Photo: A Portuguese man-of-war

A Portuguese man-of-war

Photograph by O.S.F./Animals Animals—Earth Scenes

Map

Map: Portuguese man-of-war range

Portuguese Man-of-War Range

Fast Facts

Type:
Invertebrate
Diet:
Carnivore
Size:
Float, 12 in (30 cm) long, 5 in (12.7 cm) wide; tentacles, up to 165 ft (50 m) long
Did you know?
The tiny Nomeus gronovii fish is immune to the sting of the Portuguese man-of-war. It lives among the tentacles and even snacks on the stinging tendrils.
Size relative to a 6-ft (2-m) man:
Illustration: Portuguese man-of-war compared with adult man

Anyone unfamiliar with the biology of the venomous Portuguese man-of-war would likely mistake it for a jellyfish. Not only is it not a jellyfish, it's not even an "it," but a "they." The Portuguese man-of-war is a siphonophore, an animal made up of a colony of organisms working together.

The man-of-war comprises four separate polyps. It gets its name from the uppermost polyp, a gas-filled bladder, or pneumatophore, which sits above the water and somewhat resembles an old warship at full sail. Man-of-wars are also known as bluebottles for the purple-blue color of their pneumatophores.

The tentacles are the man-of-war's second organism. These long, thin tendrils can extend 165 feet (50 meters) in length below the surface, although 30 feet (10 meters) is more the average. They are covered in venom-filled nematocysts used to paralyze and kill fish and other small creatures. For humans, a man-of-war sting is excruciatingly painful, but rarely deadly. But beware—even dead man-of-wars washed up on shore can deliver a sting.

Muscles in the tentacles draw prey up to a polyp containing the gastrozooids or digestive organisms. A fourth polyp contains the reproductive organisms.

Man-of-wars are found, sometimes in groups of 1,000 or more, floating in warm waters throughout the world's oceans. They have no independent means of propulsion and either drift on the currents or catch the wind with their pneumatophores. To avoid threats on the surface, they can deflate their air bags and briefly submerge.

Invertebrate Features

  • Photo: Organ pipe coral

    Coral

    It's reef madness in this colorful gallery of coral formations.

  • Photo: Cluster of orange cup coral

    Photo Gallery: Coral Reefs

    About 80 percent of all life on Earth is found in the oceans, which cover 71 percent of the planet's surface. Take a look at how colorful life under the sea can be.

  • Photo: A lobster and crab on the seafloor

    Lobster

    Learn more about these popular crustaceans that some think of only as a meal. Find out the sizes that these sea creatures are capable of attaining.

  • Photo: Sea cucumber

    Sea Cucumber

    Learn how these amazing echinoderms deter predators by snaring them with sticky threads and even hurling their internal organs about.

Please select a test to run

Animals

The Innovators Project

See more innovators »

From the Magazine

  1. Photo: Two adult preen, Ireland

    Gannets Pictures

    Champion divers but clumsy landers, doting parents but hostile neighbors—northern gannets abound in contradictions.

  2. Photo: Silent Ural owl

    Estonia's Ural Owls

    Photographer Sven Začek provides an intimate view of this large raptor.