STEM Surfboard Lesson for Kids • The History and Science of Duke Kahanamoku

Dive into the history of Duke Kahanamoku with a history and STEM surfboard lesson for kids

You've probably heard the term "The Big Kahuna" in reference to an important person, thing, or objective. But where does this term come from? This Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we're diving into the history of the original Big Kahuna - Olympic Medalist, and the Father of Surfing - Duke Kahanamoku with this history and STEM surfboard lesson for kids of all ages!


While surf, sun, and swimming have become synonymous with the Hawaiin Islands, this has not always been the case.

At this time, Hawaii was in the midst of many cultural and governmental changes. The expansion of Christianity and foreign missionary influences were having a major impact on Hawaiian heritage and traditions such as surfing. By the end of the 19th century, foreign missionaries had almost erased surfing - or the act of riding waves - from the Hawaiian Islands.

This is where Duke Kahanamoku rides in!

The Big Kahuna was born in Haleʻākala in 1890. He was an excellent surfer, 5-time Olympic Swimming Medalist, actor, and proud representative of his native land. He and a group of fellow surfers even saved the lives of eight after a wave sank their 40-foot boat!

His Kahanamoku Kick swimming technique, superior surfing, and all-around positive passion gave Duke the opportunity to share his skills with the world. He began participating and teaching in surfing exhibitions around the world, going on to become the first person to be inducted into both the Surfing Hall of Fame and the Swimming Hall of Fame.

Sure enough, surfing started to become popular in Hawaii again! Despite the emerging designs including lighter, hollow boards, Duke preferred his own surfboards to be made from koatree using traditional Hawaiian methods, bringing his roots back into the sport. His natural abilities and love of the sport led him to become the legendary surfer known as “The Big Kahuna” and the “Father of Surfing.”

As we reflect on Duke’s life and accomplishments, let’s also look back at his culture and childhood. Duke came from a well-known family that ruled several kingdoms. This gave him a deep appreciation and understanding of Hawaiian culture, which he fought for throughout his entire life. In 1959, when Hawaii became the 50th US State, Kahanamoku was officially named the State of Hawaii Ambassador of Aloha.

There is a statue of Duke in Hawaii near the beach where his ashes were spread. He will forever be loved by the people of Hawaii and looked at as a hero. Because of his talents and passion for surfing, he is known for giving Hawaii a new dimension of international stature, stating that, "he was the soul of dignity."

He is still well loved in his native home of Hawaii, but he is also beloved by surfers everywhere. Not only was he a hero, a great person, and a pioneer-- he was just an all-around good person who fought for Hawaiian culture and surfing.

This summer when you’re hitting the waves with your surfboard, think about the origin, and thank Duke for making surfing what it is today. Surfs up!

a statue of duke kahanamoku in hawaii

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Whether you're hitting the beach, the pool, or creating a tropical getaway in your own backyard, add a little science to your summer with you this surfing STEM lesson for kids! 

Surfboards can come in all shapes and sizes and are made out of different kinds of materials depending on the surf. Using materials you can find around the house and a little creative flair, learn about the science of surfboards with this easy DIY activity! 

a photo of small colorful foam surfboards

Cool Reindeer Facts You Didn’t Know

Eenie meenie miney doe, how many reindeer facts do you know?

You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen. But do you recall, the biology of them all? You’ve probably heard this song before, but have you heard the science behind Santa’s fluffy helpers?

A reindeer by any other name...

What exactly is a reindeer? These animals are part of the deer family, or Cervidae, which includes deer, elk, moose, and wapiti. Reindeer are also commonly known as caribou. This classification is primarily based on location, or habitat. Reindeer refers to the domesticated animal, while caribou refers to the wild animal.

an imgae comparing the size of reindeer, deer, elk, and moose

Female reindeer are slaying it!

Scientists have observed that male reindeer shed their antlers in early December after mating season, while female reindeer keep their antlers all year. This means that if the reindeer spotted pulling Santa’s sleigh on December 24 have antlers, they must be females, as males would have already shed their antlers.

