The phylum Cnidaria includes animals that show radial or biradial symmetry and are diploblastic. Nearly all (about 99 percent) cnidarians are marine species. Cnidarians have specialized cells known as cnidocytes (“stinging cells”) containing organelles called nematocysts. These cells are concentrated around the mouth and tentacles of the animal and can immobilize prey with toxins. Nematocysts contain coiled threads that may bear barbs. The outer wall of the cell has a hairlike projection that is sensitive to touch. When touched, the cells fire the toxin-containing coiled threads that can penetrate and stun the predator or prey (see Figure 15.10).
Cnidarians display two distinct body plans: polypor “stalk” and medusaor “bell” (Figure 15.11). Examples of the polyp form are freshwater species of the genus Hydra; perhaps the best-known medusoid animals are the jellies (jellyfish). Polyps are sessile as adults, with a single opening to the digestive system (the mouth) facing up with tentacles surrounding it. Medusae are motile, with the mouth and tentacles hanging from the bell-shaped body. In other cnidarians, both a polyp and medusa form exist, and the life cycle alternates between these forms.