Thursday, July 27, 2006

Trying to Avoid Death Or Excruciating Pain From A Portuguese Man-of-War While Also Figuring Out What The Plural Of Man-of-War Is

Because my family and I will be in Rhode Island in a couple of weeks, and because I have an aversion to suffering pain while on vacation, I’ve been following the Portuguese man-of-war invasion of southern New England with more than usual interest.

One thing I gather is that when guidebooks and web sites describe the animal’s long tentacles, which can extend as much as 50 feet under the surface of the water, they’re describing an extreme. A typical man-of-war is much smaller Although how much smaller isn’t clear to me yet, it’s like describing humans by saying they can reach heights of 7 and a half feet. That’s true but of limited use.

A Field Guide to North Atlantic Wildlife, by Noble Proctor and Patrick Lynch, says of the Portuguese man-of war (which is a siphonophore, not a jelly fish):

Powder blue, balloon-like transparent float visible at the water’s surface. Elongate tentacle-like processes and curtain-like folds hang below inflated float and may extend more than 50 ft … Beware of tentacles, which can sting long after animal’s death. Float size: To 1 ft.

Siphonophores are hydrozoans, which have an attached, tree-like (hyrda) stage and a free-floating (medusa) stage. Siphonophores exhibit an extreme form of this combination: they are complex colonies of medusae and polyps. The Portuguese Man-Of-War is an excellent example.

Wikipedia adds, somewhat helpfully:

The sting from the tentacles is potentially dangerous to humans; these stings have been responsible for several deaths, but usually only cause excruciating pain.

That’s good to know because I’ll substitute excruciating pain for death every time, if I have a choice.

The Providence Journal has more coverage today, here. One problem with everything I’ve read though is that I get no real sense of how many Portuguese men-of-war are in the region, whether this is is a real emergency, what the approximate chances are of encountering a man-of-war if you’re swimming in Rhode Island (or Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket, for that matter). Newspapers and TV are known, after all, for exaggerating crises.

You’ll note, by the way, that I used the correct plural form of “crisis.” I mention it because of a debate about the plural of man-of-war. Sam Wells, a loyal Sphere reader from Texas (by way of Connecticut), insists that the plural of man-of-war is man-of-war. Some newspaper reports say “men-of-war,” which is what I’ve been using. The Providence Journal is actually asking readers what they think the plural is.

My favorite answers from the survey:

Do you have anyone on your staff that have graduated from the eighth grade? Maybe they can settle it for you. [Note that the author of this witty comment failed to get his noun and verb to agree; “anyone” is singular and requires “has graduated,” not “have graduated.”]

The plural of man-of-war is "Republican Party."

If you looked in the dictionary it tells you


Blogger Sam said...

In case you want to feel a little better about it, Portuguese M-O-W do not "secrete" toxins as the Providence Journal says. Nope, they have microscopic harpoons! Here's something I found on the Internet:

"The stinging process of the nematocyte resembles a jack-in-the-box mechanism. Specifically, mechanical and chemical stimulation of the sensory hairs (ie, cnidocil) surrounding the pressurized nematocyte results in a calcium-mediated bioelectric signal that causes an opening of its lid, allowing the ejection of the nematocyst into the prey to express the venom. This pressurized process has a high internal hydrostatic pressure of 150 atm that causes the ejection to occur within 3 milliseconds, with an acceleration power of 40,000 G and a force of penetration of 20-33 kilopascals. In addition, the nematocyst is capable of penetrating up to a depth of 0.9 mm. This depth deposits the toxin into the microvasculature of the dermal tissue to be absorbed into the systemic circulation and anchors the tentacles to the prey. Finally, the nematocyte must be replaced because it cannot regenerate the ejected nematocyst. This replacement is done via differentiation of the pluripotent cells." Courtesy of John Hopkins University.

Basically, your body doesn't like foreign protein being injected at something like 20-30 kilopascals! So it sends all kinds of medicine to the sting, which probably causes more problem than the toxin itself.

But honestly, folks, after a hour most folks don't feel anything. A little vodka can help, too!

1:19 PM  

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