The real red-nosed reindeer

You may remember Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and his shiny schnoz. Scientists say that having a rosy nose is not only possible but common in Santa’s furry friends. Reindeer have 25% more blood vessels in their nose than humans. This helps keep their noses warm, which allows them to warm up the frigid air before they breathe it in. Exposure to extreme cold, or exercise increases blood flow, and with so many extra blood vessels in their noses, they can turn a light rosy color.

a reindeer with a pink nose

Eye on the prize

Reindeer have also adapted to see ultraviolet light. While humans are no strangers to ultraviolet light, we are unable to see it. UV rays are commonly known to cause sunburn or snow blindness by reflecting brightly off of the white snow. Reindeer, however, have adapted the ability to see these wavelengths. This not only protects their eyes but allows them to better see food or other animals camouflaged in the snow.

The cold never bothered them anyway

Why does Santa have a reindeer-drawn sleigh instead of a horse-drawn carriage? Reindeer are native to cold climates like Alaska, Canada, and Scandinavia and have adapted to the cold. A reindeer’s fur is made up of hollow hairs that trap in air and keep them well-insulated. They are also the only animal to have hair completely cover their noses. This helps warm up the cold air they breathe before it reaches their lungs.

a reindeer in a snowy forest

So next time you hear the pitter-patter of hooves on your roof, remember it’s no coincidence that Santa uses these gentle giants to pull his sleigh. Reindeer have adapted to weather their frosty environment and help deliver Christmas cheer all over the world!

Learn some more COOL science! 

How Native American Tribes Shaped Purple Martin Birds

 Learn how Native American tribes shaped Purple Martin birds and their nesting habits 

Did you know that Purple Martins famously don't build their own nests? You could almost call them people martins because they depend entirely on human-made nests to raise their chicks. 

It’s been documented that when indigenous peoples would hang out their gourds to dry, Purple Martins started nesting inside them. They left them hanging up in their villages for the birds to live in. To this day, Purple Martins are one of the only bird species to prefer human-made houses over natural ones. Using what we’ve learned about how Native American tribes shaped Purple Martin birds, we can better practice conservation efforts for migratory birds.


Disney’s Animals, Science, and Environment department built a specialized Purple Martin house for Orlando Science Center. Our high-rise, park-front condo features 22 different nests for new martin parents to raise their young (and it’s already furnished!) Our house is located in Loch Haven Park, just outside the 4Roots Cafe.

a group of kids looking a a purple martin nest at orlando science center

What Native tribes housed Purple Martins?

Martins are migratory birds. They spend the winter and fall in Brazil and make their way to Florida every spring! 

Florida is home to several tribes of Indigenous peoples. Each Native tribe is unique, and their people lived in different regions and spoke different languages.

Using the Native Land App on your Apple or Android device, you can find out what Native Land you currently live on. Orlando Science Center is located on Timucua land!

Learn about some of the most historically documented Native American tribes in Florida!

A map of florida showing Native American tribe territories
*It's important to note that this is not a complete list. Indigenous peoples lived in what is now known as Florida for more than 12,000 years before the time of first contact with Europeans.

The Seminole (Creek) tribes are well known for their beautiful woodcarvings, beadwork, and baskets.

The Choctaw tribes were known for their colorful clothing. The women typically wore multi-colored dresses or wrap-around skirts and the men wore colorful shirts made of woven fibers

The Timucua were known to have more permanent villages than the other tribes. Each family had their own home but the cooking took place in the village and meals were held daily in a central location

The Calusa are considered to be the first "shell collectors." Shells were discarded into large mounds. Unlike other Indian tribes, the Calusa did not make many pottery items

The Jeaga are hunter-gatherers who subsisted mostly on sea turtles and oysters, as well as conch, fish, deer, raccoon, manatee, alligator and shark. They also collected wild plants including coco palms, sea grapes and palmetto berries

The Tequesta used shells and sharks' teeth for a variety of tools. These included hammers, chisels, fishhooks, drinking cups, and spearheads. Sharks' teeth were used to carve out logs to make canoes

The Apalachees played a ball game that was a religious exercise as well as a sport. One village would challenge another to a match, and the two teams would have up to 100 players each. They used a hard clay ball about the size of a golf ball covered with buckskin. Players propelled the ball with their feet toward the goal post which was a pole topped with a stuffed eagle in a nest. They played the ball game in the spring and summer, and dedicated it to the gods of rain and thunder to ensure rain for their crops.

