It is generally accepted that animal-fluid interactions have shaped the evolution of animals that swim and fly. However, the functional ecological advantages associated with those adaptations are currently difficult to predict on the basis of measurements of the animal-fluid interactions. We report the identification of a robust, fluid dynamic correlate of distinct ecological functions in seven jellyfish species that represent a broad range of morphologies and foraging modes. Since the comparative study is based on properties of the vortex wake--specifically, a fluid dynamical concept called optimal vortex formation--and not on details of animal morphology or phylogeny, we propose that higher organisms can also be understood in terms of these fluid dynamic organizing principles. This enables a quantitative, physically based understanding of how alterations in the fluid dynamics of aquatic and aerial animals throughout their evolution can result in distinct ecological functions.