"This is a highly efficient system in which no developmental stage is wasted," lead author John H. Costello of Providence College and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole said in a press release.
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Young members of the species, Nanomia bijuga, situate themselves at the leading end of the colony's propulsive unit. There, they use their little jets for turning and steering.
The older, bigger members, on the other hand, are positioned further back. They provide powerful thrust as the colony migrates from the deep ocean to surface waters.
"It's a quite sophisticated design, for what would seem like a simple arrangement," Costello said.
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N. bijuga is technically a "physonect siphonophore," which is a colonial organism related to jellyfish, anemones and corals. At night, they feast on plankton and other small organisms at the ocean's surface. During the day, to avoid predators like fish, they head to deeper waters.
In a single day, the colony unit can travel over 656 feet. For the bigger, jet-producing members that take on more work, the researchers say their effort is monumental. The scientists liken it to a human adult running a marathon every day while towing the equivalent of its body mass behind it.
As for the youngsters, Costello said they "have what we call a long lever arm. They are like the handle of a door. If you push on a door near its hinges - its axis of rotation - the door is hard to open. But if you push on the door handle, which is far from the axis of rotation, the door opens easily. A little force placed with a big lever arm has a big effect on turning."
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That simple technology will surely be built into the planned manmade underwater vehicle, inspired by these animals.
"Just because the young ones are small," Costello concluded, "it doesn't mean they aren't important."
Photo: Screen grab of Nanomia bijuga colony swimming. Credit: John Costello, Marine Biological Laboratory