The Miccosukee historically are farming people. Miccosukee women did most of the farming, harvesting crops of corn, beans, and squash. Miccosukee men did most of the hunting and fishing, catching game such as deer, wild turkeys, rabbits, turtles, and alligators. Miccosukee included cornbread, soups, and stews in their meals

The Ais are one of many tribes, consisting of several hundred thousand people that lived in Florida prior to first contact with Ponce de Leon and the Spanish in 1513. The Ais tribes fished using hooks made from the toe bones of deer they had hunted, taking full advantage of the great catches available off the coast of Florida

Unique Reptiles at Orlando Science Center

You can meet these magically unique reptiles at Orlando Science Center! 

The fantastic beasts: prehensile-tailed skinks. Where to find them: NatureWorks

Say hello to our new and unique reptiles at Orlando Science Center — Gryffin, Puff, Raven, and Sly, four prehensile-tailed skinks who have found a new forever home.  

a skink on a stick with a gryffindor flag in the background
a momma skink on a stick with a ravenclaw flag in the background
a baby skink on a stick with a hufflepuff flag in the background
a skink on a stick with a slytherin flag in the background

They don’t have their own broomsticks yet, so they flew to us via airplane all the way from California. They were confiscated by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in a wildlife trafficking incident. Their bewitching good looks make this species a popular target for the pet trade. Gryffin, Raven, and Sly were collected in the Solomon Islands (located north of Australia) and illegally brought into the United States before being found by wildlife authorities.  

Following their rescue, Raven gave birth to Puff!

These reptiles lay their eggs inside their body and the young hatch within the parent’s body. A group of skinks is called a circulus and all of the adults in the circulus help to raise the baby. Puff seems to prefer spending most of their time with Sly, the other adult female. We are especially excited to watch Puff grow into an adult skink! 

When the skinks were first rescued, they were underweight and fighting off a parasite infection. They have been under the care of our animal experts, and we are happy to report that our veterinarian now deems them to be in excellent health! We are honored to provide a forever home and quality care to these big lizards with a big story!  

two unique reptile skinks cuddling

Can Service Dogs Help STEM Professionals?

Learn how service dogs can help people with disabilities breakdown barriers!

Have you ever seen a person using a service animal? Why do some people have animals that help them complete tasks? 

When most people think of service animals, what probably comes to mind is a person who is blind using a seeing-eye dog, but there are a wide variety of disabilities and medical conditions where a service animal can be used to help people.

People who have disabilities sometimes use service animals, like dogs, to help them complete day-to-day tasks easily. Service dogs are specifically trained to help their owners complete tasks they would not be able to do independently; like open a door, bring them their car keys, and even guide a person who is blind across a street. Some dogs can detect when a person’s heart rate lowers, or when they are showing signs of anxiety from previous trauma. The dogs can alert their owners, and they can then take medications they need, prevent an anxiety attack, or get to a safe space away from people.

Service dogs are “tasked trained” meaning there is a specific task or behavior they have been trained to perform to help their owner. This is what separates them from just your average pet dog. Not every person with a disability needs a service dog, but some people can’t imagine trying to live their life without one!

Sierra Middleton was an animal care intern at Orlando Science Center where she helped to clean enclosures, walk animals outdoors, provide a science learning experience for guests, performed water chemistry testing, and learned how to train exotic animals, accompanied by her loyal service dog, Duke. 

To me, Duke is more than just my service dog - he’s my lifeline in a lot of ways. He means an increased quality of life; helping me with things every day as simple as picking up my dropped phone to as great as alerting me to an impending medical episode.

The many ways I have trained him to help mitigate my disabilities have certainly helped me in more ways than I can count, but in all honesty it was the mere existence of his unconditional love that acted as a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

Sierra Middleton
OSC Intern & Volunteer
a STEM professional with her service dog

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush. The ADA is one of America's most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life -- to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in State and local government programs and services. 

