Marine Life / Oddities in the Ocean

Seeking the Perfect Man o’ War

In the Southern Outer Banks, taking walks on the beach is a routine activity rather than an aspirational line for one’s OK Cupid profile.  I don’t know how an affinity for beach walking became the clincher for personal ads rather than, say, “likes cooking gourmet meals and then doing all the dishes,” but it’s true that few things are better than searching the wrack line for seashells and the odd venomous creature.  Wait a sec- that date went from painfully awkward to simply painful real fast.  If you have an upcoming rendezvous on an NC beach, here’s why you’ll want to tread carefully.

It looks more like blown glass than a toothy nightmare, but the Portuguese man o’ war should command as much respect as the s-h-a-r-k-s that have grabbed the media spotlight this summer.  The man o’ war (whose alter egos include man-o-war and man-of-war) resembles a jellyfish pretending to be a plastic bag.  This June, they were spotted in the Outer Banks, and have since made their way northward to grace the shores of Delaware, New Jersey, and Long Island.  Beachgoers were kind of baffled at first, myself included.  In late June, I unwittingly found a man o’ war on Atlantic Beach.  It looked like a plastic pouch rimmed with bluish-purple, and another IMS student later recognized a photo of the “pouch” as a man o’ war.  The confusion is warranted, as man o’ war typically bop around in the Caribbean.  The most widely-cited explanation for their northward migration is a collusion with sharks to diffuse negative media attention.  Either that, or they’ve been swept into the Gulf Stream and then pushed on shore by unusually strong northeast winds; they’ve so far refused to comment.  Most scientists agree that the man o’ war’s forays beyond the Caribbean will not increase with climate change, but are dictated by the whims of the winds.  As such, man o’ war is predicted to touch down in Massachusetts soon.

A tweet from a Jersey shore town alerts visitors to a recent man o' war sighting.  Image from

A tweet from a Jersey shore town alerts visitors to a recent man o’ war sighting. Image from

There is more to the man o’ war than meets the eye.  Although it looks like a single organism, it’s actually a colony of specialized individuals called zooids, each of which are adapted to act as a different part of its body structure.  Man o’ war are siphonophores, part of the phylum Cnidaria.  (Comb jellies, by contrast, are in the phylum Ctenophora.)  Their tentacle contain nematocytes, venomous cells used to capture prey.  Only one species of Portuguese man o’ war is found in the Atlantic.  Stings from Physalia physalia are not usually fatal to humans, but they can cause blisters, muscle spasms, gastrointestinal problems, neurological issues, and excruciating pain.  Unlike other siphonophores, man o’ war can carouse the high seas thanks to their pneumatophore, the inflated pouch that pops above the water’s surface like a sail.  The pneumatophore catches the wind, calling to mind the 18th-century man-of-war ship that inspired the organism’s common name.  Approximately 9 m of tentacles typically trail beneath the pneumatophore.

This photo of a man o' war highlights its

This photo of a man o’ war highlights its “sail” and dangling tentacles. Image from

Man o’ war might not be the most romantic critter out there, but they have inspired some poetry.  “Ode to a Jellyfish” was written by a Paul Misko and published in the Sun Sentinel:

Goodbye, poor little man-o-war,

I see you’ve washed up on the shore.

You look like blue and purple jelly,

and I can see into your belly.

At one time you were proudly sailing,

but soon your organs will be failing.

Though you lay crumpled on the beach,

unwary soles you still may reach.

The poem may inspire more chuckles than ardor, but hopefully will remind you to keep your eyes peeled during your next blind date walk on the beach.  Otherwise, you may wish you stuck to piña coladas and getting caught in the rain.

Cover image from National Geographic: [Check out the entire article for truly stunning photographs!]

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