The Portuguese man o’ war, often referred to as the man of war, is a type of marine hydrozoan scientifically known as Physalia physalis. Although it is often mistaken for a jellyfish, the man-of-war is, in fact, a siphonophore.
Siphonophores are sea creatures of the order Siphonophorae. These animals are usually transparent and float or swim as a colony. Like all siphonophores, the Portuguese man o’ war is a colony of four organisms called zooids or polyps.
Its distinctive feature is the pneumatophore, a gas-filled bladder at the top. The pneumatophore resembles an 18th-century Portuguese warship at full sail. Due to this resemblance, it is named after a warship, the Portuguese man of war.
One of the most distinguishing features of the Portuguese man o’ war is its gas-filled bladder known as the pneumatophore. The pneumatophore is a clear, inflatable structure that floats above the water. It acts as a float and sail, allowing the colony to drift along the ocean’s surface. Typically, it is blue or purple and sometimes seems pink or transparent, depending on the species and individual.
Other main features are the tentacles. These are long, venomous tentacles-like structures that occur below the pneumatophores. The tentacles have an impressive length of up to 9 meters long. They are also lined with stinging cells known as nematocysts. These nematocysts are filled with venom and are used for hunting and defense. Surprisingly, the tentacles can still sting even when the colony is dead.
Further, the colony comprises four specialized polyps which work together to make the colony function as a single individual. The four polyps include the pneumatophore, which acts as a sail. The dactylozooid is responsible for capturing prey. The gastrozooid digests food and the gonozooid is responsible for reproduction.
The man of war is a floating organism and does not actively regulate its movement. Usually, it occurs in the open ocean but can also be found in shallow coastal areas and estuaries. Its course of motion is influenced by wind and water currents.
The Portuguese man o’ war thrives well in warm waters of tropical and subtropical areas. It is mainly found in the marine waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. They are also found in the Caribbean, Australia, and Hawaii waters.
Although the colony mostly floats on the ocean’s surface, the adult tends to live in the ocean’s upper layers, while the larvae live a few depths below the water’s surface.
The Portuguese man o’ war is a carnivorous animal, primarily feeding on crustaceans, plankton, small fish, and other tiny organisms.
Interestingly, the colony doesn’t look for food. Instead, it catches prey as it moves on the water’s surface. Usually, it uses its venomous tentacles to entrap and paralyze its prey. Once the prey is paralyzed, the colony consumes it.
Notably, each man of war has bag-like stomachs called gastrozooids. These stomachs occur along the bottom of the float and digest all the food it consumes.
The gastrozooids digest the prey by secreting enzymes that break down proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. The body absorbs the digested food’s nutrients and eventually distributes them to the various polyps in the colony, while undigested food gets out through the mouth.
As stated above, each Portuguese Man O’ War is a colony, not a single animal. However, the colony functions as a single entity with only one sex. This means that a colony can either be female or male. Each colony has specialized zooids, known as gonozooids, that perform reproductive duties.
During reproduction, these gonozooids release egg and sperm cells into the water. Fertilization occurs externally, resulting in the development of little swimming larvae.
The newborn larvae eventually develop into a polyp, attaching themselves to solid substrates such as rocks or coral reefs. The polyp then undergoes asexual reproduction, producing buds that develop into a new Portuguese man o’ war colony.
In terms of life span, the man of war is estimated to live for several months or even up to a year. However, their lifespan depends on the ocean’s temperature and other environmental factors.
Despite its venomous tentacles and ability to paralyze and kill small prey, the Portuguese man of war is not immune to threats. One of the main threats it faces is from marine predators such as sea turtles, crabs, purple sea slugs, and some select fish. These predators have developed adaptations that allow them to consume it while avoiding its stinging tentacles.
Human activities, especially pollution, are notably other significant threats to the Portuguese man o’ war. Plastic debris and chemical toxins can smother or entangle it, resulting in injury or death. Worse still, the colony can also consume it, thus affecting its health.
Climate change also threatens the Man o’ war as rising ocean temperatures and ocean currents change the colony’s habitat and food sources.
Facts About Portuguese Man O’ War
- The Portuguese man o’ war is not a single organism but rather a colony of individual specialized zooids.
- The Portuguese Man o’ War gets its name from its sail-like structure, which resembles a historical 18th–century warship of the same name.
- The Portuguese man o’ war has long, venomous tentacles, reaching up to 30m in length, and are used to capture prey.
- Portuguese man o’ war is a carnivorous animal, mainly feeding on small fish, plankton, and other small marine organisms.
- Human interaction with the man of war results in painful venomous stings.
- The colony has a life span of up to one year.
What should I do if I get stung by a Portuguese man o’ war?
Whenever stung by a man of war, treatment involves tentacle removal using gloves or a towel. Then, flush the affected region with salt water. In some cases, applying vinegar or ammonia to deactivate the remaining nematocysts can help too. If necessary, seek clinical attention.
Is the man of war edible?
No. Man of war is not edible. Its venomous nature makes it unsuitable for consumption. Not only that, but even touching its tentacles causes severe pain. It is, therefore, important to always exercise caution and avoid direct contact with its tentacles, even if they appear dead.
What is the economic importance of Man-of-War?
Unlike certain marine animals commercially harvested for food, pharmaceuticals, or other valuable resources, the man of war does not offer substantial economic benefits. However, it is studied scientifically to understand its ecological role and unique adaptations.
Can Portuguese man o’ war be kept in aquariums?
Portuguese man o’ war can make an interesting and unique addition to any aquarium. However, they need a large aquarium with plenty of open water and strong lighting. Further, they should never be kept with other fish or invertebrates. Because of their specific needs, they are not typically kept in captivity.