With high winds and currents occurring these past months, more and 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 on how to avoid them and what to do if you come across one.
What are 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 siphonophores. 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 that each of these zooids can accomplish. These are 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 of them 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 that are 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 sting and paralyze small fish, crustaceans and other invertebrates.
The nematocysts are tiny capsules loaded with coiled barb tubes that deliver venom that 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 zooids called gastrozooids that 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 (male component) and eggs (female component) 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 up to a 1,000 Portuguese man-of-war o in one group. They like warm water, which makes the Gulf of Mexico a suitable habitat. Due to their stinging nematocysts, they can be really dangerous to humans in the water and on shore.
Here is some helpful information if you come across one. First, don’t touch it. Remember, these guys can sting even if they are dead.
If Portuguese man-of-war are seen washed ashore lifeguards and beach officials will often post signs to warn 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, an old wives tale. That will actually make the sting worse rather than better.
Instead, douse the sting with saltwater or vinegar to remove the tentacles. Don’t touch or scrape the tentacles unless you want more pain. Soak it in hot water mixed with Epsom salts. Cold freshwater can actually cause the stinging cells to release more venom.
Also if stung, please seek medical attention if you start to feel dizzy or have trouble breathing. Everyone’s reaction is different and can be mild to severe.
Thanks for reading and have a safe summer.