With high winds and currents occurring in recent months, more Portuguese man of war have been observed washed ashore along the Texas Coast. These creatures should be avoided at all cost and beachgoers should take caution. Here are some interesting facts about them, tips to avoid them and what to do if you come across one.
What is a Portuguese man of war and how do they function?
Despite their appearance, Portuguese man of war are not jellyfish or balloons. They are organisms called siphono phores. These are sea creatures made up of multiple organisms called zooids, or clones that work together to function as one.
There are four main functions or tasks each of these zooids are can accomplish, including floating, capturing prey, feeding and reproducing.
Floating is how the Portuguese man of war moves around. The man of war is composed of a gas-filled chamber or float, which resembles the sail of an old Portuguese warship, that sits on top of the water. It does not use propulsion, but instead relies on the wind and current to move it. The float can be blue, pink or violet. Most are blue, which is why they are also known as bluebottles. The float can also be deflated, allowing the Portuguese man of war to submerge and avoid oncoming predators.
Portuguese man of war are equipped with long strands of tentacles and polyps used to capture prey. The tentacles can be 30 to 165 feet in length. Similar to jellyfish, the tentacles consist of stinging cells called nematocysts, which can paralyze small fish, crustaceans and other invertebrates.
The nematocysts are tiny capsules loaded with coiled barb tubes that deliver venom, which can be very harmful to humans. Unlike the jellyfish, these nematocysts can sting even if the rest of the Portuguese man of war is dead. Once the prey is paralyzed, the tentacles then deliver the prey to gastro zooids, which then digest the prey and absorb its nutrients.
Portuguese man of war reproduce sexually, so there needs to be a male and female present. Oddly enough, the Portuguese man of war is similar to corals which reproduce via broadcast spawning. Large groups come together and sperm and eggs are released at the same time. This increases the chance of fertilization and survivability.
Why are they dangerous?
Portuguese man of war tend to travel in large groups. You rarely see one without seeing a hundred or more. There can be more than 1,000 Portuguese man of war in a single group.
They like warm water, which makes the Gulf of Mexico a suitable habitat. Due to their stinging nematocysts, they can be dangerous to humans.
If you come across one, first, don’t touch it. Remember these guys can sting even if they are already dead. If Portuguese man of war are seen washed ashore, lifeguards and beach officials will often post signs warning the public. Heed those warnings and swim with caution.
If you happen to get stung, the old wives tale of peeing on it to make it better is just that — a tall tale. That will actually make the sting worse. Instead, douse the sting in saltwater or vinegar to remove the tentacles. Don’t touch or scrape the tentacles unless you want more pain. Soak it with hot water mixed with Epsom salt. Cold freshwater can cause the stinging cells to release more venom.
Also, if stung, please seek medical attention, especially if you start to feel dizzy or have trouble breathing. Everyone is different and the reaction can be mild to severe.
Thanks for reading, and have a safe summer.