BACKGROUND:Cnidarians are a group of early branching animals including corals, jellyfish and hydroids that are renowned for their high regenerative ability, growth plasticity and longevity. Because cnidarian genomes are conventional in terms of protein-coding genes, their remarkable features are likely a consequence of epigenetic regulation. To facilitate epigenetics research in cnidarians, we analysed the histone complement of the cnidarian model organism Hydractinia echinata using phylogenomics, proteomics, transcriptomics and mRNA in situ hybridisations. RESULTS:We find that the Hydractinia genome encodes 19 histones and analyse their spatial expression patterns, genomic loci and replication-dependency. Alongside core and other replication-independent histone variants, we find several histone replication-dependent variants, including a rare replication-dependent H3.3, a female germ cell-specific H2A.X and an unusual set of five H2B variants, four of which are male germ cell-specific. We further confirm the absence of protamines in Hydractinia. CONCLUSIONS:Since no protamines are found in hydroids, we suggest that the novel H2B variants are pivotal for sperm DNA packaging in this class of Cnidaria. This study adds to the limited number of full histone gene complements available in animals and sets a comprehensive framework for future studies on the role of histones and their post-translational modifications in cnidarian epigenetics. Finally, it provides insight into the evolution of spermatogenesis.