Winds and the Gulf Stream current are the likely catalysts behind strange jellyfishlike creatures, Man O' War, popping up on East Coast beaches over the past several weeks.
Known as the Portuguese Man O' War, these large, colorful venomous animals are often confused for a jellyfish, but they are actually part of a group related to jellyfish called siphonophores. They can grow up to 1 foot long and 5 inches wide and their tentacles can stretch as long as 165 feet, according to National Geographic.
Recent sightings of the Man O' War along beaches in Harvey Cedars, New Jersey, prompted lifeguards to post information on its Facebook page where they issued water hazards and urged swimmers to be aware of their surroundings in the ocean and always swim near a lifeguard.
Matthew Landau, a professor of Marine Science at Coastal Carolina, said that the Portuguese Man O' War are found in all tropical and semi-tropical oceans, where ocean temperatures are higher, but they are fairly common off-shore along the Atlantic coast. Since they are unable to propel themselves in any direction, they tend to drift with the ocean currents towards warmer ocean waters.
Landau explained that they differ from other cnidarians because they have a float that remains on the ocean surface. The float is filled with a gas similar to the atmospheric mix, except it contains high levels of carbon monoxide, which would kill mammalian, including warm-blooded animal and human, tissue.
"Typically in the Northeast, we see these animals periodically in the summer, when they are successfully carried north by the Gulf Stream current," Landau said. "Sometimes the currents move these animals into temperate seas when the winds drive them toward coastlines."
The diet of the Portuguese Man' O War is composed of small fish and crustaceans with their long contractile tentacles paralyzing their prey. These creatures may seem very attractive to look at while they are lying on the sand, but if humans come into direct contact with a Portuguese Man O' War their sting can be fatal even when they appear to be dead.
According to Landau, the severity of some symptoms of a Portuguese Man O' War sting is based upon a person's size, age, general health and how much contact is made with their tentacles.
"Symptoms are usually localized (pain where contact was made), but in some cases there can be muscle and joint aches, or even confusion and respiratory distress," Landau said. "In extreme cases, a victim may go into shock, which in deep water will lead to drowning."
If stung by a Portuguese Man O' War, Landau reiterates the importance of heading for shore immediately if you are in deep water. He also explained that it is important to rinse the sting area with seawater and not freshwater and gently lift any adhering tentacles off with a stick, twig, knife or key rather than lifting it with your bare hand. You should then apply isopropyl alcohol or vinegar until all of the pain has subsided.
Finally, you should apply a thin layer of hydrocortisone cream to the wound until it is healed. If there is an infection, it is important that you stop any type of treatment and see a physician immediately.
"I suppose that, in theory, if the oceans are warming, the natural range of the Portuguese Man O' War might be extended," Landau said. "Personally, I don't think that there will be a significant factor in the animal's distribution for a long time."