No, The Portuguese Man O’ War Is Not A Jellyfish

The Portuguese Man O’ War is known for terrifying beach-goers around the world. But if you think this strange, gelatinous, creature is a jellyfish, think again.

The Man O’ War, whose name likely comes from the resemblance of the animal’s gas-filled ‘sail’ to Portugal’s early 15th century man-of-war ships, is actually a different type of gooey, stinging creature altogether – a siphonophore.

Like jellyfish, siphonophores are predators that use stinging cells on their tentacles to catch prey. But while each jellyfish is single animal, each siphonophore, including the Portuguese Man O’ War, is a colony of animals.

A Sailing Colony

The Man O’ War is comprised of four different types of polyps, or essentially four co-dependent animals. The gas-filled bladder that allows the Man O’ War to float is made of a single polyp whose specialty is releasing gas, creating the colony’s wind-catching sail.

Below the air bladder are two more types of polyps: the gonozooids, used for reproduction, and the gastrozooids, used to digest prey.

The final type of polyp, the dactylozoid, makes up the Portuguese Man O’ War’s notorious stinging tentacles. Contact with the colony’s tentacles triggers the release of millions of stinging nematocysts, which each give off a skin-piercing injection of venom. Fortunately, while the stings of the Portuguese Man O’ War are known to be quite painful, they are rarely deadly.

Impressive Lengths

The stinging tentacles of the Portuguese Man O’ War have been documented to grow up to 100 feet long, yet this colonial animal is far from the only siphonophore that can achieve great lengths. In fact, scientists recently discovered a siphonophore in the deep ocean that was over three times longer than a blue whale, which may make it the longest animal on Earth.

While the Portuguese Man O’ War itself is not in the running for the world’s longest animal, the colony’s substantial tentacles are enough to provide a cautionary sign for any beachgoer.

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