“Box jellyfish” is a name given to the biological class of jellyfish that attack using some of the strongest venom known to man. Part of the reason we know that these jellyfish are the source of this excruciatingly painful venom is because, once upon a time, a doctor willingly had one sting him.
A little background: When most people discuss box jellyfish, usually they’re discussing one particular jellyfish species, Chironex fleckeri. Like other jellyfish, C. fleckeri has tentacles. Along its tentacles are cells that contained specialized structures called nematocysts. Nematocysts are a pain, literally. When the jellyfish is touched, the nematocysts shoot out tiny darts, each loaded with venom. It’s said that a single member of the C. fleckeri gang packs enough venom in its tentacles to kill 60 humans.
Additionally, C. fleckeri has impressively developed eyes for a jellyfish, along with a tendency to swim vigorously with a direction in mind, as opposed to drifting on ocean currents the way most jellyfish do. Just in case you thought were sleeping tonight.
C. fleckeri largely inhabits the waters of the Pacific Ocean from northern Australia up to Japan, an area that, when I think strictly about box jellyfish and not about the general beauty found there, I’m relieved to say is not in my backyard. It also can grow up to 30 centimeters long, with tentacles up to two terrifying meters in length trailing behind it.
However, even when nets were placed in the ocean near Australia’s north shore to establish safe swimming areas free of these substantial box jellies, some people got stung anyway. It turned out that that saying “big surprises coming in small packages” was true.
Chironex fleckeri is one member of a biological group of several types of jellyfish, class Cubozoa. The most obvious feature that sets Cubozoans apart from other amorphous jellyfish is that they have a box-shaped body, or bell. So even though we commonly refer to C. fleckeri as the box jellyfish, technically there are several others that fit the bill.
And not all of them are so big.
Carukia barnesi, another Cubozoan, is a jellyfish that not only is nearly transparent; it’s also only about 6 to 8 millimeters in size. Like the venom that C. fleckeri produces, C. barnesi‘s venom can kill a person. It takes about a half-hour after the sting to make its awful symptoms felt, however, so it’s very easy to get stung by this little jelly and not know it. Isn’t that something?
In fact, the source of those symptoms was such a mystery that for a long time the illness was known by another name, Irukandji syndrome, after an Australian tribe whose members often suffered from it. Only in 1961 did a medical professional determine the cause in what could have been a very stupid way.
Dr. Jack Barnes, a physician in Australia, had treated patients with Irukandji Syndrome who also had jellyfish stings but said that had never seen the creature that got them. He was certain that a jellyfish was at the heart of the pain. So one day in December, he went swimming in an area where jellies also were known to hang.
While swimming in those waters, Dr. Barnes found an incredibly tiny jellyfish floating in front of his diving mask. He captured it, conferred with a lifeguard who also caught one, and then did perhaps what only a man fueled by curiosity would do: he decided to let the little specimens sting not only him, but his nine-year-old son and the lifeguard, too.
Carukia barnesi is named after Dr. Barnes because of his efforts. I don’t know if that made the pain he endured after the stings worth it. Fortunately, all three of those people survived. Oh, and the tribe members who suffered attacks over the years also get honored, in a weird way—today, C. barnesi continues to be known commonly as Irukandji.
It’s interesting, how science and common lore sometimes come together on a topic and other times diverge wildly. Like when it comes to treating a jellyfish sting, for example. It actually has been demonstrated that vinegar can stop the cells along the jellyfish’s body from firing their venomous little barbs. In the case of a run-in with Irukandji, this can reduce the pain.
And if we’re talking about C. fleckeri, the big-gun box jellyfish, there is not only an anti-venom that’s been in use since the 1970s but also a treatment that would use zinc compounds to fight the conditions that cause cardiac arrest in C. fleckeri‘s victims.
You’ll notice that none of these responses involve urinating on a sting. Professionals have come out against the idea, saying that, in some cases, it could make the pain worse. In short, no need to add insult to injury; there are better ways to help jellyfish victims than peeing on them, even if some methods, like dousing with vinegar, require some thinking outside the box.