Portuguese Man of War
Portuguese Man of War

The Portuguese Man of War is an extremely complex form of life, and despite its outward appearance, the Man of War is not a jellyfish, but a siphonophore. This makes it different from jellyfish as it is not actually a single creature. The Portuguese Man of wear is in fact a colonial organism made up of minute individuals called zooids, and these combine to create the four types of polyps that are characteristic of the Portuguese man of War.

One of the polyps, a gas-filled bladder, enables the organism to float. The other three polyp types are known as dactylozooid (defence), gonozooid (reproduction), and gastrozooid (feeding).

Portuguese Man of War
Portuguese Man of War
The dactylozooids make up the tentacles that are typically 30 ft in length, but they can be as long as 165 ft.

The long tentacles "fish" continuously through the water, and are armed with a large number of stinging cells called nematocysts. these stinging cells are tiny, but each one contains a coiled hollow tube, tipped with barbs.

Any pressure on these stinging cells - such as a fish brushing by as it swims past - causing the barbs to be released. They shoot into the prey - like miniature harpoons -  while remaining attached to the tentacles. the sting contains a powerful poison, similar to cobra venom.

Contractile cells in each tentacle drag the prey into range of the digestive polyps - the gastrozooids - which lie beneath the float. These then surround and digest the food by secreting enzymes that break down proteins, carbohydrates and fats.

Have you been stung by a Portuguese man of war?

The indications that you have been stung by a Man O’ War are: Stinging, burning, redness, swelling of lymph nodes. You may see long welt lines. In some people sensitive to the Man O’ War venom, there may be severe reactions, including difficulty with breathing and cardiac arrest.

The sting toxin secreted from the tentacles is a neurotoxin about seventy-five percent as powerful as cobra venom. The welts can last for minutes to hours.

Studies on the effectiveness of meat tenderizer, baking soda, papain, or commercial sprays (containing aluminum sulfate and detergents) on nematocyst stings have been contradictory. It’s possible these substances cause further damage.


If you have been stung with what you think is a Man O’ War, try these steps to minimize the pain and damage.

1. Rinse the area with seawater or fresh water to remove any tentacles stuck to the skin. This can be from a spray bottle or in a beach shower.

2. For severe pain, try applying heat or cold, whichever feels better.

3. While most stings are NOT generally fatal, some people can have severe allergic reactions to the sting that can cause a health danger. Consider even the slightest breathing difficulty, or altered level of consciousness, a medical emergency. Call for help immediately and seek immediate professional medical advice.

4. Irrigate exposed eyes with copious amounts of room temperature tap water for at least 15 minutes. If vision blurs, or the eyes continue to tear, hurt, swell, or are light sensitive after irrigating, seek professional medical advice.

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