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Soil Science Experiment • How to Demonstrate Soil Erosion

Learn about erosion with this soil science experiment!

Forces of nature like wind and rain shape and reshape Earth’s surface by gradually wearing away, or eroding rocks and soil.

When it rains, water that is not used by plants or dried up by the sun slowly flows through the topsoil downhill into nearby water basins like lakes, rivers, streams, and aquifers. Natural areas like Mangroves, Cypress Swamps, Coral Reefs, and Pinewood Flats act like buffer zones which lessens the harmful effects of natural disasters like tropical storms and hurricanes have on Florida.

In this soil science experiment, you will see how different environments can affect water runoff and soil erosion. 


  • 3 plastic bottles
  • 6 cups of soil
  • 1 cup of mulch with some leaf litter
  • 1 square of grass taken from outside. Not the grass pulled out, but a small section removed with a garden spade to be placed inside one of the bottles
  • 1 watering can which will simulate rainfall
  • 3 clear disposable cups
  • 3 pieces of twine that are 12 inches long
  • Scissors or a box cutter
  • Hole puncher (optional)


Let's get started! 

  1. Begin by cutting off one side of all 3 of the plastic bottles. (Cut the bottles vertically in half from top to bottom.)
  2. Place the bottles on their sides and fill each one with two cups of soil.
  3. In one bottle, add the 1 cup of mulch and leaf litter and pack it down.
  4. In the second bottle, add the grass that was collected and pack it down.
  5. Lay the bottles horizontally with the mouth of the bottle hanging over the edge of a table.
  6. Make 2 holes at the top on each side of the “catch-cups” using the hole puncher or you can use the scissors or box cutter.
  7. Pull the twine through the holes and tie them to make handles for the cups.
  8. Attach one cup with twine to each one of the bottles so that each one has a cup hanging from the mouth over the end of the table (see photo).
  9. Now the fun part! Use your watering can to simulate a rainstorm by watering each of the soil science bottles
  10. Make observations and record your findings about which model held the most rainwater, and what the water looks like in the catch cups.
Soil Science Experiment

Expand on the Activity


Post-Activity Discussion Questions:

  1. Which model did the best job at keeping the soil in place?
  2. Do you think it’s a good idea to have natural areas with a lot of plants to protect Florida when it rains?

How to Identify a Legless Lizard from a Snake

Slither in and learn how to identify a legless lizard you may think is a snake

What do you call a lizard with no legs?

You may be waiting for a punchline, but legless lizards are real reptiles that commonly get mis-snake-n for another commonly limbless creature. Florida is home to a few legless lizard species and, you may even come across them while hiking, playing outside, or doing yard work.

Let’s take a closer look at the differences and learn how to identify a legless lizard from a snake. Help remember what you've learned by downloading and filling out this Research Learning Adventure activity sheet as you go!

Research Learning Adventure Activity Sheet


While looking right at the eyes of the legless lizard, you can see that they have eye lids. Kind of like you and me! Snakes, however, do not have eye lids. Snakes’ eyes are protected by a durable, see-through eye scale. Glass lizards can blink, but snakes cannot!

close up of a legless lizard eyes
Legless lizard
close up of a snake eye


Now let’s take a look at the legless lizard’s jaw structure. The upper and lower part are not detachable like in snake species. Snakes can dislocate their jaw using their face muscles to eat large prey. Eastern glass lizards have minimal jaw muscle control and eat mostly insects, small mice, and bird eggs. How wide can you open your mouth? Is your jaw more like the legless lizard, or the snake?

legless lizard jaw
Legless lizard
snake jaw


Legless lizards have on opening on their head for hearing, just like us! Snakes actually use their jaw bones to hear vibrations. Have you ever felt the sound vibrations from a really deep or loud sound? Snakes rely on that sensation to hear all the time! Sound information travels in the form of vibrations from the jaw to the cochlea, a special hearing structure. We have cochlea in our ears too!

Legless lizard ear
Legless lizard
snake ear
snake ear

Legless Lizards & Snakes

Legless lizards and snakes are very important parts of Florida habitats. Glass lizards help control our insect populations, while snakes help to control rodent, lizard, and bird populations. Together they help to balance Florida food webs.

