Home > Biology, Science > Jellies: The smaller, the scarier.

Jellies: The smaller, the scarier.

December 2, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

To tell  a secret, I have a deep rooted fear of the ocean. That’s only slightly true, I love the ocean and would spend all of my free time in or near or around it if I were able. Still, it frightens me. Not so much the vastness of it, I would absolutely revel in being able to swim in an area where I couldn’t see dry land, but the threat of what lies beneath. The beasties lurking under the surface are what frighten me. Sure, sharks and barracudas are the stuff of nightmares (thanks a lot Jaws and Finding Nemo) but it’s not even necessarily them that I fear, it’s more the threat of something slightly below the surface that I can’t see and don’t even know that it’s there until it brushes past my leg.

Unfortunately this fear was realized a few years back on my first swim in the Atlantic. It had been a long day of traveling and by the time we got to our resort, it was evening with the sun quickly disappearing. I desperately wanted to get a quick dip in before the light failed. My wife was obliging enough to come with me and we jumped in. I wondered briefly why no one else was in the water, but quickly forgot about my curiosity as I waded out. We tread water for a couple minutes when something brushed past my leg. I’ll spare you the details of what I did at that moment, but I was eternally thankful for the wet environment. My wife must not have noticed the sudden rise in the water temperature, either that or she was too polite to say anything. Regardless, seconds later she felt something, brush her leg.  It was at that point that we were able to see the nebulous shapes floating all around us. We were surrounded by jellyfish.

I’m not sure what species they were, if I had to guess it would sweetmercifuljesuazoa.  I was too panicked at the time to really care, and the other times that we saw them they were in gelatinous blobs clumped up on the shore, making any type of maritime biological study difficult, if not impossible. Brief as it was, it was probably the most horrifying moment I ever had. Luckily, the stings that we received where not severe, or even bad. They were milder than stinging nettles. I can only assume that ammonia contained in my urine, which was expelled during the swim was enough to counteract the poison from the jellyfish. So, you know, hooray for that.

I find jellyfish to be both fascinating and frightening. Because of their simple method of movement and the environment in which they live, they’re incredibly graceful creatures. Their incredible fragility only adds to this. I say fragility because, in the event of an underwater knife fight, I would beat a jellyfish nine out of ten times, however, in terms of normal everyday activities, jellyfish have the upper hand, especially when they’re on their own turf. However, if you are aware of where the jellyfish are, you can easily avoid them. They’re not the swiftest of swimmers, but this brings me to the irukandji. Let me tell you about irukandji.

What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, a stinging machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and sting and make little jellies, and that’s all. Found off the coast of Australia, their tentacles are about a meter long, but the body is only about 5mm wide. There are also stining barbs on the body, so if you manage to avoid all the tentacles, it still has a chance to get you. The problem is that they’re so small, they’re hard to see until you bump into one, like walking into a spider’s web. Luckily, once you bump them, they’re so fragile that they die (it’s actually difficult to study them because if put in an aquarium, they’ll bump into the walls and the trauma will kill them). Unluckily, you still will feel excruciating pain.  The pain doesn’t start right away though. Sure, you feel a little sting from the tentacles, but the way the irukandji works is that the stingers (or nematocytes) only release venom at the tip. Therefore, you feel the initial sting and then the poison gets into your bloodstream and does it’s magic about thirty minutes later. And we’re talking the shit-all horrible kind of magic.

Do you want to know what happens when you get stung by an irunkandji? You get irukandji syndrome. The venom is so potent and horrible that it gets it’s own syndrome attached to it. It can cause severe body pain as well as headaches, nausea, restlessness, sweating, vomiting, high heart rate and blood pressure. They say it also has psychological effects, such as a feeling of impending death, but frankly if I had that list of symptoms, I would probably feel that death was not too far behind, and would probably welcome his sweet, cold embrace. The person who discovered irunkandji syndrome, Hugo Flecker, was a real sweetheart. Since the jellyfish are so small and hard to detect, no one believed that the syndrome was caused by an animal. To prove his theory, Hugo captured one of the irunkandji and proceeded to sting himself, his son and a local lifeguard, thus earning him the coveted BDiU award for fatherly excellence.

Categories: Biology, Science Tags: , , , , ,
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  1. December 9, 2009 at 2:41 am

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