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Portuguese Man-of-War, Fascinating Sea Creatures!

Posted by Greg on October 12, 2011

Portuguese Man-of-War (NOAA Image/Wikimedia Commons)

The Portuguese Man-of-War, or Bluebottle as it is known in Australia, looks like a jellyfish but actually isn’t. According to Southeastern Regional Taxonomic Center (South Carolina Department of Natural Resources),“The man-of-war is not a single animal. It is actually a colony of numerous organisms called polyps (or zooids) that are so specialized that they cannot live without each other.”

Four main types of polyps make up the man-of-war. One individual polyp becomes the large gas filled float (pneumatophore) that sits horizontally on the surface of the ocean. The float can be up to 15 cm above the water and is generally translucent, tinged with pink, purple or blue. The other polyps become the feeding tentacles (gastrozooids), the defensive/prey capturing tentacles (dactylozooids) and the reproductive polyps (gonozooids). The tentacles of the man-of-war can hang down in the water 165 feet (or 50 meters).”

The Portuguese Man-of-War got its name from the sail on the float polyp that resembled a Portuguese warship sail.  The “sail” can be from 4 to 12 inches long and can extend up to 6 inches above the surface of the ocean.  Another fascinating fact about man-of-wars is that when they reproduce, some will grow sails that lean left and some will grow sails that lean right, enabling them to spread out more evenly across the ocean when the winds catch them.

Portuguese Man-of-War (Lesueur US-PD/ Wikimedia Commons)

Portuguese Man-of-Wars are commonly found floating in warm tropical waters and sub tropical areas all around the world, but they have also been seen as far north as British waters. “In the United States they can occur in coastal waters from Florida (Atlantic coast, Florida Keys, Gulf of Mexico) around to Texas. However, some have been known to drift up the Atlantic coast on warm currents, or by storms, up into the cooler Northeastern United States.”

Man-of-Wars mostly float in the open ocean, but occasionally they can be found in shallow coastal waters and can sometimes wash ashore. Avoid contact with them, even if they appear to have been on the beach for a while. They can still be highly venomous! If you are stung by a Portuguese Man-of-War, according to the Southeastern Regional Taxonomic Center (South Carolina DNR), “the latest medical research suggests carefully removing (with gloves on) any noticeable tentacles from the afflicted areas and then rinsing the area with plenty of lukewarm fresh water until the stinging sensation becomes lessened. Ice can help numb the affected area for pain relief. It has been suggested by lifesaving groups in Australia that applying alcohol may worsen the sting by making any remaining undisturbed nematocysts discharge. If the sting is severe, seek medical assistance.”

All quotes are from dnr.sc.gov.

Have a safe day at the beach!

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