Abstract Many marine invertebrates utilize biomacromolecules as building blocks to form their load-bearing tissues. These polymeric tissues are appealing for their unusual physical and mechanical properties, including high hardness and stiffness, toughness and low density. Here, a marine hydroid perisarc of Aglaophenia latirostris was investigated to understand how nature designs a stiff, tough and lightweight sheathing structure. Chitin, protein and a melanin-like pigment, were found to represent 10, 17 and 60wt.% of the perisarc, respectively. Interestingly, similar to the adhesive and coating of marine mussel byssus, a DOPA (3,4-dihydroxyphenylalanine) containing protein and iron were detected in the perisarc. Resonance Raman microprobe analysis of perisarc indicates the presence of catechol–iron(III) complexes in situ, but it remains to be determined whether the DOPA–iron(III) interaction plays a cohesive role in holding the protein, chitin and melanin networks together.