Jellyfish- Stinging Swimmers for 505 Million Years

By: The Scribe on Wednesday, April 6, 2011

When looking at a jellyfish swimming in the water, it is not hard to imagine that they are the leftovers from some strange, prehistoric creature. It may not surprise you to learn that the oldest jellyfish date back to approximately 505 million years ago. What may surprise you is that these early specimens were found in Utah. While the area is now known for its dry, desert-like climate, it was a different story in prehistoric times.

A modern jellyfishJellyfish fossils are incredibly rare. The creatures are mainly composed of soft parts and lack the bones that are more commonly preserved in the form of fossils. However, the fine sediment that was present in prehistoric Utah created an environment where the soft shape of the creature was preserved. There were many details present in the fossil. Archaeologists were able to see the bell, the tentacles and the muscle scars that made up the creature. The fossils were discovered by Richard D. Jarrard and Susan Halgedahl, both from the University of Utah

What is amazing is how highly evolved (for a jellyfish) the fossil appears to be. There were many similarities between the 500 million year old specimen and the creatures that are currently alive and stinging swimmers in modern waters. While scientists believed that jellyfish evolved slowly over millions of years, the fossils found in Utah present several alternate possibilities.

The first is that jellyfish evolved very quickly. This may have been because of the presence of warm, shallow seas. It was believed that these conditions, present during the Cambrian period, actually led to the evolution of many different aquatic life forms. Another theory is that the jellyfish did evolve slowly over an extended period of time but that these unique creatures are actually much, much older than scientists originally thought they were. The Cambrian period lasted from 542 million years ago to 488 million years ago (approximately).

The jellyfish discovered in Utah were tiny and measured less than half an inch in size. The Comparing ancient and modern jellyfishlocation of the fossils also suggests that they lived in fairly deep water. The similarity to modern species suggests that they lived in much the same way: swimming around hunting for food.

Modern jellyfish are among some of the most durable and enduring creatures. Some travel from one body of water to another by traveling in the bilge areas of ships. Massive specimens have been found in Arctic waters. All around the world, run-ins with these creatures have resulted in pain and (in some cases) death when swimmers or divers had encounters while swimming.

Since humans have only existed for about half as long as jellyfish it is reasonable to believe that we have likely been dealing with these creatures all along. A jellyfish sting can cause massive pain, nausea and vomiting. Some will cause muscle spasms or numbness and, in severe cases, can also cause breathing problems. Some individuals will even slip into a coma and die.

We now know that it is possible to treat a jellyfish sting with vinegar or, in a pinch, urine. You have to wonder what prehistoric humans would do in order to treat the stings and minimize the pain and swelling. Hopefully they had some vinegar on hand.


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