Siphonophore Classification Essay

Let me take you on a little mystery that filled me with big wonder, inspiration and happiness.

It goes back to July of 2017 when I was naturalist around Haida Gwaii with Maple Leaf Adventures.

Let’s make it a photo essay.

To set the stage, here’s the boat and the crew.

Crew from left to right: Mate -Lynsey Rebbetoy, Deckhand -Terese Ayre, Naturalist -You-Know-Who, Captain- Ashley Stokes, Chef -Yasmin Ashi.

You’ll note that the beautiful, historic sailing ship was operated by an all female crew on this trip. Important to note? Yes, but let me not digress.

Here’s the beach at Woodruff Bay near Cape St. James.

The discovery was made by the child I was so glad was on the trip.

Meet Kay from Germany.

Like any smart, curious and observant young person would, she asked what had made the crazy, convoluted patterns in the sand.

Here’s a closer look . . .

. . . and an even closer look.

I didn’t know what species had made those remarkable, dizzying tracks. But, the best things had come together – a mystery, a child, and the chance to discover the answer together.

We struck out to solve the mystery and found lots of little clam shells near the tracks.

We looked more closely at the tracks.

And found the tiny clams IN the tracks.

And then we noted what they were doing. They were licking the sand!

We had found the animal that was making the tracks and concluded the tiny clams must be feeding on organic material in this way. It is known as “deposit feeding” whereby the bivalves use their inhalant siphons to sweep the sand for detritus and microbes = snacks.

We were in awe at thinking of how much sand they must process to leave such long individual tracks and that they must be doing this quite quickly.

Upon returning to the ship, I was able to use the resources there to determine that the tiny clam was some species a “Tellin”.

However, it took my emailing my mollusc expert friends to have the species of Tellin confirmed.

Naturalist supreme, Bill Merilees, let me know I had “met British Columbia’s most beautiful clamTellina nuculoides, the Salmon Tellin.” He also shared the results of his work to study their growth rings (imagine the dedication needed to count the growth rings of a large sample of tiny clams.) Bill’s research suggests Salmon Tellins can live to age 11 or 12.

Armed with their species name, I was able to find out a bit more.Their maximum size is 2 cm and their range is from southern Alaska to northern California. I presume the “salmon” in their common name refers to their beautiful colour.

I became even more awe-inspired to learn that research supports that bivalves like Tellins select particles based on physical and/or chemical properties that are poorly understood! (Source:

Imagine THAT while you watch my blurry video of the Salmon Tellins licking the sand.

To conclude, I will resist all the puns I could be using to be “tellin” it like it is. (Oops, clearly I am not entirely successful in resisting.)

Rather, I will share the quote with which mollusc expert Rick Harbo responded when I asked him about the species and their tracks.

He reflected on the tracks made by mollusc species who feed in this way with the words of Gandalf from Lord of the Rings  . . .

“All who wander are not lost”.


The happiness that comes with connection to nature and making discoveries – Kay with a boa of “Feather Boa Kelp” that had washed onto the beach. Be on the lookout for Salmon Tellins on a fine sand beach from Alaska to California. Note that other mollusc species (and worms, some sea slugs, etc) also leave tracks in the sand. More on other trail-blazing species in the future. 

Are Filipinos a Siphonophore?

Posted by edgar lores on September 24, 2015 · 375 Comments 

[Photo credit: National Geographic]


By Edgar Lores

Like many observers, I have been puzzled by the intricacies of Filipino behavior.

Why is it, people ask, that Binay is allowed to continue his run for the presidency? In other Asian countries, like Japan and South Korea, a public official tainted with the slightest whiff of scandal would step down and hide his face in shame. And Binay is not only tainted; he is full of it.

And why is it, people further ask, that OFWs are observant of the laws of their host country but become non-observant the moment they step back ashore onto the homeland?

Fellow blogger Josephivo states his befuddlement on the Binay phenomenon this way:

“With a lot of effort I might understand the legal difficulties as the laws were written mostly by people that had some illegal income too, but what I do not understand is how others do not see this strong evidence: the cardinal inviting him, the president shaking his hands, the media showing him at every occasion eating with his hands . . . all as if nothing is going on, as if he is just an ordinary law abiding citizen.  Confusing.”

Confusing? Ahaha, to say the least!

Listen, I have a theory. It’s not a complete explanation of the jigsaw puzzle that is the Filipino psyche; it’s just a jagged piece.

