending on the species. The most venomous jellyfish in the world is probably the box jellyfish, capable of killing an adult human in just a few minutes with a single sting. Each box jellyfish reportedly carries enough venom to kill more than 60 humans.

To make matters worse, their stings are excruciatingly painful—it's said the pain could kill you before the venom does. On the bright side, that knowledge has helped Australian researchers to develop a potential antidote for box jellyfish stings.

10. Jellyfish Can Be Tiny or Enormous

Red lion's mane jellyfish and others swimming in shallow water

James R.D. Scott / Getty Images

Some jellyfish are so tiny they are practically invisible floating in the ocean's currents. The smallest are those in the genera Staurocladia and Eleutheria, which have bell disks from just 0.5 millimeters to a few millimeters in diameter.

By contrast, the lion's mane jellyfish, Cyanea capillata, can extend its tentacles as far as 120 feet. The world's largest jellyfish by weight and diameter is thought to be the titanic Nomura's jellyfish, Nemopilema nomurai, which can dwarf a human diver. These beasts can have a bell diameter of 6.5 feet and weigh as much as 440 pounds.

11. Some Are Edible

You won't find them on many restaurant menus, but jellyfish are edible and are eaten as a delicacy in some places, like Japan and Korea. In fact, the Japanese have transformed jellyfish into candy: A sweet and salty caramel made out of sugar, starch syrup, and jellyfish powder has been produced to make use of the jellyfish that often plague the waters there. More often, they're served in salads, fried into crunchy noodles, or eaten with soy sauce like sushi.

12. They Have Been to Space

NASA first started sending jellyfish to space aboard the Columbia space shuttle back in the early 1990s to test how they might adapt to a zero-gravity environment. Why? Interestingly, both humans and jellyfish rely on specialized gravity-sensitive calcium crystals to orient themselves. (These crystals are located inside the inner ear in the case of humans and along the bottom edge of the jellyfish bodies.) So, studying how jellyfish manage in space can reveal clues about how humans might also fare.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Are jellyfish nonbinary?

    Jellyfish do actually have two distinct sexes (and the occasional hermaphrodite), the most distinct difference being the color of their gonads. Males' sex glands are pink and females' are brown.

  • How are jellyfish born?

    Jellyfish have a strange reproduction system. The medusa (its mature form, when it's in its sexual phase) produces sexually while the polyp (the stalked phase, in which it's attached to coral reef) reproduces asexually. Polyps develop into medusas, but the process can take several months to years.

  • How do you avoid being stung by a jellyfish?

    Jellyfish swim alongside humans all the time without stinging them, so you shouldn't worry. However, if you're adamant about preventing jellyfish stings, you could avoid the water during jellyfish season, which happens to be the entire swimming season from mid-spring through late summer. A better idea might be to wear a wetsuit.

  • Does urinating on a jellyfish sting really work?

    Although it's been long said that peeing on a jellyfish sting will help relieve the burn, experts don't recommend this. It could actually aggravate the stingers and make the pain worse. Instead, rinse the sting with seawater, remove the spines, soak the area in warm water for at least 30 minutes, and leave the rest to ibuprofen.

View Article Sources
  1. "Jellyfish and Comb Jellies." Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. 2018.

  2. "Voyager: How Are Jellyfish Connected to Climate Change?" University of California San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography. 2019.

  3. Tamm, Sidney L. "Defecation by the ctenophore Mnemiopsis leidyi occurs with an ultradian rhythm through a single transient anal pore." Invertebrate Biology. 2019.