Last night my wife and I attended our granddaughter’s last
performance in a piano recital given by students of her teacher of
many years. As usual, her piano teacher placed Dale last on the
program, concluding with a rousing performance of a piece by
Rachmaninoff. This fall, Dale is off to the University of
Maryland to pursue her musical and liberal arts education. Until
this morning, when I was led to the University’s medical school
Web site, I hadn’t realized that Maryland is the site of the
International Consortium for Jellyfish Stings. In fact, Dr. Joseph
Burnett, in the Department of Dermatology, publishes the
Jellyfish Sting Newsletter, the latest edition of which contains
reference to two recent articles by one Jamie Seymour.
You may recall that last week I noted in passing that some
unknown creature was stinging members of canoe clubs in
Hawaii and that one suggested culprit was a tiny jellyfish. I
knew jellyfish could be annoying, and sometimes deadly, but I
didn’t realize how deadly until, after posting the column, I read
the article “Killers in Paradise” by Paul Raffaele in the June
Smithsonian magazine. Now I feel compelled, as a public
service, to alert you swimmers and snorkelers to the box
jellyfish. After reading the article, I would rather take my
chances with a great white shark than with certain box jellies,
which range in size from just a fraction of an inch to soccer or
basketball size plus their trailing tentacles.
If you frequent the waters off the coast of Australia, especially in
their summer, chances are you are very aware of box jellyfish.
Just yesterday, down at Rutgers, I talked to my colleague, Tom,
who had visited Australia this past winter, summer Down Under.
While there, his wife snorkeled in the waters of the Great Barrier
Reef near Cairns. Tom said they were informed about the
jellyfish, which were indeed present. In fact, nets were installed
out from shore to keep the jellyfish from the swimming areas.
Tom’s wife wore a head-to-toe wet suit in case some of the little
jellies made it through the nets. Raeffaele, in the Smithsonian
article, began by saying that he had snorkeled at Opal Reef near
Cairns and had not been told about Robert King, an Ohio
resident, who had snorkeled there in April 2002.
Mr. King was stung by one of the smaller box jellyfish and,
within less than half an hour, was suffering the “Irukandji
syndrome”, with severe pain in his stomach, chest and back
muscles. (The irukandji is one type of smaller box jellyfish but it
seems that the term Irukandji syndrome is applied to the effects
of stings by other members of the family as well.) In spite of
being helicoptered to a Cairns hospital and heroic efforts to save
King, he died two days later. A zoologist, the aforementioned
Jamie Seymour, of James Cook University School of Tropical
Biologyin Cairns, was called to King’s bedside to identify the
source of the sting.
Seymour himself had been stung on the lip by an irukandji but
survived – some species of irukandji are less toxic than the one
that got King. The zoologist, Jamie Seymour, described his pain
as between 15 and 20 on a scale of 1 to 10; yet he recovered in a
day. Although only King’s death and perhaps one other have
been traced to the irukandji, Seymour believes that many more
have died from irukandji stings, drowning with symptoms
resembling stroke or the bends.
Irukandji-like jellyfish are not confined to Australian waters but
have been spotted off Guantanamo Bay and it is a good bet that
swimmers in the Gulf of Mexico or in Hawaii have been stung
by these small jellies. On my Marco Island walks, I often just
missed stepping on large jellyfish washed up on the beach. I was
under the impression that jellyfish just floated around or up and
down with the currents, capturing food that randomly came
within reach of their stinging tentacles. That seems to be the
case with most jellies.
The box jellyfish are something else. They actually can chase
their prey up and down or sideways, scooting along at speeds up
to two or three miles an hour. And if you hear someone say
there’s a sea wasp nearby, don’t think of a pesky insect. It’s
another term for the most fearsome of box jellies, Chironex
fleckeri, with a bell the size of your head and a plethora of
tentacles, up to 180 yards of them. Each tentacle has billions of
cells containing the most deadly venom known in Nature. Your
chances of surviving a Chironex sting depend on how much
tentacle latches on to you. If it’s less than four yards, you might
survive, two if you’re a child. If the Chironex really latches on
to you, you’ll be gone in a minute! There have been at least 68
recorded deaths caused by Chironex in Australia.
Because of their box-like shape, these jellies are also known as
cubozoans. On each of the four sides of the box there’s a little
black dot. Here’s where things begin to get weird. Each black
dot consists of six eyes. In other jellies the eyes are just pits that
detect the intensity of light from the given direction. In the box
jellies, four of the eyes in each dot are pits; however, the other
two eyes are more like our eyes, with a lens, cornea and retina.
One of these human-like eyes points down, while the other points
up! It appears that nobody really knows what these eyes “see”.
Presumably, all the signals from the 24 eyes get processed in the
box jelly’s brain. Whoa, there’s a problem – the box jelly has 4
primitive brains! There’s a brain on each side, connected by the
same link that connects to the eyes. Researchers have a real
challenge trying to figure out how all these images are processed
by 4 brains to come up with a command for the jelly to move in
one direction or another.
With box jellyfish having multiple eyes and brains. Wouldn’t
you also expect them to have multiple stomachs? You’re right, it
does. Remember those 180 yards of tentacles in Chironex? The
Chironex may have as many as 60 tentacles up to 3 yards in
length; hence, the 180 yards. It turns out the stomach is in the
tentacle – 60 tentacles, 60 stomachs! The food is processed in
the bell into a partially digested soupy mix, which is funneled
into the tentacle-stomachs for further digestion and absorption.
Seymour and his coworkers managed to tag some Chironex with
transmitters. I’m not sure, no, I am sure that I would not want to
try that job! They may have found that Chironex needs its naps.
These jellies traveled around rather extensively, 210 meters an
hour, in the hours between 6 AM and 3 PM. However, from 3
PM to 6 AM, the night shift, they only moved some 10 meters an
hour. When Seymour, ever the adventurous type, dove down to
see what was going on during the night shift, he was shocked to
see the jellies resting motionless on the sea bottom with no usual
pulsating of the bells. They seemed to be sleeping! Whether
Chironex really sleeps or not is now a controversial topic.
Researchers are seeking antidotes for jelly stings and some
progress is being made. We talked last week of barium sulfate in
nets to cut down the unwanted catching of porpoises, dolphins
and whales. Magnesium sulfate, a chemical cousin to barium
sulfate, is showing some promise when a solution of it is injected
into an irukandji victim’s veins. It seems to bring down the
severe hypertension that results from a sting and also reduces the
pain. For Chironex victims, an antivenin has been developed by
inoculating sheep with Chironex venom. Of course, if you’ve
been hit with too much more than 4 yards of tentacles, you’ll be
dead before you get to shore!
Assuming that you don’t run into a Chironex, you might want to
take some vinegar with you the next time you venture into a
body of water. If a jelly stings you, vinegar kills those cells that
remain on your skin but haven’t yet fired their venom. As for
me, I shall continue to avoid immersing myself in water except
in the shower.
Allen F. Bortrum