The Cnidaria (pronounced ny-DARE-ee-ah) are a phylum of simple animals including the hydras, jellyfish, sea anemones, and corals. Any swimmer who has suffered a jellyfish sting has painfully encountered the feature for which the phylum is named: the venomous, stinging organelles called nematocysts or cnidae (pronounced NID-ee). Nematocysts are used for defense and to sting and paralyze prey, ranging from plankton to fish.

Cnidarians have a simple body plan with two epithelial cell layers: the epidermis and gastrodermis, separated by a gelatinous mesoglea ("middle glue"). The mesoglea ranges from a thin, gluelike layer in the freshwater hydras to a thick, gelatinous layer in the jellyfish. The simple body wall encloses a water-filled space, the gastrovascular cavity, responsible for the digestion of food and the distribution of digested nutrients.

Many cnidaria have a life cycle that alternates between a sessile polyp stage and a swimming medusa. The polyp may consist of a single stalklike body, attached to the substrate below and with a mouth surrounded by a ring of tentacles above; or it may be a branching colony, easily mistaken for a plant until one looks at it under the microscope. The medusa (jellyfish) is typically umbrella shaped, with a mouth-bearing stalk where the handle of the umbrella would be, and stinging, nematocyst-laden tentacles around the margin. Hydras, corals, and sea anemones, however, have only the hydroid stage, and some medusae have no polyp stage in the life cycle.

SEE ALSO Animalia ; Coral Reef ; Ocean Ecosystems ; Plankton

Kenneth S. Saladin


Pechenik, Jan A. Biology of the Invertebrates, 4th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Rupert, Edward E., and Robert D. Barnes. Invertebrate Zoology, 6th ed. Forth Worth, TX: Saunders College Publishing, 1994.

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