Please Note: This safety information is provided strictly as a courtesy in an effort to educate beachgoers and ocean enthusiasts on beach safety and not intended as medical advise. 808jellyfish is not a medical site. If a severe reaction occurs as the result of a box jellyfish sting immediately see a lifeguard for assistance, seek treatment at the nearest medical facility, or contact a physician.

MAN-OF-WAR -  1986, 2001 Hawaiian Lifeguard Association. All Rights Reserved.

Portuguese Man-of-War
(Bluebottle - Physalia spp. - Hydroid)

"`Ili Mane`o, Pa`imalau, Palalia or Pololia"

Family: Physaliidae, Order: Siphonophora, Class: Hydrozoa, Phylum:

The portuguese man-of-war "jellyfish" - in Hawaiian, `Ili Mane`o, Pa`imalau, Palalia or Pololia - is actually any of various invertebrate, jelly-like marine animals of the family: Physaliidae, order: Siphonophora, class: Hydrozoa, and Phylum: Cnidaria. These pelagic colonial hydroids or hydrozoans are infamous for their very painful, powerful sting and are very common in Hawaiian ocean waters.

The man-of-war ranges or occurs most commonly in the tropical and subtropical regions of the Pacific and Indian oceans, and the northern Atlantic Gulf Stream, although found in warm seas throughout the world. It is sometimes found floating - some even say "swarming" - in groups of thousands. Physalia physalis is the only widely distributed species. P. utriculus, commonly known as the bluebottle, frequently occurs in Hawai`i, in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

The Australian Museum notes on its luminous web page, that the portuguese man-of-war ". . . is not a single animal but a colony of four kinds of highly modified individuals [polyps]. The polyps are dependent on one another for survival." Click here or on this image for a diagram of the different types of descending polyps.

The man-of-war's body consists of a gas-filled (mostly nitrogen), bladder-like float (a polyp, the pneumatophore) - a translucent structure tinted pink, blue, or violet - which may be 3 to 12 inches (9 to 30 centimeters) long and may extend as much as 6 inches (15 centimeters) above the water. Beneath the float are clusters of polyps, from which hang tentacles of up to 165 feet (about 50 meters) in length. The polyps are of three types: dactylozooid, gonozooid, and gastrozooid, concerned, respectively, with detecting and capturing prey, with reproducing, and with feeding. The "animal" moves by means of its crest, which functions as a sail.

Initially, Physalia reproduce sexually - the sperm of one mature colonial hydroid fertilizes the egg of another reproducing a larva. Then like other invertebrates and hydroids, larval Physalia reproduces itself by mitotic, asexual reproduction to yield or bud, i.e., grow, genetically identical colonial offspring within and onto itself. (The mitotic process involves the facilitation of the equal partitioning of replicated chromosomes into two identical groups.) Asexual reproduction leads to a rapid growth; sexual reproduction produces genetic differentiation, combined both lead to rapid increase in species numbers. The biomass increases or "grows" opportunistically from both reproductive processes in favorable conditions: adequate food supply, equable, suitable temperature, and adequate ranging territory or space to live. It is no wonder that there is a thriving, proliferation of Physalia spp. in Hawaii's temperate, food rich, expansive ocean waters.

Tentacles of the dactylozooids bear stinging nematocystic (coiled thread-like) structures that paralyze small fish and other prey. The gastrozooids then attach to the immobilized victim, spread over it, digesting it. The Portuguese man-of-war is eaten by other animals, including the loggerhead turtle, Caretta caretta. The small fish, Nomeus gronovii, lives among the tentacles of Physalia and is nearly immune to the poison from the stinging cells. Nomeus feeds on the tentacles, which are constantly regenerated; sometimes the fish is eaten by Physalia. Clown or Clown Anemone fish (Amphiprion spp.) and the Yellow-jack fish (Caranx bartholomaei) reportedly have a similar commensal symbiotic relationship, i.e., a mutually beneficial relationship with no negative or pathogenic effect on the host or symbiont.

Reportedly, another interesting food chain manifestation occurs occasionally. When leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) feed on man-of-wars, like jellyfish - their favorite foods, sharks are attracted to and feed on the sea turtles, and, may be attracted to and try to feed on things that look like sea turtles, e.g., humans swimming in murky waters, on surf boards, etc.

The portuguese man-of-war itself will eat basically anything that comes in contact with its stinging tentacle polyps, the dactylozooids. As Physalia drifts down wind, the long tentacles "fish" continuously through the water. Muscles in each tentacle contract and drag prey into range of the digestive polyps, the gastrozooids, which, acting like small mouths, consume and digest the food by phagocytosis - by secreting a full range of enzymes that variously break down proteins, carbohydrates and fats. The prey consists mostly of small crustaceans, small fish, algae and other members of the surface plankton which the man-of-war ensnares in its entangling, stinging nematocystic threads.


The sting of Physalia is very painful to man and can cause serious effects, including fever, shock, and interference with heart and lung action. When stung, carefully, pick or brush off any visible tentacles - try not to use your fingers - use your towel, fins, etc. Rinse with fresh or salt water - do not use vinegar. For severe pain, try applying heat or cold, whichever feels better to the victim. Immediate medical attention may be required as their stinging may bring about anaphylactic shock.

The nematocystic sting toxin secreted from the tentacles of the dactylozooids, a mixture of enzymes, is a neurotoxin about seventy-five percent as powerful as cobra venom. The toxins contain a complex mixture of polypeptides and proteins including catecholamines, histamine, hyaluronidase, fibolysins, kinins, phospholipases and various hemolytic, cardiotoxic and dermatonecrotic toxins.

The most common result of contact with the man-of-war - the residual whip-like, red wavy, stringy welts on the skin from contact with the blue tentacle - is a painful papular-urticarial eruption. The lesions can last for minutes to hours, and the rash may progress to urticaria, hemorrhage, or ulceration. Recurrent episodes of urticaria may last four to six weeks at the site of envenomation. (The pathophysiology of sting induced urticaria is that it occurs following release of histamine, bradykinin, kallikrein or acetylcholine resulting in intradermal edema from capillary and venous vasodilation and occasional leukocyte infiltration.)

Excerpts from: ALL STINGS CONSIDERED Craig Thomas,M.D., and Susan Scott