Weird Wednesdays: U Jelly?

Weird Wedensday returns with a trip to Australia. (Eric Bauer/Flckr, Creative Commons)

For this week’s column, we return to Australia.

Why Australia, you may ask? I’ll be frank: It’s a cheap shot. Australia is bizarre. It’s this weird little half-protocontinent inhabited by the descendants of former English criminals, the natives they oppressed, kangaroos, horrifying vegetation, deadly spiders and emus. It’s surrounded by vast amounts of temperate ocean, which is seething with sharks, stonefish and all a manner of venomous species, stingers at ready.

Which brings us to today’s beastly beauty: a wee little blob of gelatinous cells with little-to-no nervous system to speak of, less mass than a Canadian dollar, meter-long stingers and enough toxin coursing through its system to kill a full-grown man. 

Who said that good things didn’t come in small packages? The Irukandji jellyfish is no exception.

The itsy bitsy teenie weenie deadly stinging jellyfish meanie known as Carukia barnesi or Malo kingi (The name ‘Irukandji’ refers to a set of stinging Cnidarians causing the Irukandji Syndrome, which we’ll get into later) is a type of box jellyfish (Cuboza), which are named for their square-shaped bells. All members of this wonderful little family are found in the tropical Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Our friend the Irukandji, named for Aboriginal tribe Yirrganydji, lives along the North of Australia, around reefs and in water about 10-20 meters deep. Late summer and early winter are prime time for these little critters-- and for the tourists they sting.

The way that jellyfish reproduce are weird; mating techniques include the male and female shooting clouds of sperm and eggs into the water, or even tangling tentacles together in loving, sexy embrace. The gametes then develop into blastocysts, floating around in the water as they grow and divide.

A baby Irukandji (if you can call it that) starts out as a wee little swimming planula larva, which soon develops into a swimming/crawling polyp (weird little worm/tentacle thingie.) The polyp finds a nice little rock to settle on and grows and starts budding off into medusae (immature jellyfish). One polyp can produce multiple medusae in a life cycle, and some remain immobile for the rest of their natural life.

Medusae develop into full-blown jellyfish, feeding on progressively larger critters and becoming continuously more venomous (a box jelly at the end of its life, around 20 years, is considered highly dangerous because of this.)

The jellyfish use its patent toxin to hunt, by catching vertebrates such as small fish, shrimp and other meaty ocean creatures and pulling them to their gastric cavity, where digestion is swift and certain.

Its diet is actually why the jellyfish is so nefarious-- when it evolved, as the organism switched its diet from relatively scrimpy portions of plankton to much more energy-packed fish, more venom was needed to take down its prey. 

The venom is specifically located in small stinging cells in the Irukandji’s tentacles, called nematocysts. Tiny barbs deliver the venom to the unfortunate critter trapped within, sending paralyzing neurotoxins that render a creature all but immobile.

Why is it so toxic? The answer: Two speed evolution. As a particular prey adapts to the venom to a predator, the predator evolves to have a more powerful, more concentrated venom-- which the prey evolves to resist again, and so on. 

Unfortunately, humans tend to get caught in the crossfire of this biological arms race-- and the results are pretty gruesome. While it isn’t nearly as deadly as some of its Cuboza cousins, contact with the Irukandji will make you want to die.

When stung, the initial feeling is that of a mosquito bite; enough for some unsuspecting swimmer to simply brush it off, especially since it leaves no mark. By the time 30 minutes have elapsed, however, the symptoms of Irukandji syndrome begin to set in in earnest.

Back pain is common, So is nausea, twitching, muscle stiffness, vomiting, sweating, excruciating pain, increased heart rate (especially as fluid begins to fill the heart and lungs) and, in severe cases, brain haemorrhage.

The strangest symptom of all? An impending sense of doom-- a psychological urge so strong that many patients beg for doctors to kill them, so sure they are that their mortal end is at hand. 

There is no treatment, short of pumping patients full of morphine and anesthetics so they can hope to sleep through the ordeal, which can last anywhere from two days to two weeks. Despite this, most patients survive with support, with only a few slipping into a coma before recovering

There’s only been one or two deaths from the Irukandji-- the most famous being American tourist Robert King in 2002 (which was a record year for stings due to strong winds and currents along the coast). Malo kingi was the species that killed him, by way of stroke and bleeding in the brain, and the species was named after him in wake of his death. 

Irukandji syndrome itself used to be considered an isolated set of symptoms unlinked to a specific creature (because of course its normal to return from a little sea-bathing writhing in agony!) until 1964-- when a toxinologist and doctor Jack Barnes set out to discover the root cause.

After combing the ocean, Barnes centered on a tiny jellyfish he had found drifting around the local reefs. With the specimen in hand and a hypothesis at ready, the scientist then did the logical thing and stung himself.

After a few days of utter suffering, Barnes did what any good scientist does and replicated the experiment… on his nine-year-old son. And a local lifeguard.

Yeah, he’s winning Father of The Year Awards, this one.

In any case, the jelly’s sting produced the same result: Exquisite, delayed agony, and all the other wonderful symptoms of Irukadji Syndrome. With this knowledge in hand, Barnes was able to pin the crime to the culprit (Carukia barnesi, in this case) and the Aussie government took measures to net off beaches where the jellyfish gathered, protecting tourists and beachgoers. 

Of course, every villain needs a critical weakness. In the Irukandji’s case, it’s synthetic surfaces; the stinging nematocysts are unable to pierce through material.

That’s right. Wearing pantyhose will protect you, lest you ever have the gall to swim at an unprotected Australian reef. I hope that sits pretty with you.

In any case, should you ever visit Australia, be careful. Drive on the left. Don’t aggravate the kangaroos. Wear your nylons, abstain from using your offspring in your scientific trials… and stay weird. See you next week!


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.