One Of Our Closest Invertebrate Relatives Has A Crazy Reproduction Strategy

Vagina salp (Thetys vagina). Image Credit: stephan kerkhofs/Shutterstock.com

If you’re not on the social media platform, you might not know that Twitter can be a haven for strange and wonderful information – if you know where to look. The novice tweeter can seek solace in the welcoming tentacles of science Twitter, where enthusiasts of the niche corners of the animal kingdom swap facts and memes without a troll in sight. 

One such fountain of knowledge came in the form of a thread by Rebecca R Helm, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Asheville, who was imparting some wisdom about a peculiar marine species: Thetys vagina. This salp is one of many marine invertebrates that demonstrates the highly efficient use of jet propulsion as a means of getting around. While they may look like an alien lifeform, they’re less different from us than you might think.

“Salps are tunicates, which are close relatives of vertebrates,” said Helm to IFLScience. “They even have the same embryonic structures that, in humans, form a backbone (called a notochord). A common misconception is that anything jelly-like in the ocean is a jellyfish, [but] Thetys vagina are more closely related to humans than they are to the bell-shaped jellyfish!”

As Helm’s thread reveals, our exotic-looking, far-removed cousins have a spicy tale to tell…

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Not related to the story, Helm adds, “the person who named this animal claimed they were naming it after the sea nymph Tethys' "sheath." Like...for a sword...But I digress…”

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This story is about sex.

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Something of a master of all things squishy and confusing, Helm also stepped to the plate to explain what on Earth was going on when a ~120-meter (~394-foot)  noodle appeared in the ocean just off Australia. The slender animal is a siphonophore, affectionately known as the “long stringy stingy thingy,” and is actually a huge colony of tiny animals called zooids acting as one entity, blurring the lines between acting as an organ and an animal.

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Unlike the salp, the long stringy stingy thingy is a kind of jelly, wrote Helm in a Tweet. “It's made of millions of interconnected clones, like if the Borg and the Clone Wars had a baby together. There are about a dozen different jobs a clone can do in the colony, & each clone is specialized to a particular task… A siphonophore colony in a line creates a curtain of deadly tentacles in the open ocean, but in THIS case, the animal is hunting in a galaxy-like spiral, the long wisp-like tentacles draped below.”

What a mad and wonderful world we live in.

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