Remember how we were colonized by Spain for nearly 400 years and by the US for close to 50 years?

Duh! How can I forget?” you say.

Well,” I say, “you forgot Marcos was a ruthless dictator who fled Malacanang in 1986, and you voted his son into the Senate just 24 years later, one year short of a human generation.

In his resume, Bongbong forgot he did not earn a full degree from Oxford,” I add.

Ah, so is your theory that we suffer from amnesia, premature Alzheimer’s perhaps?” you ask.

No,” I reply. “We may no longer be the political colony of a foreign power, but the fact is we are still a colony . . . a biological colony”


Yes, we are a Portuguese Man o’ War.


Scientific Classification and Description

Name:                    Portuguese Man o’ War
Kingdom:              Animalia
Phylum:                 Cnidaria
Class:                      Hydrozoa
Order:                    Siphonophora
Family:                  Physaliidae
Genus:                   Physalia
Species:                 P. physalis
Binomial Name:  Physalia physalis
Aliases:                  Man-of-war, blue bottle, floating terror

The Portuguese Man-of-War (PMW) is not a single creature. It is a colony. (Refer to Source 1.)

It is a beautiful colony in its own delicately tinged and ethereal way, but it is a deadly colony.

The order Siphonophorais a class of sea creatures made of a colony of individual organisms working together.

The individual organisms are called zooids that are genetic clones of each other, and they group themselves into polyps which perform specialized tasks.

The PMW has four polyps, one at the top that floats above the surface of the water, and three that are clustered below the surface.

At the top, there is the bladder which looks like an old Portuguese warship with its sail unfurled. It performs as the transportation polyp.

Below the bladder, there are clusters of tentacles that average 10 meters in length but that can stretch up to 50 meters. The long, long tentacles form the defense polyp and do the fishing; the short tentacles form the feeding polyp and others the reproductive polyp.

In sum, the PMW is not an “I”.  It is a “WE”. And, I am afraid, it is US.

The Philippine PMW

There can be no doubt that the siphonophore that is our country is a collective society that is highly homogeneous. We can dissect and slice our PMW in different ways to be able to identify the constituent and elemental polyps.

We can see the creature as an ethnic organism, in which case the polyps would be the tribes of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. We can see it as an economic organism, in which case the polyps would be the business community, the government regulatory agencies, and the socioeconomic classes as consumers. We can see it as a political organism, in which case the polyps would be the branches of government, the LGUs, the NGOs, and the demos. We can see it from the dynamic of the roles played in the political process, in which case the zooid can be a politician, an entertainer, a masa, a squatter, or a voter.

However our homogeneity is most evident in our religious demography, where the Christian polyp comprises 93% of the population; the Muslim polyp 5%; and the remaining unclassified just a tiny 2 %. The Catholic/Aglipayan zooids alone make up for 83%. (From 2000 census)

(Incidentally, if we see the creature as a conglomeration of communication nodes, social media is a polyp and blogger zooids perform the much needed task of arguing and criticizing (mostly with venom but sometimes with venomous wit) . . . and telling jokes.)

Our Weaknesses

My central thesis is that while we are a siphonophore, we have not evolved to the point where each zooid and each polyp act in concert for the benefit of the entire organism.

As I see it, the basic problem with our PMW can be found in two aspects. The first aspect is biological dysfunctionality, and the second cultural dysfunctionality. The original creature in nature does not suffer from either of these. Oh, I suppose a reproductive zooid may fail to reproduce but the organism does not possess the attribute of culture . . . or does it? As far as anyone knows, the PMW does not have an entertainment polyp, neither a rhythm-and-blues zooid. Hah! Wouldn’t that be hilarious though?

Other Asian countries that are collective in nature are also siphonophores.  The main difference with ours is that successful siphonophores — notably Japan, Singapore and South Korea — have been able to develop a healthy cultural overlay that has injected positive biological and ethical traits into the zooids and polyps and into the whole of the biological organism. This cultural overlay refines the basal survival modality of the individual zooids and polyps. At the other extreme of the Asian experience is the case of North Korea — a more venomous siphonophore than the Philippines — that has an opaque overlay which hides God-knows-what famine and other miseries.

At the biological level, the basic rule of survival for a PMW is that the zooids and polyps perform their specialized functions for the survival benefit of the entire organism.

