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 Hawaii, in
the Pacific and Indian oceans.
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
The man-of-war's body consists
of a gas-filled, bladder-like float (a polyp, called 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
"animal" moves by means of its crest, (pictured here tinted pink) which
functions as a sail.
Some of the tentacles of
the Portuguese Man-Of-War bear stinging nematocystic (coiled thread-like)
structures that paralyze small fish and other prey.
The sting of the Portuguese
Man-Of-War is very painful to man and can cause serious effects, including
fever, shock, and interference with heart and lung action. Pick off any
visible tentacles. Rinse with fresh or salt water. Apply ice for pain.
IMMEDIATE MEDICAL ATTENTION MAY BE REQUIRED as their stinging may bring
- Pick off any visible tentacles
with a gloved hand, stick, or anything handy, being careful to avoid
- Rinse the sting thoroughly with
salt or fresh water to remove any adhering tentacles.
- Apply ice for pain control.
- Irrigate exposed eyes with
copious amounts of room temperature tap water for at least 15 minutes. If
vision blurs, or the eyes continue to tear, hurt, swell, or are light
sensitive after irrigating, see a doctor.
- For persistent itching or skin
rash, try 1 percent hydrocortisone ointment four times a day, and one or
two 25 milligram diphenhydramine (Benadryl) tablets every 6 hours. These
drugs are sold without prescription. Diphenhydramine may cause drowsiness.
Don't drive, swim or surf after taking this medication.
considered effective, vinegar is no longer recommended for Portuguese
man-of-war stings. In a laboratory experiment, vinegar dousing caused
discharge of nematocysts from the larger (P. physalis) man-of-war
species. The effect of vinegar on the nematocysts of the smaller species
(which has less severe stings) is mixed: vinegar inhibited some, discharged
No studies support applying
heat to Portuguese man-of-war stings. Studies on the effectiveness of meat
tenderizer, baking soda, or commercial sprays (containing aluminum sulfate
and detergents) on nematocyst stings have been contradictory. It's possible
these substances cause further damage. In one U.S. Portuguese man-of-war
fatality, lifeguards sprayed papain solution immediately on the victim's
sting. Within minutes, the woman was comatose, and later died.