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Red-Eyed Medusa of Oregon / Washington Coast is Immortal In a Way

Published 10/18/20 at 5:44 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Red-Eyed Medusa of Oregon / Washington Coast is Immortal In a Way

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(Newport, Oregon) – Real science is always more astounding than science fiction. Case in point: the tiny jellyfish known as the Red-Eyed Medusa (Polyorchis penicillatus) that lives off the Oregon and Washington coast, among other places. You won’t really find them on the beaches, even though they’re actually there. They’re just so small the average person won’t notice them. But experts will, like Tiffany Boothe at Seaside Aquarium, the folks at Cannon Beach’s Haystack Rock Awareness Program (HRAP) and Jim Burke, director of animal husbandry at Newport’s Oregon Coast Aquarium. (Photo above courtesy Oregon Coast Aquarium)

In fact, these tiny, red-dotted freaks of the deep can often be found at aquarium facilities in the Pacific Northwest. Burke said Oregon Coast Aquarium has them periodically but doesn’t have any at the moment, while Boothe said the Seaside Aquarium does have them now (October of 2020). It was HRAP that spotted a few this week in Haystack Rock tidepools.

Red-Eyed Medusa of Oregon / Washington Coast is Immortal In a Way
Photo courtesy Seaside Aquarium / Tiffany Boothe

The red-eyed medusa has two major oddball things going for it. One: it’s kind of immortal. Two: it does not see images with those little red “eyes” in its tentacles. It sees only light.

They also have an unusual sleep and work schedule.

“They have eye spots that are light sensitive and have a diel migration, coming to the surface at night,” Burke said. “They feed on small invertebrates along the sea floor during the day and on zooplankton at night in the water column. Sometimes waves and currents can disrupt this migration. They can be seen in high densities along our coast and in our bays. They are quite small so when they wash up they often are undetectable.”

A Red-Eyed Medusa on the beach, courtesy Seaside Aquarium / Tiffany Boothe

The red-eyed medusa is about the size of a silver dollar, but it has a cousin that’s rather similar: the halimedusa. That one is only about the size of a dime, but it has an orange spot in the middle of its bell.

“Both species are essentially immortal (most jellyfish species are),” Boothe said. “Females release small eggs that float near the surface for a short time before settling down and developing into a small polyp. These anemone-like polyps can live for several years and when conditions are just right they begin budding off little medusas. This pattern repeats itself.”

A large group of jellyfish is often called a smack, likely derived from the fact it feels like you’ve been smacked when a diver runs into gobs of them, according to Boothe. Some years you’ll see lots of one species, other years another species reigns in the waters.

Close up of the creature where you can see its red dots (courtesy HRAP)

One thing is for certain though: while red-eyed medusas are found in Oregon and Washington bays like Grays Harbor, Tillamook Bay, Nehalem Bay or Winchester Bay, only a few will wash up on the beaches.

“Walking along the beach lately you may come across one or two red-eyed medusas, but if you have a keen eye you will begin to notice the hundreds of halimedusas,” Boothe said.

Both will periodically wash up into tidepools as well, Boothe said, which is why HRAP had photographed a few this past week. This means you should keep your eyes open if you’re in rocky places like Harris Beach, Bandon, Yachats, Coos Bay’s Cape Arago area, Seal Rock, Oceanside, Lincoln City or just south of Cannon Beach. You just might meet one of these jellyfish that’s 1,000 years old or so.

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Photo courtesy Seaside Aquarium / Tiffany Boothe

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