World of Wonder: Comb Jelly -The Toast

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Hi everyone! This is the debut of WORLD OF WONDER, a column designed to bring a little bit of wonder and awe for the natural world into your day. A bon-bon of delight and amazement to chew over while you ride the subway or wait in line to get your latte, or when you just feel like you can’t stand looking at the walls of your office for another majestically long minute more. Ahem.

Q: Um, what is “wonder?”

Q: Um, why “wonder?”

A: In PORTALS, A Journal of Comparitive Lit, Lony Haley-Nelson notes: “Wonder is a valuable passion because it leads us to learn and remember…the aesthetic experience is as valuable as the wonder that propelled Einstein to examine the properties of light or Darwin to consider the possibility of natural selection.”

Now, I’m not promising that just reading about the rare and unusual plants and animals I’ll be featuring in this column will make you the next Marie Curie, but I hope there is a little bit of dazzle in what you find here.

Poet Mary Oliver: “Still, what I want in my life is to be willing to be dazzled – to cast aside the weight of facts and maybe even to float a little above this difficult world.  I want to believe I am looking into the white fire of a great mystery.”

Be willing to be dazzled. How ’bout that as my short answer to What and Why?

And because my heroine, environmental activist/writer Rachel Carson, says: “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” I don’t know about you, but especially these last few months I know I could use all the help I can get to digest the news.

So hold onto your pantaloons! And yes, there will probably be an abundance of exclamation points.



It doesn’t sting, and it’s not actually a jellyfish. It belongs to a whole other phylum—Ctenophora. It’s like saying a hobby horse will nibble on a sugar cube just because “horse” is part of its name. No, my friend—a hobby horse is a toy.

Comb jellies eat other and various fish larvae and eggs. Mostly other comb jellies. They can be as big as a single grain of rice or they can grow over four feet tall—large enough to gobble up a plump second-grader whole. But they won’t, because they are too busy waving their hair-like cilia around (like they just don’t care—and they don’t! They only have a simple nerve net, aka not a brain). Through the magic of the wave-pulses of hundreds of thousands of cilia, one of the most distinctive light shows on this planet flashes quite the display:

See how the light diffracts over the comb rows of cilia? That’s how you get the distinctive “rainbow” light show effect scattered in the water, and it’s also what tempts people all up and down the eastern coasts of both of the Americas to gather walnut-sized ones into their hands. But don’t! Most comb jellies are so delicate (think thinner than the thinnest soft contact lens), they will disintegrate in your palm. If you want to observe one up close, scoop it up with a clear cup and take a look-see that way. And then, of course, gently return it to the water.

And what a waterworld comb jellies make, with millions of rainbows suspended not in the sky, but just below the ocean’s surface—and sometimes, sometimes so far below into the way down deep and dazzle, only pale creatures like anglerfish and gulper eels ever take notice and, for a brief moment, imagine the delicious luxury of what it’s like on earth after a rain.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Lucky Fish. She is a professor of English and teaches poetry and environmental lit at a small college in Western New York. She is obsessed with peacocks, jellyfish, and school supplies. Follow her on Twitter: @aimeenez.

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