Portuguese man o' war

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This article is about the marine invertebrate. For other uses, see Man o' war.
Portuguese man o war
Portuguese Man-O-War (Physalia physalis).jpg
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Cnidaria
Class: Hydrozoa
Order: Siphonophora
Family: Physaliidae
Genus: Physalia
Species: P. physalis
Binomial name
Physalia physalis
(Linnaeus, 1758)

The Portuguese man o' war (Physalia physalis), also known as the Portuguese man-of-war, man-of-war, or bluebottle, is a marine cnidarian of the family Physaliidae. Its venomous tentacles can deliver a painful sting. Despite its outward appearance, the Portuguese man o' war is not a common jellyfish but a siphonophore, which is not actually a single multicellular organism, but a colony of specialized minute individuals called zooids.[1] These zooids are attached to one another and physiologically integrated to the extent that they are incapable of independent survival.


The name "man o' war" comes from the man-of-war, an 18th-century armed sailing ship,[2] and the cnidarian's supposed resemblance to the Portuguese version at full sail.[3] In other languages it is simply known as the 'Portuguese war-ship' (Dutch: portugees oorlogsschip, Swedish: portugisisk örlogsman, Norwegian: portugisisk krigsskip, Finnish: portugalinsotalaiva), the 'Portuguese galley' (German: portugiesische Galeere, Hungarian: portugál gálya), the 'Portuguese caravel' (Portuguese: caravela portuguesa, Spanish: carabela portuguesa, Italian: caravella portoghese), or the 'Portuguese little boat' (Russian: португальский кораблик).


The Portuguese man o' war lives at the surface of the ocean. The gas-filled bladder, or pneumatophore, remains at the surface, while the remainder is submerged.[4] Since the Portuguese man o' war has no means of propulsion, it is moved by a combination of winds, currents, and tides. Although it is most commonly found in the open ocean in tropical and subtropical regions, it has been found as far north as the Bay of Fundy and the Hebrides.[5]

Strong winds may drive them into bays or onto beaches. Often the finding of a single Portuguese man o' war results in the finding of many others in the vicinity.[6] They must be treated with caution, and the discovery of a man o' war washed up on a beach may lead to the closure of the whole beach.[7]


Physalia physalis

The Portuguese man o' war is composed of three types of polyps and an associated gas-filled air sac called a pneumatophore or "sail".[6] The pneumatophore should probably not be considered a polyp as it develops from the planula, unlike the other polyps.[8] This sail is bilaterally symmetrical, with the tentacles at one end. It is translucent, and is tinged blue, purple, pink, or mauve. It may be 9 to 30 cm (3.5 to 11.8 in) long and may extend as much as 15 cm (5.9 in) above the water. The Portuguese man o' war generates carbon monoxide in its gas gland, filling its gas bladder with up to 14% carbon monoxide. The remainder is nitrogen, oxygen, and argon, atmospheric gases that diffuse into the gas bladder. Carbon dioxide occurs at trace levels.[9] The sail is equipped with a siphon. In the event of a surface attack, the sail can be deflated, allowing the organism to briefly submerge.[10]

The other three polyp types are known as dactylozooid (defense), gonozooid (reproduction), and gastrozooid (feeding).[11] These polyps are clustered. The dactylzooids make up the tentacles that are typically 10 m (33 ft) in length, but can be up to 50 m (160 ft).[6] The long tentacles "fish" continuously through the water, and each tentacle bears stinging, venom-filled nematocysts (coiled, thread-like structures), which sting and kill small sea organisms such as small fish and shrimp. Contractile cells in each tentacle drag the prey into range of the digestive polyps, the gastrozooids, which surround and digest the food by secreting enzymes that break down proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, while the gonozooids are responsible for reproduction.


This species and the smaller Indo-Pacific man o' war (Physalia utriculus) are responsible for up to 10,000 human stings in Australia each summer, particularly on the east coast, with some others occurring off the coast of South Australia and Western Australia.[12]

The stinging, venom-filled nematocysts[13] in the tentacles of the Portuguese man o' war can paralyze small fish and other prey. Detached tentacles and dead specimens (including those that wash up on shore) can sting just as painfully as the live organism in the water and may remain potent for hours or even days after the death of the organism or the detachment of the tentacle.[14]

Stings usually cause severe pain to humans, leaving whip-like, red welts on the skin that normally last two or three days after the initial sting, though the pain should subside after about an hour. However, the venom can travel to the lymph nodes and may cause, depending on the amount of venom, a more intense pain.[citation needed] A sting may lead to an allergic reaction. There can also be serious effects, including fever, shock, and interference with heart and lung function. Stings may also cause death,[15] although this is extremely rare. Medical attention may be necessary, especially if pain persists or is intense, the reaction is extreme, the rash worsens, a feeling of overall illness develops, a red streak develops between swollen lymph nodes and the sting, or either area becomes red, warm, and tender.