Both legless lizards and snakes pose no major threat to humans. Any bites that do happen are usually on accident because the animal was startled and scared. The best thing to do with all wildlife is to keep a safe distance of at least 15 feet away at all times.

Make sure to visit Orlando Science Center to see all the amazing snake species in NatureWorks or learn more about legless lizards and snakes in Florida by checking out this video.

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Can Snakes Be Venomous AND Poisonous?

Are snakes venomous or poisonous? Can some snakes be venomous and poisonous?

Florida is home to 44 different snake species, from the large and dramatic eastern indigo snake, to the teeny tiny ringneck. All of our serpentine friends, even the venomous ones, serve important roles in our ecosystem by helping to regulate rodent populations, and by providing food to larger predators. Notice, we said venomous snakes, not poisonous ones. That’s because venom and poison aren’t the same things. But can some snakes be both venomous and poisonous?

First, let's break down what it means to be venomous versus poisonous. Both venom and poison are toxins, which means they can cause harm to our bodies. The difference between venom and poison is how the toxin gets into a body. Poison is either eaten or touched, like poison ivy or arsenic. Those can only hurt you if you put them in your mouth or on your skin. Venom, on the other hand, is injected. Think of the fangs of a snake or the stinger of a scorpion. Venomous animals must puncture the skin of their victims to get their venom into the victim’s blood. 

 While unusual, there are a few species of snake that are actually poisonous. Rhabdophis keelback snakes are both venomous and poisonous – their poisons are stored in nuchal glands and are acquired by sequestering toxins from poisonous toads the snakes eat. Similarly, certain garter snakes from Oregon can retain toxins in their livers from ingesting rough-skinned newts.

Of these 44 different species of snakes that call Florida home, only six are dangerous to people, those being:

  • Eastern coral snake
  • Southern copperhead
  • Cottonmouth
  • Eastern diamondback rattlesnake
  • Timber rattlesnake
  • Dusky pygmy rattlesnake

That all sounds pretty scary, but don’t worry! It’s actually very unlikely to be bitten by a snake in the state of Florida. In fact, it is much more likely for a person to be struck by lightning than to be bitten by a venomous snake! This is because snakes want nothing to do with people. They usually are very likely to flee at the first sight of a person. They don’t want to end up as a larger animal’s dinner after all!

Can Snakes Be Venomous and Poisonous

Unfortunately, the majority of reported snake bites are due to handling snakes or even trying to hurt them. If you’re still concerned about snakebites, educate yourself and family about them, make sure not to reach into dense bushes where you can’t see your hands, and seek out snake avoidance training for your pets. Fortunately, even those who do get bitten are almost always fine, as long as they seek out medical attention immediately. Snake venom has been heavily researched by medical scientists for creating new highly effective medicines.

Take a few minutes to find out which venomous and nonvenomous Florida snakes are your favorites, and see which ones you can find in NatureWorks next time you slither into Orlando Science Center!

Outdoor Safety for Kids • 7 Survival Tips for Any Scenario

Check out these 7 outdoor safety tips for kids! 

When the sun is shining, there’s nothing better than getting outside, breathing in a breath of fresh air, and communing with nature! But don’t forget to keep safety in mind! Whether you’re camping or hiking the great outdoors — or just exploring your own backyard — check out these 7 outdoor survival and safety tips for kids! 

Get more safety and survival tips, and put your hero skills to the test with new, interactive exhibit RESCUE now on display! 

1. Not all who wander are lost. But if you are lost, stop wandering

If you find your surroundings are starting to become unfamiliar, it’s easy to want to retrace your steps, or find the last familiar setting. However, staying put

is the most important survival skill to teach your children. The farther they wander from the site where they were last seen, the harder it’s going to be for rescuers to find them. Staying in one place will also conserve energy and reduce their risk of falling or getting injured.

2. Wear bright colors 

Bright colors will help you stand out from your surroundings, and even more so if your whole party is wearing matching colors. However, be mindful of your surroundings. If you’re spending time in or near water avoid blue, and if you’re spending time in a wooded area, avoid green.


