Hydrozoa is a diverse group that includes nearly 3,200 species; most are marine, although some freshwater species are known (Figure). Most species exhibit both polypoid and medusoid forms in their lifecycles, although the familiar Hydra has only the polyp form. The medusoid form has a muscular veil or velum below the margin of the bell and for this reason is called a hydromedusa. In contrast, the medusoid form of Scyphozoa lacks a velum and is termed a scyphomedusa.
The polyp form in these animals often shows a cylindrical morphology with a central gastrovascular cavity lined by the gastrodermis. The gastrodermis and epidermis have a simple layer of mesoglea sandwiched between them. A mouth opening, surrounded by tentacles, is present at the oral end of the animal. Many hydrozoans form sessile, branched colonies of specialized polyps that share a common, branching gastrovascular cavity (coenosarc), such as is found in the colonial hydroid Obelia.
Free-floating colonial species called siphonophores contain both medusoid and polypoid individuals that are specialized for feeding, defense, or reproduction. The distinctive rainbow-hued float of the Portuguese man o’ war (Physalia physalis) creates a pneumatophore with which it regulates buoyancy by filling and expelling carbon monoxide gas. At first glance, these complex superorganisms appear to be a single organism; but the reality is that even the tentacles are actually composed of zooids laden with nematocysts. Thus, although it superficially resembles a typical medusozoan jellyfish, P. physalis is a free-floating hydrozoan colony; each specimen is made up of many hundreds of organisms, each specialized for a certain function, including motility and buoyancy, feeding, reproduction and defense. Although they are carnivorous and feed on many soft bodied marine animals, P. physalis lack stomachs and instead have specialized polyps called gastrozooids that they use to digest their prey in the open water.
Physalia has male and female colonies, which release their gametes into the water. The zygote develops into a single individual, which then buds asexually to form a new colony. Siphonophores include the largest known floating cnidarian colonies such as Praya dubia, whose chain of zoids can get up to 50 meters (165 feet) long. Other hydrozoan species are solitary polyps (Hydra) or solitary hydromedusae (Gonionemus). One defining characteristic shared by the hydrozoans is that their gonads are derived from epidermal tissue, whereas in all other cnidarians they are derived from gastrodermal tissue.