||What Kinds of Jellyfish are Common Along
the North Carolina Coast?
19 August 1998
|Several species of jellyfish
are found in North Carolina waters, carried here by
oceans currents, wind and tides. Although jellyfish
encounters may be unpleasant for beachgoers and swimmers,
the world of these ocean travelers is quite fascinating.
are unique in many ways. They have no hearts, no
bones and no brains to speak of, yet they consist
of a complex system or network of nerves that enable
them to react to the world around them.
Their looks are deceiving, too. Although it appears
otherwise, jellyfish are not made of jelly at all.
Their jelly-like appearance comes from their protective
skins that are filled with a substance that is approximately
95 percent water. Muscle fibers laced through the
jellyfishs body hold it together.
During the summer months, its common to see moon
jellies, sea nettles, cabbage head and mushroom
jellyfish off North Carolina beaches. Later in the
fall, the Lions Mane jelly and the Portuguese
man-of-war the can be found along our coast.
easy to see how
the moon jellyfish, Aurelia aurita, got its
name. Moon jellies are common in North Carolina
waters during the summer and fall. Photo
by Paul Humann
The moon jellyfish, Aurelia aurita, is named for
its moon-like shape and translucent white color. This jellyfish
is found in our waters from April to early November, depending
on water temperature and ocean currents. It is most common
in late summer and early fall.
A moon jellyfishs tentacles are short and are located
on the edges of its disked-shaped body. Four frilly oral
arms hang down from underneath its body, or umbrella. These
arms will be distinctly pink during August or September
because of the large number of larvae developing on the
edge of its umbrella. If you look at a moon jelly from above,
youll see four purple horseshoe shapes, which are
portions of its reproductive system.
The sea nettle, Chrysaora quinquecirrha, is about
the same size as a moon jelly, however its umbrella may
be pale white and may look like the spokes of a wheel. It
is also commonly found along the North Carolina coast during
the summer months. It is distinct from the moon jelly in
that its oral arms are longer and it has fewer yet longer
The mushroom jellyfish, Rhopilema verrilli, often
floats off our coast between July and November, and it may
even enter sounds and estuaries. It is another jelly named
for its shape and it can grow quite large -- up to 14 inches
in diameter. Because of its size, it can easily break if
lifted out of the water. It has no tentacles on its umbrella;
instead its oral arms are subdivided and almost fingerlike,
extending down from the center of its umbrella. The mushroom
jelly feeds on tiny plankton that are swept into its mouth
by the beating of hairlike cilia on its arms.
The jellybomb or cabbage head jellyfish, Stomolophus
meleagris, is whitish or opaque with a brown ring around
the edge of its umbrella. Common in North Carolina waters
from May to November, it also may enter sounds where the
water is almost as salty as the ocean. Like the mushroom
jelly, the cabbage head has no tentacles. Its oral arms
extend down just below the edge of its umbrella.
The Lions Mane, Cyanea capillata, is the worlds
largest jelly, measuring up to eight feet in width with
tentacles more than 100 feet long. This mass of tentacles
gives this jelly its name, since it resembles the thick
mane of a male lion. It ranges in color from fuschia to
purple with creamy to pinkish-white tentacles. It is common
in our waters, including our sounds, from October to May.
Most of these jellies rely on their tentacles for capturing
food. Tentacles are covered with microscopic, stinging cells
called nematocysts which paralyze plankton, shrimp or small
fish. The oral arms then carry the food to the jellyfishs
The Portuguese man-of-war, Physalia physalis, is
not a true jelly, since it is a colony of specialized polyps
that live as one organism. The Portuguese man-of-war is
distinguished by its float which acts as a sail, pushing
the the colony along as it travels through the ocean. Strong
east or southeast winds can blow this sailor inshore during
the summer or early fall; occasional winter or spring storms
may also bring the Portuguese man-of-war ashore. The stinging
tentacles that stretch out beneath the float can produce
a painful sting even after the animal is dead or after they
have become detached from the animal. This is true for the
tentacles of true jellyfish as well.
Sometimes, the tentacles catch a beachcombers foot
or the arms or legs of a swimmer who happens to be sharing
the water with a jellyfish. A nematocyst contains a barb
on the end of a coiled string and it can act like a harpoon,
sending painful stings into whatever it comes in contact
Stings from some jellyfish may require a doctors
care. Everyones level of sensitivity to jellyfish
toxin is different. People with a history of allergies to
bee stings should be especially careful if stung by a jelly.
Basic first aid for stings should include:
- Carefully removing any remaining tentacles; do not rub
the area with sand since rough treatment could result
in additional stings.
- Washing the injured area with diluted ammonia or vinegar.
- If symptoms are severe, such as respiratory distress,
muscle cramps or dizziness, seek medical attention immediately.