This ancient phylum of mostly marine organisms is best known for its contribution to geomorphological features, forming thousands of square kilometres of coral reefs in warm tropical waters. Their fossil remains contribute to some limestones. Cnidarians are also significant components of the plankton, where large medusae – popularly called jellyfish – and colonial forms like Portuguese man-of-war and stringy siphonophores prey on other organisms including small fish. Some of these species are justly feared by humans for their stings, which in some cases can be fatal. Certainly, most New Zealanders will have encountered cnidarians when rambling along beaches and fossicking in rock pools where sea anemones and diminutive bushy hydroids abound. In New Zealand’s fiords and in deeper water on seamounts, black corals and branching gorgonians can form veritable trees five metres high or more. In contrast, inland inhabitants of continental landmasses who have never, or rarely, seen an ocean or visited a seashore can hardly be impressed with the Cnidaria as a phylum – freshwater cnidarians are relatively few, restricted to tiny hydras, the branching hydroid Cordylophora, and rare medusae.
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