Siphonophores

The iconic colonial organism

By Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

Siphonophorae. - Staatsquallen by Giltsch, Adolf, 1852-1911, lithographerBernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

Siphonophores, an example of colonial organisms, are beautiful and mysterious marine invertebrates belonging to a group of animals called Cnidarians, which include anemones, jellyfish, stony corals, precious corals, and gorgonians.

One type of colonial cnidarian, the sea anemone, Heteractis magnifica by Holly BolickBernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

The name “cnidaria” comes from the Greek word “cnidos” which means stinging nettle. 

The name refers to the fact that all cnidarians have the capability to sting with needle-like structures called nematocysts. Sting severity for the victim can vary from slight irritation to death in the most extreme cases. 

Porpita porpita, also known as a blue button, a colonial pelagic hydrozoan closely related to siphonophores by the Bishop Museum Invertebrate Zoology CollectionBernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

Siphonophores are in a subgroup of Cnidaria called Hydrozoa, which includes both benthic (living on the ocean floor) and pelagic (living in the open ocean) animals. Siphonophores are one of the pelagic hydrozoa.

Intact deepwater siphonophore observed during the Discovering the Deep: Exploring Remote Pacific Marine Protected Areas expedition by NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Discovering the Deep: Exploring Remote Pacific MPAsOriginal Source: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Discovering the Deep: Exploring Remote Pacific MPAs

Siphonophores represent a harmonic division of labor; the individual zooids share a circulatory system which allows them to share resources and nutrients, and in turn, the individuals are able to specialize in a single task such as locomotion, defense, reproduction, or digestion.

These specialized individuals working together as a single organism are analogous to our own body systems working together to keep us alive.

Fun Fact: The longest animal in the world is a siphonophore (46 meters or 150 feet long!)

Portuguese man-o-war by Bishop Museum Invertebrate Zoology CollectionBernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

The most familiar siphonophore is one common to Hawaii but can be found in all the world’s oceans...

...the Portuguese man-o-war.

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