Then Jesus asked him, “Why is thy name?” And he replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” Gospel of Mark 5:9
Yesterday, I mentioned a hydrozoan called the By-The-Wind Sailor. Today we honor another favorite prey of the Violet Sea Snail, and one of most fearsome animals in the ocean: the Portuguese Man O’ War. In fact, it does it an injustice to call it an animal. It’s actually several thousand animals, comprised of four different types of animal.
What? It may look like a sea jelly, and sting like a sea jelly. And it is closely related, in the Cnidaria family. But there are a few key differences between a jelly (Scyphozoa) and a hydrozoan like the Man O’ War. This drifting beastie is actually a siphonophore, a colony of smaller animals called zooids that merge to become one organism. “Like Voltron!,” you say. Sort of. The difference is that the zooids are highly specialized to their tasks and cannot survive without each other, whereas awesome giant robot spaceship lions, when separated, are still awesome giant robot spaceship lions.
The Portuguese Man O’ War lives at the water’s surface, moving at the whim of the wind that blows its gas-filled float, and mindlessly terrorizing the coasts with its stinging tentacles, which can reach 165 feet in length. But the gas bladder that acts as its buoy and sail is actually only one animal (the pneumatophore), presiding over a colony of other, smaller animals. The stinging tentacles are daisy-chains of dactylozooids, specializing in defense and capture, armed with thousands of venomous harpoon cells called nematocysts. The paralyzed prey is digested by the feeding tentacles, animals called gastrozooids. And the really fun job is handled by the reproductive polyps that function as its sexual organs, the gonozooids.
Are you tired of italics yet?
What fascinates me about the Portuguese Man O’ War is this question: What’s to say that any functioning community can’t be considered a single organism? In 1925, a South African poet, lawyer, morphine addict and naturalist named Eugene Marais published “The Soul of the White Ant,” the culmination of his extensive studies of termite colonies, in which he said, “The termitary [a termite mound] is a separate and composite animal, in exactly the same way that man is a separate and composite animal. Only the power of locomotion is absent…” His idea that a termite colony, with its brain/gonad queen and its T-cell soldiers, was analogous to the homeostatic body of a single organism, was revolutionary. That the body — a human body — could be considered a colony, even more shocking.
Where does it end? If ants and termites can form “composite animals,” what would that say about human society? Or an ecosystem? What does it mean, if you and I are just specialized cells in an enormous body? What’s more, what if our bodies represent sophisticated cities, with our genes their squabbling architects, our red blood cells jostling commuters, our cancer their criminals? The Portuguese Man O’ War is not an animal; it’s the analogy of an animal. It is the apotheosis of community, an accord of thousands of individuals working together in socialist harmony, lost without each other; an evil city drifting on the waves. It is not one. It is legion. Perhaps, so are you.