Venomous Portuguese men-of-war spotted on area shorelines

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Portugese Men o' War, which float through the waters, are often brought to shores across the globe by strong currents. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Darrow, UNCW marine biology faculty.
Portuguese men of war, which float through the waters, are often brought to shores across the globe by strong currents. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Darrow, UNCW marine biology faculty.

Beach-goers may notice an unusual sight–Portuguese men-of-war–among the shells and driftwood of New Hanover County’s beaches.

The venomous sea life has recently been seen washed ashore along our coast, according to Dr. Robert Condon, a UNCW marine biology professor who heads up the university’s Biological Oceanography Lab.

Condon said their appearance is not unusual. Portuguese men-of-war, while often mistaken for jellyfish, are actually siphonophores–animals composed of a colony of organisms working together. They aren’t the strongest swimmers, Condon said, so they float where the water takes them.

“It’s not surprising,” he said of the recent sightings. “These things tend to be sort of sporadic but it happens all the time. It’s a natural occurrence…Where they are in the ocean is due to the currents.”

Portuguese men-of-war play an important role in the marine ecosystem, as a key component of food webs. They’re a favorite among leatherback sea turtles, Condon noted.

They are quite unlike the more commonly spotted Cannonball jellyfish and with their brilliant lavender and aqua colors, are “very beautiful to look at,” he added.

But Condon said they should not be touched.

“Of course they sting,” he noted.

Even on the shoreline, Portuguese men-of-war can still emit venom from their tentacles. Often, Condon said, they’re still alive while washed ashore and have a chance of surviving if they can return with the tide in time.

“But leave them there [onshore],” he said. “Because birds and other shore animals may have a peck at them, as well…I would just encourage people to observe them and appreciate them and their role in the ecosystem.”

Condon and his team would also welcome photos of the creatures to aid in ongoing research. Local photos of Portuguese men-of-war can be uploaded to the Biological Oceanography Lab, which also has an online form for users to submit details about where and when the sea life was spotted.

Another international organization, Jelly Watch, allows users to submit photos and information that is then entered into a global database accessed by researchers.

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6341 or hilary.s@hometownwilmington.com.