Scientists Say: Nematocyst

These special cells pack a painful punch


This is a sea nettle. Their gently-floating tentacles have nematocysts — special cells with painful barbs inside.


Nematocyst (noun, “knee-MAH-tah-sist”)

This is a special cell found in some ocean critters — such as jellyfish, sea anemones and corals — that has a stinging barb coated in venom. The cell works a bit like a living harpoon. Before the nematocyst fires, its barb stays coiled inside the cell in a chamber where it is bathed in venom. When the nematocyst comes in contact with something else — such as a fish or your leg — the tiny harpoon fires. The barb sinks into the target, delivering a dose of venom.

Nematocysts are most associated with jellyfish. The cells’ venom can range from weak to strong. Australian box jellyfish, for instance, have venom that can kill a person. Corals also have nematocysts. They use them at night to catch tiny creatures floating by in the water.

In a sentence

Jellyfish have nematocysts, but their distant cousins the comb jellies are sting-free.

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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