Jellyfish Uses Supercomputing Strategy to Find Food

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The barrel jellyfish, isn't just the largest jelly found in the waters around the United Kingdom, it's also one of the animal kingdom's most strategic searchers, according to a new study.

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To locate the best possible meal in the vast waters of its marine habitat, the barrel jellyfish (Rhizostoma octopus) uses a strategy most commonly associated with the world's fastest supercomputers — an approach known as fast simulated annealing.

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For mathematicians, fast simulated annealing is an algorithm, implemented by a supercomputer, which can find optimal solutions to complex problems in a relatively short amount of time. For jellyfish, fast simulated annealing is a highly evolved search strategy categorized by a series of predictable movements that bring the jelly closer and closer to large numbers of plankton, its preferred prey. [Album: Amazing Photos of Jellyfish Swarms]

This complex search strategy has never been observed before in nature, according to study lead author Andy Reynolds, a scientist at Rothamsted Research, an agricultural research center in the U.K.

Yet, other mathematical patterns of movement have been widely observed in the natural world, Reynolds said. The most common of these patterns, the "Lévy walk," is a less complex version of the barrel jelly's approach.

"A Lévy walk is random walk in which frequently occurring small steps are interspersed with more rarely occurring longer steps, which in turn are interspersed with even rarer, even longer steps and so on," Reynolds told Live Science in an email. (The Lévy walk was named after French mathematician Paul Lévy, who was noted for his work in the theory of probability.)

While this may sound like a fairly complex way of searching for something, Reynolds said it's similar to the way you might search for your lost car keys in the living room sofa and then, not finding them there, head over to the closet to check your coat pocket.

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"This hierarchical nested pattern is highly effective when searching because once an area has been intensively surveyed, the searcher is relocated to another area and then begins a new bout of intensive searching," Reynolds said. [Marine Marvels: Spectacular Photos of Sea Creatures]

Some of the species that have been observed using Lévy walks to locate their meals include sharks, penguins, honeybees, ants, turtles and even human hunter-gatherers.

But among these many species, the barrel jelly stands out because, in addition to exhibiting this Lévy walk pattern, it also engages several search methods that others species don't seem to use.