Treatment of stings[edit]

Stings from a Portuguese man o' war may result in severe dermatitis, characterized by extremely painful, long, thin open wounds that resemble those caused by a whip,[16] but are not caused by any impact or cutting action, but rather irritating urticariogenic substances in the tentacles.[17][18] The Portuguese man o' war is often confused with jellyfish, which may lead to improper treatment of stings, as the venom differs from that of true jellyfish. Treatment for a Portuguese man o' war sting includes:

  • avoiding further contact with the Portuguese man o' war and carefully removing remnants of the organism from the skin (taking care not to touch them directly with fingers or any other part of the skin to avoid secondary stinging)
  • apply salt water to the affected area (not fresh water, which tends to make the affected area worse)[19][20]
  • follow up with the application of hot water (45 °C or 113 °F) to the affected area from 15 to 20 minutes.[21] which has been shown to ease the pain better than ice cold water.[22]
  • if eyes have been affected, irrigate with copious amounts of room-temperature tap water for at least 15 minutes, and if vision blurs or the eyes continue to water or hurt, swell, or show light sensitivity after irrigating, or there is any concern, seek medical attention as soon as possible

Vinegar is not recommended for treating stings.[20] Vinegar dousing increases toxin delivery and worsens symptoms of stings from the nematocysts of this species. Vinegar has also been confirmed to provoke hemorrhaging when used on the less severe stings of cnidocytes of smaller species.[23]

Predators and prey[edit]

The Portuguese man o' war is a carnivore.[6] Using its venomous tentacles, a man o' war traps and paralyzes its prey. It typically feeds on small marine organisms, such as fish and plankton.

Portuguese man o' war in Tayrona National Park, Colombia

The loggerhead turtle feeds on the Portuguese man o' war, a common part of the loggerhead's diet.[24] The turtle's skin is too thick for the sting to penetrate.

The sea slug Glaucus atlanticus also feeds on the Portuguese man o' war,[25] as does the violet snail Janthina janthina.[26]

The blanket octopus is immune to the venom of the Portuguese man o' war; young individuals carry broken man o' war tentacles, presumably for offensive and/or defensive purposes.[27]

The ocean sunfish's primary diet consists of jellyfish, but it can also consume Portuguese men o' war.

Commensalism and symbiosis[edit]

A small fish, Nomeus gronovii (the man-of-war fish or shepherd fish), is partially immune to the venom from the stinging cells and can live among the tentacles. It seems to avoid the larger, stinging tentacles but feeds on the smaller tentacles beneath the gas bladder. The Portuguese man o' war is often found with a variety of other marine fish, including clownfish and yellow jack. The clownfish can swim among the tentacles with impunity, possibly owing to their mucus, which does not trigger the nematocysts.

