Beachgoers are warned to steer clear of these colorful creatures whose stings remain venomous even after death.
While undeniably beautiful with its translucent air bags and vivid hues of pink, blue, and purple, the Portuguese man o’ war’s (Physalia physalis) gorgeous coloring is actually a warning to stay away rather than an invitation to come closer.
It’s often mistaken for a jellyfish, but this strange animal is actually made up of a colony of clones that work in concert to perform various forms and functions.
The upper part of its body is a gas-filled float that helps it sit above water and catch the wind like a sail. It kind of looks like an 18th-century warship (man-of-war) at full sail, hence the name “man o’ war.” Unfortunately, other than inflating and deflating, the float doesn’t really have any navigation capabilities and the man o’ war often ends up getting blown onto shore.
The problem for beachgoers is its tentacles, which can be 30 to 165-feet long. They contain stinging nematocysts, which are microscopic capsules with barbed tubes that can deliver enough venom to paralyze and kill small fish and crustaceans.
While the venom is rarely deadly to people, it’s still very painful and can cause abdominal pain, chest pain, headaches, muscle spasms, red welts on skin, sweating, and numbness in the arms or legs. The venom remains potent for hours or even days after the man o’ war has died.
If you spot one of these colorful creatures on the beach this summer, don’t pick it up! It’s not a piece of trash and it’s definitely not a harmless toy. Alert a lifeguard and stay away from it.