Contrary to the rule, our biological dysfunctionality lies at two levels.

1. First, the zooids give more importance to themselves and the polyp they belong to, over and above the colony. Thus, in the first instance, we have the Binay zooid putting himself and his family above the body politic. In the second instance, we have the Solid North polyp voting the native son and an outsider mom into national office. More recently we had the INC incident wherein a religious organization crowded into EDSA in a misguided protest that inconvenienced commuters.

2. Second, the polyps do not operate for mutual benefit. Thus, for example, we have religion and religious institutions fighting for: (a) numerical dominance in population; (b) territorial dominance in land and resources; and (c) dominance in influence over the government for their continued existence and for the perpetuation of their dogmas and doctrines often at the expense of the whole. RH Law, anyone?

In turn, I have identified three facets of our cultural dysfunctionality. There could be more.

1. First, our culture still carries over the strains of the pre-Hispanic hierarchy of datu, maharlika and slave that is preserved in the barangay polyp and in the whole of our social stratification. The role of the pre-Hispanic social classes — transformed, extended and strengthened by two waves of colonizers — continue their impaired symbiotic relationship up to this day. We recognize and accept the entitlements of the upper classes, whether social or political. We recognize and accept that rich zooids can abuse the poor and receive special treatment in the halls of justice . . . although we are supposed to be equal under democratic theory. We recognize and accept that politician zooids can steal . . . although stealing runs contrary to the overall health of the biological organism. This acceptance is a corollary of the first biological dysfunction, and the inverse of the colony’s basic rule of survival. Hence we give Binay free rein and allow him a free run. Thankfully, it appears he will not have a free reign. We may even secretly admire him for his gumption. In his place and given the same opportunity, we suspect we would do the same.

2. Second, there is the matter of attachments and non-attachments to subcultural polyps. This is an interesting phenomenon. We are familiar with nepotism, cronyism and favoritism. Then there is the riddle, on one hand, of Filipino zooids forming attachments to polyps that last a lifetime and, on the other hand, there are short-lived attachments of convenience. An example of the former is the brotherhood ties of Greek-letter fraternity polyps forged in the heady days of university life. In the legal profession, there are tales of brother zooids calling in favors from a fraternal zooid who has been appointed to a prestigious judicial bench. Then, too, there is the inexplicable loyalty of Saguisag to Binay, a fellow colleague in the Mabini group of human-rights lawyers.

A prime example of non-attachment is the turncoatism of politicians: since political parties are not founded on principle, opportunistic politicians change parties according to their estimation of a party’s ability to grab and gain power. There is also the schism that runs through religions and religious groups: in Mindanao we have the MILF, the MILN and the BIFF, not to mention the ridoculture; and in the INC we have the spiritualists and the materialists. Here we see disunity to the greater cause where there should be unwavering, even undying, loyalty. A sociologist can spend a lifetime studying these puzzles.

3. Third, there is the reality that, unlike our notable Asian neighbors, we have not developed the proper ethical and aesthetic norms for the benefit of the organism. Norms like reverence, respect, discipline, self-sacrifice, honor, and social equality, not to mention an aesthetic sensibility. I have spoken of the virtue of self-reliance, and JoeAm has been preaching the virtue of sacrificial patriotism forever. True, we possess certain norms but have not been able to put them into full practice. For example in the Rule of Law, the impaired judicial polyp struggles and straggles, unable to fully bring offenders like the Binays to the court, and unable to permanently imprison corrupt senators and representatives. And when we are able to catch a big fish and able to adjudge him guilty, instead of keeping him behind bars as an object lesson we instead let him go — like Corona and Erap.

Returning briefly to the biological aspect, while a zooid in the natural creature cannot survive on its own, Filipino zooids can — and how! The Filipino zooid is a remarkable creature on its own. Our OFWs can truly claim to be world-class. They possess the mimetic qualities of octopi (Phylum: Mollusca; Class: Cephalopoda; Superorder: Octopodiformes; Order: Octopoda). Even so, it is easy to identify a Filipino abroad (Source 2). When abroad they adapt superbly to the cultural norms of their host country. When they return, some are able to bring back and continue to observe their adopted norms. Inevitably, some regress. Alas, the liberated Man-of-Work transforms back to the Man-of-War when safely ensconced in the bosom of his venomous colony.