Outdoor safety for Kids - a picture of what different colored swimsuits look like underwater

3. Keep calm and carry an explorer’s kit

Even on a short adventure, it’s always best to bring supplies! Here are some fundamentals to keep any adventure safe and fun.

  • Sunscreen and bug spray
  • A whistle
  • A flashlight or glow sticks
  • A poncho
  • Water and non-perishable snacks
  • A laminated emergency contact card
  • For basic first aid, include: adhesive bandages, hand sanitizer, antibiotic cream, and antiseptic, wipes or spray, and any personal medications, inhalers, or EpiPens

4. Build a shelter

This is not only a good survival tip, but a fun one to practice! Children are naturally creative and, with a little guidance, design excellent shelters. Can a jacket or a poncho make a tent? What kind or sticks or foliage are around you? Next time you’re enjoying the outdoors, challenge your junior explorers to see what kind of shelter can be made from their surroundings.

5. Always wear sunscreen. Even on a cloudy day

Can you get a sunburn on a cloudy day? While clouds do reduce some of the sun’s UV rays, they don’t block all of them. UVA rays can penetrate clouds, and they can also reach below the water’s surface.

UVB rays can also damage your skin year-round, cloudy or not. Reflective surfaces like snow and ice also intensify UVB rays and their effects on the skin so be sure to apply sunscreen anytime you plan on spending time outside.

6. Know when it’s okay to ask for help

Children who are lost or in another emergency situation can often fear rescuers, in part because they learn about “stranger danger” at an early age. Sometimes, they’re so afraid, they hide from the very people searching for them or trying to help.

Explain to your children that if they find themselves in an emergency, the people calling their name are trying to help them. Show them what emergency professionals look like in their various uniforms: firefighters, law enforcement officers, and search and rescue dogs.

outdoor safety for kids - kids dressed up in first responder gear

7. Expect the unexpected

No one ever plans an emergency situation, but you can plan for when one happens. Like fire drills or seatbelts, the best way to plan for the unplannable is to practice and incorporate safety into as much as your daily life is possible. Whether you’re just taking a walk in the park or exploring the wilderness, make sure you always have a plan, and know the plan! 

Check out some outdoor activities!

Are Jellyfish Older Than Dinosaurs? And 7 Other Fascinating Facts

Did you know jellyfish can age backward? Are jellyfish older than dinosaurs? Check out these seemingly immortal invertebrates!

What’s the first animal you think of when you think of the ocean? Chances are it probably isn’t a jellyfish. Many people don’t think about them beyond being careful not to be stung by one in the ocean or watching them gracefully float by in an aquarium.

But did you know that there is a jellyfish that can grow to be the length of a blue whale? Or that the answer to "are jellyfish older than dinosaurs" is an incredible YES! How about that many jellyfish can glow in the dark?

In honor of World Ocean’s Day on June 8th, let's dive into these eight extraordinary facts about jellyfish!

A jellyfish is a very simple animal.

But what exactly is a jellyfish? A jellyfish isn’t a fish but an invertebrate, which means it doesn’t have a backbone. In fact, it doesn’t have much of anything. Jellyfish don’t have a brain, a heart, or even blood, and have a very simple digestive cavity with a single opening for eating and expelling waste. What they do have is water – lots of it. Jellyfish are about 95% water. This makes them highly camouflaged in the ocean. Going a little deeper, the body of the jellyfish is divided into three main parts: the bell, the oral arms (long appendages that move captured prey into their mouths), and the stinging tentacles.

anatomy of a jellyfish

Jellyfish come in a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes.

Though the basic parts of the jellyfish are fixed, the bells, oral arms, and tentacles can be different shapes, sizes, and colors. Thought to be the smallest jellyfish in the world, the Irukandji jellyfish has a bell that only reaches a maximum of 25 millimeters across, about the size of a quarter. A species of box jellyfish, they are one of the most venomous jellyfish in the world despite their tiny size.

