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Grapejelly - Fauna
Written By: Elizabeth Barrette (Writer)
The grapejelly is a tiny edible sea jelly, distantly related to the much larger jellyriggers.

Animal Name(s): Grapejelly (English), onoyorb (Torn Tongue)

Description: Grapejellies are tiny jellyfish similar to a grape in size, shape, color, and flavor. They grow up to an inch in diameter and come in shades of reddish or bluish violet. Because their sails and anchors are vestigial, grapejellies are less maneuverable than their relatives, the jellyriggers. Below the main body dangles a mass of stinging tentacles up to a foot long. These can raise an unpleasant welt similar to a beesting -- not dangerous unto itself, but potentially life-threatening in large numbers.

Once the tentacles have been sliced off, the "grape" part is edible. It contains minimal fat but is high in sugar and moderate in protein. The flavor is generally fruity, although its resemblance to actual grapes may vary. However, grapejellies do not fare well in polluted water and readily absorb aquatic toxins, which can make them inedible.

Habitat: Several closely related species of grapejelly live in the warm waters of the central gulf, and up along the cooler waters of the western coast to the frost line. They are found over the continental shelf, all the way up to the beaches but not out into open ocean. As the differences in appearance are trivial and their functional characteristics are the same, they all share the name grapejelly.

Breeding Habits and Family Units: Grapejellies share similar reproduction and social arrangements with their relatives the jellyriggers. They tend to travel in swarms, anywhere from dozens to many thousands of individual grapejellies.

A grapejelly has two modes of reproduction. (The styling is reversed from that of a Terran jellyfish.) First, sexual reproduction begins when an adult, hermaphroditic grapejelly releases a swarm of male and female gamete larvae (similar to a jellyfish's planular larvae). These settle on a coral reef or other seafloor fixture where they mature into male and female polyps; each polyp attaches with a basal disc, has a tough stalk, and ends in a fringe of short tentacles. The polyps then spawn; females first release their eggs, thus stimulating the males to release their clouds of milt. (They are not self-fertile, but require fertilization from a different grapejelly. Ocean currents tend to deposit the gamete larvae from multiple grapejellies in similar places.) The fertilized eggs grow into baby grapejellies, a form similar to a Terran jellyfish's ephyra stage. These live in the water column, growing big enough to form floats. Then they inflate, rise to the surface, and take on the familiar shape of a grapejelly, similar to a jellyfish's medusa stage.

This final stage can reproduce asexually by budding and division. It begins as a single body (although it is actually a colony of zooids, like a Portuguese man o' war) which includes a float, a digestive pouch, a set of handling tentacles and fishing tentacles, and a pair of hermaphroditic gonads. (The jellyrigger also has a sail and an anchor, which are typically vestigial in grapejellies. Once in a while a grapejelly will sprout a more substantial sail; these "winged grapejellies" are considered lucky. They may also develop a notable calcereous anchor, usually discovered when some poor human bites down on it; this is considered unlucky.) When the grapejelly has enough energy, it can bud another section, which will have all the same parts sharing the same genetics. A cluster may reach the size of a bunch of grapes, often with a similar tapered shape. In stormy weather, fierce currents can rip an adult grapejelly to pieces. But as long as a segment remains intact with all its zooid parts, it can regrow by budding. Usually the older sections from the broad upper end will die while some of the younger, lower sections survive. Asexual reproduction allows a species to make perfect copies of a supremely valuable feature.

Ecological Niche: Grapejellies are in the middle of the food chain. They are a favored food of ordinary sea turtles, young Giant Sea Turtles, some fish, and some seabirds.

A grapejelly actually has three modes of feeding. First, it can capture fish fry, marine worms, insects, and other small animals with its tentacles, conveying them to the digestive pouches. The tentacles can sense chemical traces in the water, leading them to food and helping them avoid danger. Second, it can filter-feed on plankton, algae, and other tiny floating food. Third, it has a symbiotic relationship with single-celled algae called zooxanthellae; these use sunlight for photosynthesis and share the energy with the host grapejelly.

Interaction with Humans: After the Upheaval, grapejellies survived in several shards where humans also lived. The grapejellies had not been used as a food source during Ancient times, but were soon discovered by hungry and desperate survivors. They became a part of local cuisine in several different cultures -- threaded onto kebabs with fruit or meat, served with balls of nut butter, pickled and preserved, even mashed and spread onto bread. Grapejellies are a traditional food for some Duurludirj holidays.

People usually fish for grapejellies with a special net that has very small holes. It is easy to catch large numbers of grapejellies this way -- along with almost everything else in the same volume of water. Inedible creatures must be picked out and discarded, then the grapejellies must be carefully cleaned of their tentacles. Even wearing heavy protective gear, the workers usually get stung. Once in a while, someone dies from anaphylactic shock; about as often as from beestings.

Another drawback is that grapejellies can pose a water hazard. When they swarm, it is dangerous to go swimming. Sometimes they get caught in nets meant for other prey, and are then a nuisance to remove. If they get sucked into water intakes, they can clog hoses, pumps, propellers, etc.

The Duurludirj sometimes make jewelry inspired by grapejellies, often using clusters of garnet beads. The lucky "winged grapejellies" occasionally appear etched into scrimshaw and tinted with dyes -- the local equivalent of a four-leafed clover. Other coastal cultures have their own representations, such as dyed seedpods or painted wooden beads.

Lore: There are hilarious legends and raunchy drinking songs about the Winefather getting so drunk that he threw his grapes into the sea, where they came to life and hurriedly swam away.

Sailors being superstitious folk, they consider it a good omen to find a "winged grapejelly" before a trip. Biting into an anchor, however, may well cause them to cancel or at least postpone a voyage. Sailors tell horror stories about shipwrecks that followed someone ignoring such a warning; it has become such a cliché that it's rarely used in modern storytelling because everyone knows that finding a grapejelly anchor means certain doom.

Relatives: Grapejellies are distantly related to the much larger sea monsters, the pink jellyriggers and the purple jellyriggers.

* * *

Notes: This article is the freebie from the January 14-15, 2012 Muse Fusion. It was prompted by Deirdre M. Murphy.

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