All of these fish benefit from the shelter from predators provided by the stinging tentacles, and for the Portuguese man o' war the presence of these species may attract other fish on which to feed.[28]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Grzimek, B.; Schlager, N.; Olendorf, D. (2003). Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopaedia. Thomson Gale. 
  2. ^ Greene, Thomas F. Marine Science Textbook. 
  3. ^ Millward, David (8 September 2012). "Surge in number of men o'war being washed up on beaches". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 8 September 2012. 
  4. ^ Clark, F. E.; C. E. Lane (1961). "Composition of float gases of Physalia physalis". Fed. Proc. 107 (3): 673–674. doi:10.3181/00379727-107-26724. 
  5. ^ Halstead, B.W. (1988). Poisonous and Venomous Marine Animals of the World. Darwin Press. 
  6. ^ a b c d "Portuguese Man-of-War". National Geographic Society. 
  7. ^ "Dangerous jellyfish wash up". BBC News. 2008-08-18. Retrieved 2011-09-07. /
  8. ^ Kozloff, Eugene N. (1990). Invertebrates. Saunders College. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-03-046204-7. 
  9. ^ Wittenberg, Jonathan B. (1960-01-12). "The Source of Carbon Monoxide in the Float of the Portuguese Man-of-War, Physalia Physalis L". Journal of Experimental Biology 37 (4): 698–705. ISSN 0022-0949. Retrieved 2013-02-12. 
  10. ^ Physalia physalis. "Portuguese Man-of-War Printable Page work=National Geographic Animals". National Geographic. Retrieved 2009-12-07. 
  11. ^ "Portuguese Man-of-War (Bluebottle - Physalia spp. - Hydroid)". Aloha.com. Archived from the original on 2012-05-27. Retrieved 2011-09-08. 
  12. ^ Fenner, Peter J.; Williamson, John A. (December 1996). "Worldwide deaths and severe envenomation from jellyfish stings". Medical Journal of Australia 165 (11–12): 658–661. ISSN 0025-729X. PMID 8985452. Retrieved 2009-09-04. In Australia, particularly on the east coast, up to 10 000 stings occur each summer from the bluebottle (Physalia spp.) alone, with others also from the "hair jellyfish" (Cyanea) and "blubber" (Catostylus). More bluebottle stings occur in South Australia and Western Australia, as well as stings from a single-tentacled box jellyfish, the "jimble" (Carybdea rastoni) 
  13. ^ Yanagihara, Angel A.; Kuroiwa, Janelle M.Y.; Oliver, Louise M.; Kunkel, Dennis D. (December 2002). "The ultrastructure of nematocysts from the fishing tentacle of the Hawaiian bluebottle, Physalia utriculus (Cnidaria, Hydrozoa, Siphonophora)". Hydrobiologia 489 (1–3): 139–150. doi:10.1023/A:1023272519668. 
  14. ^ Auerbach, Paul S. (December 1997). "Envenomation from jellyfish and related species". J Emerg Nurs 23 (6): 555–565. doi:10.1016/S0099-1767(97)90269-5. PMID 9460392. 
  15. ^ Stein, Mark R.; Marraccini, John V.; Rothschild, Neal E.; Burnett, Joseph W. (March 1989). "Fatal Portuguese man-o'-war (Physalia physalis) envenomation". Ann Emerg Med 18 (3): 312–315. doi:10.1016/S0196-0644(89)80421-4. PMID 2564268. 
  16. ^ "Image Collection: Bites and Infestations: 26. Picture of Portuguese Man of War Sting". MedicineNet. ©1996-2014 MedicineNet, Inc. Retrieved 13 June 2014. The sting of the Portuguese man-of-war. One of the most painful effects on skin is the consequence of attack by oceanic hydrozoans known as Portuguese men-of-war, which are amazing for their size, brilliant color, and power to induce whealing. They have a small float that buoys them up and from which hang long tentacles. The wrap of these tentacles results in linear stripes, which look like whiplashes, caused not by the force of their swing but from deposition of urticariogenic and irritant substances. 
  17. ^ James, William D.; Berger, Timothy G.; Elston, Dirk M.; Odom, Richard B. (2006). Andrews' Diseases of the Skin: Clinical Dermatology. Saunders Elsevier. p. 429. ISBN 0-7216-2921-0. 
  18. ^ Rapini, Ronald P.; Bolognia, Jean L.; Jorizzo, Joseph L. (2007). Dermatology: 2-Volume Set. St. Louis: Mosby. ISBN 1-4160-2999-0. 
  19. ^ specialist from the University of Southampton appearing on BBC Breakfast program, date: 8am, Tue 19 August 2008.
  20. ^ a b Slaughter, R.J.; Beasley, D.M.; Lambie, B.S.; Schep, L.J. (2009). "New Zealand's venomous creatures". New Zealand Medical Journal 122 (1290): 83–97. PMID 19319171. 
  21. ^ Yoshimoto, C.M.; Yanagihara, A.A. (May–June 2002). "Cnidarian (coelenterate) envenomations in Hawai’i improve following heat application". Transactions of the Royal Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 96 (3): 300–303. PMID 12174784. 
  22. ^ Loten, Conrad; Stokes, Barrie; Worsley, David; Seymour, Jamie E.; Jiang, Simon; Isbister, Geoffrey K. (3 April 2006). "A randomised controlled trial of hot water (45 °C) immersion versus ice packs for pain relief in bluebottle stings". Medical Journal of Australia 184 (7): 329–333. PMID 16584366. 
  23. ^ Exton, D.R. (1988). "Treatment of Physalia physalis envenomation". Medical Journal of Australia 149 (1): 54. PMID 2898725. 
  24. ^ Brodie (1989). Venomous Animals. Western Publishing Company. 
  25. ^ Scocchi, Carla; Wood, James B. "Glaucus atlanticus, Blue Ocean Slug". Thecephalopodpage.org. Retrieved 2009-12-07. 
  26. ^ Morrison, Sue; Storrie, Ann (1999). Wonders of Western Waters: The Marine Life of South-Western Australia. CALM. p. 68. ISBN 0-7309-6894-4. 
  27. ^ "Tremoctopus". Tolweb.org. Retrieved 2009-12-07. 
  28. ^ Piper, Ross (2007). Extraordinary Animals: An Encyclopedia of Curious and Unusual Animals. Greenwood Press. 

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