The lion’s mane jellyfish (featured in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane”) is the largest known species of jellyfish by length, reaching up to 120 feet from the top of the bell to the bottom of the tentacles. This is about the length of 4 school buses, making it longer than a blue whale! Nomura's jellyfish are the largest by weight; they can weigh up to 450 pounds. That’s the weight of a piano!

two images: tiny creature in a test tube and a very large one with long tentacles

Are jellyfish older than dinosaurs?

Jellyfish have been around for more than 500 million years. That means they appeared more than 250 million years before the first dinosaurs. However, because jellyfish are soft-bodied and almost all water, jellyfish fossils are incredibly rare. Of those that do exist, the oldest-known jellyfish fossils, found in Utah, date to 505 million years ago and have enough detail to show clear relationships with some modern species of jellyfish.

a close up of a jellyfish

Like butterflies, jellyfish undergo metamorphosis.

Have you ever wondered what a baby jellyfish looks like? What we usually think of as a jellyfish is called a medusa. Medusas lay eggs. Eggs grow into larva called planula – which have been described as looking like furry tic-tacs – and they start swimming until they find somewhere to stick themselves. Once a planula finds a rock, dock, or other place to attach itself to, it stretches into a tube called a polyp. When a polyp is ready, the tube becomes longer and separates out into a series of snowflake-like discs. Each disc will begin to wiggle then pop off the stack. The disc, called an ephyra, is a baby medusa. It pumps its body to swim away. It can grow an inch every few days until it becomes mature medusa. 

There is a species of jellyfish that is basically immortal.

Now that we’ve talked about the jellyfish life cycle, the real fun can begin. Turritopsis dohrnii, a species of tiny jellyfish discovered in the Mediterranean Sea, can turn from medusas into polyps when damaged or starving. This would be like a butterfly turning back into a caterpillar or a frog turning back into a tadpole. T. dohrnii can go back and forth between its polyp and medusa stages, leading to it being known as “the immortal jellyfish.” Further research shows that other species of jellyfish may be able to reserve-age, too. Studying the cells of these jellyfish has potential uses for medicine.

a clear jellyfish with a bright red center

Some jellyfish get sleepy.

Since they lack a brain, jellyfish have a very different kind of nervous system from many animals. Jellyfish have what are called “nerve nets,” which are loose networks of neurons and sensors spread out across their bodies. Even with this very simple nervous system, jellyfish can carry out a variety of behaviors, including some once thought impossible. A 2017 study showed that one type of jellyfish (Cassiopea, or the upside-down jellyfish) enters a sleep-like state at night and were sluggish when they didn’t get a full night of sleep. This was the first time an animal without a brain was observed sleeping!

a cluster of jellyfish sleeping

Glow-in-the-dark jellyfish revolutionized biotechnology.

Bioluminescence is the ability of living things to make light through chemical processes. The jellyfish species Aequorea victoria, also known as the crystal jelly, glows bright green due to both bioluminescent and fluorescent proteins. The green fluorescent protein (GFP), which glows green under blue light, has since been cloned and inserted into other organisms’ genetic codes, allowing scientists to literally see how genes and cells work. According to Juli Berwald, scientists have used fluorescent proteins made from GFP to see how bacteria divide; how cancer, Alzheimer’s and HIV affect cells; to trace neurological pathways in the brain; to test for diseases like malaria and ebola; to build solar cells, and to make low-temperature, energy-efficient lasers.

bright green glow in the dark jellyfish

Scientists are making robo-jellyfish.

Scientists and engineers have created robotic jellyfish to assist them in studying the ocean. In 2018, Erik Engeberg, an associate professor of engineering at Florida Atlantic University, and his team tested prototypes of a soft-bodied robot that moves like a jellyfish. The robot can monitor and study the underwater environments of coral reefs without harming them, since these robo-jellyfish are quieter and safer for marine life than underwater drones. Dr. Edie Widder developed an electronic jellyfish as a lure to attract large, deep-sea predators. Her e-jelly, which used the bioluminescent patterns of the jellyfish Atolla wyvillei, was used to capture the first video footage of a living giant squid in 2012.

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Want more jellyfish?

Check out these jellyfish live cameras from the Georgia Aquarium and Monterey Bay Aquarium!