This spring and summer the local beaches have at times been covered by what appear to be small, desiccated, blue or white potato chips. They would typically be seen in windrows at and just below the high-tide line, or blown into piles. The most recently washed up ones are a dark blue-violet color, while the ones that have been on the beach for more than a day or two are faded to white.
These animals are Velella velella, commonly called by-the-wind sailors. Taxonomically they are in the Class Hydrozoa of the Phylum Cnidaria. Other members of this class are the colonial hydroids and siphonophores (such as the Portuguese man-o’-war, Physalia) as well as the freshwater hydras that you may have played around with in high school. Technically speaking, Velella isn’t a jellyfish. Actually, if we want to get uber-technical about it, there’s no such thing as a jellyfish at all; or if there is, it’s a vertebrate (i.e., some kind of actual fish) rather than a cnidarian. Most of the gelatinous creatures that people generally refer to as “jellyfish” are in fact the medusae of cnidarians.
That said, Velella is a special kind of hydrozoan. Its body consists of an oblong disc, 3-10 cm long, with tentacles and such hanging down and a sail sticking up. The little sail catches the wind that propels the animal:
How do so many of these animals end up on the beach? The answer is that they float on the surface of the ocean and are at the mercy of the winds, hence their common name. This is an extremely specialized habitat called the neuston. Organisms living here have to be adapted to both aerial and marine factors. In fact, the blue pigment in these animals is thought to act as a sunscreen, reflecting the blue (and probably UV) wavelengths and protecting the underlying cells. We all know that UV radiation damages DNA, right? That’s why we wear sun protection. Other cnidarian inhabitants of the neuston are things like Physalia and Porpita porpita (blue buttons), which are also blue in color. A former boss of mine used to say that for every hydroid there’s a nudibranch that lives on it, eats it, and looks just like it. Porpita isn’t exactly a hydroid, but it does have a predatory nudibranch, Glaucus atlanticus, which is (of course) blue-purple! Glaucus eats Velella, too.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) has, of course, one of the best video explanations of what Velella is all about. I certainly can’t do any better, so you should watch this:
By the way, MBARI’s YouTube channel is like marine biology and oceanography porn. Just sayin’. If you have some time to kill on the Internet, you could certainly do worse than to spend it there!