A Cape Cod Notebook
10:04 am
Sat August 17, 2013

Lion's Mane, an Irritating Summer Visitor

Lion's Manes, A Cape Cod Notebook, by Robert Finch
Credit Mark Stevens / flickr

The lion’s mane gets its name from its reddish-brown umbrella, trailing behind it a long, thick “mane” of pale-yellow, angel-hair tentacles. These exquisite, fine tentacles may resemble angel hair, but they contain stinging cells that can inflict painful welts on bare skin that comes in contact with them.

Lion’s manes are found along the entire North Atlantic Coast, growing darker and larger they move north. South of Cape Hatteras they are pinkish in color and five inches or less across. Between Cape Hatteras and Cape Cod the jellyfish are yellow to orange-brown and up to eight inches in diameter; and north of the Cape lion’s manes are dark brownish-red and grow to eighteen inches and larger. In fact, individuals of over eight feet in diameter have been reported in the Gulf of Maine, making the lion's mane not only the largest of all jellyfish, but also the world’s largest invertebrate. Tentacles on a creature that size are estimated to be 200 feet on length, which means it can feed on 10,000 cubic feet of water at any one moment.

The lion’s mane, like most jellyfish, is generally not considered a single organism, but rather a colony of thousands of tiny, independent but interconnected animals. Curiously, these individual animals are known as persons.  These “persons” have become highly specialized and perform separate functions, such as movement, digestion, and reproduction.

But if a lion’s mane has no “brain,” no central nervous system at all as we understand it, what is it that creates and engineers its graceful patterns of movement? What turns it first one way, then another? What is it that makes it first slowly sink, then rise to the surface?  What pushes it out across that dark, quilted water with such an air of decisiveness about it? How does any group of beings so decentralized cooperate to produce such a unified and seemingly purposeful motion? Imagine the U.S. Congress actually agreeing on a national policy and you see the problem.