Cilia bundled into combs or ctenes are an evolutionary innovation that allow comb jellies (animals in the phylum Ctenophora) to swim faster and grow to sizes at least two orders of magnitude larger than animals that propel themselves by beating single cilia. Ctenophore size, shape and swimming behaviors, however, may be constrained by the mechanisms that coordinate comb plate oscillations.
Oscillations of comb plates onPleurobrachia bachei (a cydippid comb jelly), are coupled by fluid interactions between combs. Ctenes beat metachronously (in sequence) and the flows generated byP. bachei are retarded by the amount of time it takes a wave to pass down a group of ctenes. Our model predicts thatP. bachei size is constrained by the maximum thrust that can be produced by ctenes that beat in sequence and our flow visualization studies suggest that swimming via metachronous comb oscillations may constrainP. bachei to spherical shapes.
In contrast, comb plate oscillations onMnemiopsis leidyi, a lobate comb jelly, are neurally coordinated and groups of ctenes beat in synchrony. As a result, fluid flows generated byM. leidyi are not retarded by the passage of metachronal waves down each comb row.M. leidyi reach sizes 15 times larger, but swim relatively slower (body lengths per second) thanP. bachei.
We propose that propulsion via metachronous or synchronous comb plate oscillations has played an important role in the evolution of ctenophore shape and size and may have divided comb jellies into two evolutionary lineages.