The Singaporean and Japanese PMWs 

In comparison to our own experience, the polyps of the original Singaporean PMW ran along ethnic lines. It was a mix of a Chinese majority with Malay, Indian and Eurasian minorities. The country was fortunate to have steely-eyed Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) who instilled the adaptive norms of inclusive multiculturalism, meritocracy, discipline, incorruptibility, and cleanliness among many other civic standards and virtues.

We had Marcos who tried but failed because he did not have a sufficiently clear vision. More importantly, he did not possess the qualities he sought to instill. He sought to impose rather than to instill; the distinction is important. Like our bishops, he mocked his own gospel and so did the populace: “Sa ikauunlad ng Bayan, bisikleta ang kailangan.”

The significance of the Aquino presidency rests on the identification of corruption as a central sickness of the biological organism, and in the formulation of the norm of the Straight Path.

In Kierkegaardian terms, corruption is our “sickness unto death.”

In the case of Japan, norms were not imposed by a transformational figure like LKY but were developed organically over centuries of semi-isolation, greatly influenced by Confucian ethics. Arguably, Japan had a more granular social hierarchy than ours, composed of shogun, daimyo, samurai, ronin, peasant, artisan and merchant. But more, Japan had, at the apex of its hierarchy, a royal family with an Emperor seated on the Chrysanthemum Throne.  It seems nations that originated with a monarchy (or are constitutional monarchies or were forged by wise founding fathers), carry the norms of reverence, discipline and self-sacrifice effortlessly.

The Japanese royal family is the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world, and the Emperor is “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people”. For us, Ninoy had to ask, “Is the Filipino worth dying for?” For the Japanese, the question need not even be raised. Fealty to the Emperor is unquestioned and unquestionable. In World War II, Japanese pilots willingly gave up their lives, for the glory of the Emperor, in waves of kamikaze attacks against Allied vessels.

For the Japanese, reverence, duty and honor combined are the obverse of shame. And when duty is transgressed and shame arises to the fore, honor becomes a higher value than life itself.

In contrast, we are a society of no honor.

What reverence do we have? We have perhaps a little reverence for our immediate elders but not for our ancestors. Is the Western view of old disposable parents to be hidden in aged care homes beginning to take hold? I don’t know. If you lurk in social media, we do not seem to have reverence for anything except our favored candidates. Outside of it, what I do know is that we have reverence for (a) status symbols like cars and the latest technical toys and (b) for idols of popular entertainment and saints made of stone, wood and plastic.

What to do?

Clearly, we have first to conceptualize and identify the norms to be instilled. Then we have to enact them into law (if not done so already), and observe and practice them, either through mindfulness or through habit-formation until they become second-nature. Or . . . or we can wait for a strong man to come along, take away our freedoms, and hammer the needed lessons into our psyche.

There have been many suggestions in this blog site of what needs to be done. I will just list two.

1. To have reverence for the law we have to impose the penalties of the law. We do not have to bring back the death penalty, but why not consider caning as practiced in Singapore and as suggested by blogger Chempo? Corporal punishment induces shame and is effective; and the flesh, the muscles are known to carry memories, a case of matter over mind.

2. To encourage national unity, why not weaken the hold of the Church as suggested by blogger LCpl_X? Ban their meddling, their bloc voting, their brokerage for the best government jobs, and their religious paraphernalia in government buildings. In a secular society, religion should be a personal and congregational matter.

To list all the necessary remedial steps would take another post. I would suggest though that we stop yearning for an LKY. I further suggest that we do not wait another 500 years to refine the cultural overlay. Social media has been instrumental in opening our eyes and, at the individual zooid level, we can do our part now.

Where to?

We Filipinos are a lovely people. We live in a veritable paradise. And yet, and yet . . .

The sad fact of the matter is that our cultural overlay is thin, and we do not act, behave or live according to principles.

Perhaps we can use these questions as a simple guide in the forthcoming elections: Which candidate most exhibits principles?  Which expediency?

The PMW does not have a propulsion system of its own. It is at the mercy of the tides and the wind, just as our country is at mercy of typhoons, sea surges and floods. And volcanoes and earthquakes. And pestilent pests and traffic. Without strong direction and without the inculcation of proper civic virtues, we might continue to drift like the beautiful and deadly Portuguese Man o’ War.



1. Deadly Beauty: A Portrait of the Portuguese Man-of-War

2. Filipina in U.S.A.: How to identify a Filipino

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