A sailing siphonophore, the Portuguese man-of-war, is an organic, aqua-hued mosaic of the open oceans—and it’s seductively lethal.
To start with, Portuguese man-of-wars ( Physalia physalis) are cnidarians, a class of stinging species that encompasses jellyfish and sea anemones. But the Portuguese man-of-wars are unique in the fact that a single specimen isn’t just “one” animal—it represents a colony of uniquely independent zooids, all strung together via gelatinous tissue.
And it’s not a fictional monster, pulled from a B-rated movie.
One look at a man-of-war and the quirk that “rises” above more than any other anatomical asset—that bulbous sail. This sail takes them on a global oceanic odyssey, during which they’ll cast their 30 or so odd feet of nemactycis-laden tentacles. Once they’ve collectively snared an unassuming fish, the man-of-war will then hoist the soon-to-be liquefied aqua-fauna into it’s brown-dotted, multi-digestive bodies, where the animal is then completely utilized—the nutrients are spread throughout the colony of zooid lifeforms.
Appetizing, isn’t it?
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But not all “man”-of-war are created equally—ladies, put your sails up. While the development of their colonial bodies is completely asexual in nature, both sexes are present in the species. Each man-of-war posses gonozooids, the “sexual” zooid of the three colonizing bodies found in siphonophores—dactylozooids, responsible for tentacle growth, and gastozooids, responsible for digestive purposes, represent the other two colonial bodies.
Both eggs and sperm are produced by the presence of gonozooids, but each animal solely produces one or the other. The ocean acts as their gametic swimming pool, littered with bodily-byproducts produced by those gonozooids. Try to wash that metaphor off your mind.
One can’t help but admire not only their exterior beauty, but at the wonder of their biology. How “one” creature can attain such levels of mutualism is, in itself alone, a work of art.
But if you find yourself in the tropical waters of the world, remember this: please, keep all hands and feet out off the exhibit at all times.