Cnidariacorals, sea anemones, jellyfish, and relatives

The Phylum Cnidaria includes such diverse forms as jellyfish, hydra, sea anemones, and corals. Cnidarians are radially or biradially symmetric, a general type of symmetry believed primitive for eumetazoans. They have achieved the tissue level of organization, in which some similar cells are associated into groups or aggregations called tissues, but true organs do not occur. Cnidarian bodies have two or sometimes three layers. A gastrovascular cavity (coelenteron) has a single exterior opening that serves as both mouth and anus. Often tentacles surround the opening. Some cells are organized into two simple nerve nets, one epidermal and the other gastrodermal, that help coordinate muscular and sensory functions.

Cnidarians have two basic body forms, medusa and polyp. Medusae, such as adult jellyfish, are free-swimming or floating. They usually have umbrella-shaped bodies and tetramerous (four-part) symmetry. The mouth is usually on the concave side, and the tentacles originate on the rim of the umbrella.

Polyps, in contrast, are usually sessile. They have tubular bodies; one end is attached to the substrate, and a mouth (usually surrounded by tentacles) is found at the other end. Polyps may occur alone or in groups of individuals; in the latter case, different individuals sometimes specialize for different functions, such as reproduction, feeding or defense.

Reproduction in polyps is by asexual budding (polyps) or sexual formation of gametes (medusae, some polyps). Cnidarian individuals may be monoecious or dioecious. The result of sexual reproduction is a planula larva, which is ciliated and free-swimming.

If collar cells and spicules are defining characteristics of the Phylum Porifera, then nematocysts define cnidarians. These tiny organelles, likened by Hickman to cocked guns, are both highly efficient devices for capturing prey and extremely effective deterrents to predators. Each contains a coiled, tubular thread, which may bear barbs and which is often poisoned. A nematocyst discharges when a prey species or predator comes into contact with it, driving its threads with barb and poison into the flesh of the victim by means of a rapid increase in hydrostatic pressure. Hundreds or thousands of nematocysts may line the tentacles or surface of the cnidarian. They are capable even of penetrating human skin, sometimes producing a painful wound or in extreme cases, death.


Hickman, C.P. and L. S. Roberts. 1994. Animal Diversity. Wm. C. Brown, Dubuque, IA.

Brusca, R. C., and G. J. Brusca. Invertebrates. 1990. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, MA.


Phil Myers (author), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.