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Cnidarian Diversity

6 April, 2016 - 17:26

The phylum Cnidaria contains about 10,000 described species divided into four classes: Anthozoa, Scyphozoa, Cubozoa, and Hydrozoa.

The class Anthozoa includes all cnidarians that exhibit a sessile polyp body plan only; in other words, there is no medusa stage within their life cycle. Examples include sea anemones, sea pens, and corals, with an estimated number of 6,100 described species. Sea anemones are usually brightly colored and can attain a size of 1.8 to 10 cm in diameter. These animals are usually cylindrical in shape and are attached to a substrate. A mouth opening is surrounded by tentacles bearing cnidocytes (Figure 15.12).

Figure 15.12 Sea anemones are cnidarians of class Anthozoa. (credit: "Dancing With Ghosts"/Flickr)

Scyphozoans include all the jellies and are motile and exclusively marine with about 200 described species. The medusa is the dominant stage in the life cycle, although there is also a polyp stage. Species range from 2 cm in length to the largest scyphozoan species, Cyaneacapillata, at 2 m across. Jellies display a characteristic bell-like body shape (Figure 15.13).

Figure 15.13 Scyphozoans include the jellies. (credit: "Jimg944"/Flickr) 


Identify the life cycle stages of jellies using this video animation game ( l/amazing_jelly2) from the New England Aquarium.

The class Cubozoa includes jellies that are square in cross-section and so are known as “box jellyfish.” These species may achieve sizes of 15–25 cm. Cubozoans are anatomically similar to the jellyfish. A prominent difference between the two classes is the arrangement of tentacles. Cubozoans have muscular pads called pedalia at the corners of the square bell canopy, with one or more tentacles attached to each pedalium. In some cases, the digestive system may extend into the pedalia. Cubozoans typically exist in a polyp form that develops from a larva. The polyps may bud to form more polyps and then transform into the medusoid forms.


Watch this video ( to learn more about the deadly toxins of the box jellyfish.

Hydrozoa includes nearly 3,500 species,  1 most of which are marine. Most species in this class have both polyp and medusa forms in their life cycle. Many hydrozoans form colonies composed of branches of specialized polyps that share a gastrovascular cavity. Colonies may also be free-floating and contain both medusa and polyp individuals in the colony, as in the Portuguese Man O’War (Physalia) or By-the-Wind Sailor (Velella). Other species are solitary polyps or solitary medusae. The characteristic shared by all of these species is that their gonads are derived from epidermal tissue, whereas in all other cnidarians, they are derived from gastrodermal tissue (Figure 15.14ab).

Figure 15.14
A (a) box jelly is an example from class Cubozoa. The (b) hydra is from class Hydrozoa. (credit b: scale-bar data from Matt Russell)