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Marine Stingers in Northern Australia

Marine Stingers in Northern Australia

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11/09/2011

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Paul Sutherland www.sutherlandimages.com
 
STINGERS/BOX JELLYFISH/ 
 Chironex fleckeri
 
History:
Until the early 1940’s alldeaths from marine stings wereattributed to
Physalia
sp.
 
or bluebottle jellyfish. It was not until1943 that Frank McNeill firstsuggested that a cubozoan or box jellyfish was more likely to be re-sponsible. Dr Hugo Flecker andDr Ron Southcott together tracedthe records and incidences of fa-tal stings to an unknown box jel-lyfish later named by Dr South-cott as
Chironex fleckeri
(after DrFlecker)
.
 Although reports of humandeaths by jellyfish in Australiahave been recorded since the late1800s the first official confirmeddeath, where the animal responsi-ble was captured and identified,was at Cardwell in 1955. In 1958Dr Jack Barnes was approachedto continue the work into marinestings and it is from his prelimi-nary investigations and observa-tions that the foundations of knowledge on these box jellyfishare built.Although these animals havebeen responsible for over 60deaths in Australia up until 2000,we still know surprisingly littleabout their biology.
Biology:
Stingers are related to true jellyfish, or scyphozoans. How-ever, unlike these round and oftenmulticoloured species,
Chironex fleckeri
is cuboidal in shape andalmost totallytransparent.The best way tospot them in thewater is usuallyby their shadowcast on thesandy substrate.An adult animalmay have up to15 tentacles oneach of the fourcorners of itsbody or bell.Each of thesetentacles can beup to 3 metreslong when theanimal is hunt-ing for food. On each of the foursides of the bell,
Chironex fleck-eri
has a sensory niche, whichcontains 3 eyes and a balance or-gan, so the animal is able to seewhere it is going and tell if it isupside down or not.
Seasonality:
 Stingers first turn up inlate
October/ early November
,depending on local weather con-ditions. They are then
present innorthern waters until May
butoccasionally this may stretch into
early June
. It was not until theearly 1980’s that a researcherfrom JCU, Dr R. Hartwick solvedthe puzzle of the breeding cycleof these animals. Near the end of the season, as the animals be-come sexually mature, male andfemale
Chironex fleckeri
shedmillions of eggs and sperm intothe water column where the eggsare fertilised. These fertilisedeggs grow into small planula andsettle on the under surface of rocks in creeks. Here the planulametamorphoses into a smallpolyp and feeds on planktonic or-ganisms in the water. During thedry season (June to October),these small polyps feed and bud,producing more polyps. At the
Blue bottle,
 Physalia
sp.
Chironex fleckeri
Scyphozoan
Cyanea
sp.
   J  a  m   i  e   S  e  y  m  o  u  r   J  a  m   i  e   S  e  y  m  o  u  r   J  a  m   i  e   S  e  y  m  o  u  r   P  a  u   l   S  u   t   h  e  r   l  a  n   d  w  w  w .  s  u   t   h  e  r   l  a  n   d   i  m  a  g  e  s .  c  o  m 
 
toliths, daily growth rings can beseen and individual animals aged.From this, we now know thatwhen food is plentiful, box jelly-fish can growth between 1-2 mma day and reach a maximum sizeof over 35cm across the bell.
Distribution:
Chironex fleckeri
occursfrom Exmouth on the west coastof Australia through northernAustralia to Gladstone on theeast. It is predominantly a nearshore animal, seldom found morethan a few kms offshore, al-though it is found around somecoastal islands such as MagneticIsland near Townsville. Theirpreferred habitat is calm shallowwater with a gently sloping sandybottom, however it is not re-stricted to these areas, being oftenfound in creeks or around rockyheadlands even when seas arerough.
Habits:
Chironex fleckeri
can befound as solitary animals or inschools numbering in the hun-dreds of individuals. They areactive hunters, using their speedand sensory organs to locate andcapture prey. It is not unusual tosee large animals searching forfood at the edges of light beamscast on the water from jetty wharf lights.
Predators:
 Although
Chironex fleck-eri
is armed with one of the mostlethal venoms known, it still has abevy of predators. The majorspecies are marine turtles, whichappear to show little if any sideeffects to box jellyfish venom.Several species of fish are alsoknown to attack and feed on box jellyfish, but unlike the turtles,these predators feed predomi-nantly on the bell and not the ten-tacles.
Are
Chironex fleckeri
numbersincreasing?
The simple answer to thisquestion is that we just do notknow. We do know that thenumbers of stingers present fromyear to year can vary enormously,but we don’t know what causesthis. We also know that morepeople appeared to be stung by
Chironex fleckeri
in recent yearscompared to the past, but we alsoknow that there are more peopleswimming now then there weremany years ago. There is at pre-sent no evidence to suggest thatstingers are increasing in num-bers and it seems that their num-bers are, on the whole, quite sta-ble over several years, but canvary markedly from year to year.
How does
Chironex fleckeri
 sting?
Box jellyfish, like all jel-lyfish, have stinging cells callednematocysts present on the tenta-cles. These cells contain venomand a hollow shaft that everts(referred to as discharging) andpenetrates the prey or the victimwhen the tentacle comes in con-tact with it. Although small,these stinging cells number in thestart of the season (November),each polyp buds off a single babybox jellyfish, approximately 1.5mm in size, which makes its wayto the creek mouth and then alongthe sandy beaches. Here it feedsprimarily on small shrimp (
 Acetesaustralis
) when they are small,but switch its diet to includesmall bait fish as it matures. Oncefully mature, it starts the breed-ing cycle over again.
Growth:
 Unlike most animals, box jellyfish can undergo degrowth,that is, in times when food isscarce they shrink in size andthen regrow when food becomesavailable again. Because of this,the size of a jellyfish is not agood indication of its age. How-ever, the organs that box jellyfishuse for balance, statoliths, containgrowth rings. By sectioning sta-
GladstoneExmouthAustralian Distribution of 
Chironex fleckeri
Shrimp,
 Acetes australis
 
Chironex fleckeri
Statolith with daily growth ringsA discharged and non dischargedstinging cell or nematocyst
   P  a  u   l   S  u   t   h  e  r   l  a  n   d  w  w  w .  s  u   t   h  e  r   l  a  n   d   i  m  a  g  e  s .  c  o  m    J  a  m   i  e   S  e  y  m  o  u  r   J  a  m   i  e   S  e  y  m  o  u  r   T  e  r  e  s  a   C  a  r  r  e   t   t  e

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