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The box jellyfish is one of the most toxic species on the planet. (Credit: Getty Images)

10 most dangerous stingers in Australia

  • BY Julian Jantos |
  • September 19, 2012

We unearth the crawling, swimming and creeping creatures that sting for predation and self-defence.

SPURS, TENTACLES AND PROBOSCISES. Australia has its share of potentially lethal stinging species. Ranging from bottom feeders on the ocean floor to air-borne insects, these animals inject some of the most potent venom on the planet into their victims.

This category of animals differs from snakes and spiders because they don't use fangs to inject venom. Instead, they use various appendages to inject their venom into a victim while hunting or in self-defence. Depending on the animal, this venom achieves its purpose by shocking, paralysing and sometime killing the target. As with most venomous species, these animals use proteins to create a toxic and potentially lethal solution.

"Essentially, evolution has meant that they have taken everyday molecules and mutated them into toxic molecules," says Dr Graham Nicholson, professor of neurotoxicology at the University of Technology Sydney. "Mutation occurs naturally, and over millions years these organisms have produced these toxic molecules for survival."

Stinging species' adaptation

These stinging species have responded to natural selection by varying stingers to inject venom where others have grown teeth. Known as 'trophic strategy,' these animals give tribute to Darwinism with their various stinging adaptations.

"Selection pressure is what has driven organisms to develop defences that assist them in survival. They will pass those genes on to the next generation," says Graham.

In addition to similar stinging techniques, venomous species also seem to have commonalities in the toxins they use. In particular, marine species seem to evolve and replicate each other.

"One of the challenges of feeding in the water is that whatever living thing you want to eat may be taken away from you by currents or waves, unlike on land," says Peter Fairweather, professor of marine biology at Flinders University."Having a fast-acting poison is very useful, especially if you're feeding on something that can also move pretty fast, like fish."

Associate Professor Bryan Fry, associate professor at the University of Queensland and expert in venoms and associated toxins, has found the same biochemical progress in the venoms of marine species. This evolution has demonstrated particular closeness between colloids (octopi, squid and cuttlefish), suggesting that is a specific venom that is most effective for a specific prey.

AUSTRALIA'S MOST VENOMOUS STINGERS

1. Box jellyfish - Chironex fleckeri

Known for lurking off the coast of Darwin and northern Queensland, the box jellyfish is one of the most potent stingers in Australia. It has been responsible for 70 deaths in the country and takes victims by wrapping its 3m tentacles around the unsuspecting prey. This translucent marine stinger is most prevalent during the summer months and all recorded deaths have occurred between October and May.

Venom is injected through small receptors along the tentacles and so the severity of the sting correlates to the amount of the tentacle that touches the skin. In addition to being very painful, the venom attacks the muscles around the lungs and heart. As a result, paralysis of both these organs is the main cause of death in untreated cases.

2. European wasp - Vespula germanica

Located along the east coast of Australia, European wasps were discovered in Australia in 1959 in Tasmania, and by the late 1970s had migrated to the mainland. Naturally dormant in the European winters, these insects have a particularly long lifecycle in Australia because of the relatively warm temperature. They pack a serious sting when angered. Nesting underground and in the walls of houses, they have been known establish colonies of up to 100,000. Their sting, while painful, is not deadly unless the recipient is allergic to their venom. In these cases, hospitalisation and fatalities are possible.
 

3. Honey Bee - Apis mellifera

As with European wasps, the 1.5cm European honey bee, as unassuming as its seems, is highly dangerous to those who have allergies to their venom. Unlike wasps, however, bees leave their stinging barb inserted in their victim, along with a sack of venom. This detaches from the bee, killing it. Native Australian bees are much smaller and often don't sting unlike the introduced species. Allergies to the venom are responsible for more annual average deaths than sharks, spiders or snakes separately. Less than three per cent of Australians are allergic to bee or wasp venom.

4. Bull ants - Myrmecia spp.

At nearly 2.5cm long, bull ants are a part of the Australian stinging genus Myrmecia and use their large, pincer-like jaws to clamp onto their target and then repeatedly inject their venom with their small stinger. While the venom itself is only painful and not fatal, the allergies of some bite victims require immediate medical attention.

Approximately one per cent of the global population is allergic to ant venom. These stingers are more dangerous than others not because of the toxicity of the venom, but because of the aggression of Bull ants and how frequently they come in contact with people.

5. Bluebottle - Physalia physalis

Commonly known as the bluebottle because of the indigo balloon that carries them across the ocean, the Portuguese man-of-war are known for being some of the peskiest stingers in Australia. The individual 'zooids' are a part of a large colony that makes up one gigantic organism. Each individual has an allocated task for survival and collectively the full colony floats around the ocean, carried by the wind. Like ants, the venom is painful but not usually fatal, unless a severe allergic reaction occurs. Their stinging tails are roughly 15cm long and they cause approximately 10,000 stings every summer.

6. Stingrays - Dasyatididae, Gymnuridae, Myliobatidae and Urolophidae families

Generally docile and complacent, stingrays are armed with a rarely used but dangerous probe at the end of their tail. When stepped on, threatened or if their vertebral column is touched, stingrays tend to thrust their spine into the perceived attacker. This spine releases painful venom and causes deep lacerations that often lead to infection from bacteria.

7. Stonefish - genus: Synanaceja

Blending in seemlessly with their rocky, watery surroundings, stonefish carry some of the most potent venom known to finned creatures. At about 30cm long and covering the coastline from Brisbane to Broome, the stonefish hides among coral and rock reefs, immaculately camouflaged with its coarse and textured skin. The spines on its back have been known to pierce the rubber sole of a shoe and the foot within.

Stonefish contain highly toxic venom, with the resulting pain being recorded as feeling excruciating and is not much lessened by pain killers including morphine. These fish can survive for hours in small pools when the tide goes out and are encountered most commonly when trodden on by unsuspecting people wading in shallow water. The severity of the venom is relative to the number of punctures made by the 13 infectious spines as the venom is most dangerous at the conception of the injury.

8. Cone snail - Conus spp

Seeping along the bottom of the ocean is the venomous, predatory snail, commonly known as the cone snail. This unique snail hunts fish by extending its proboscis, shaped like a harpoon when viewed under a microscope, to temp its prey. When the fish come close enough, the snail strikes them with venom 1000 times stronger than morphine, causing paralyses. It then extends its mouth and consumes its prey.

Cone snail venom is now used in a drug called Ziconotide to relieve chronic pain. In a single sting from one of these molluscs there is enough venom to kill 15 healthy adults. Only one death, however, has been recorded in Australia - in 1935.

9. Platypus - Ornithorhynchus anatinus

The ever-mysterious monotreme, the platypus, is yet another Australian animal to be armed with a dangerous stinging apparatus. Used mostly during mating season, the barb of the male platypus is located above its rear feet. The male injects painful venom commonly in fights against other males. Accounts of human stings have been recorded and, while not fatal, have been known to cause severe pain and permanent handicaps around the affected area.

In animal tests, the venom has injected enzymes causing severe pain, paralysis and respiratory failure. Research on platypus venom is difficult to conduct as the animals have been found not to produce venom in captivity and more than the 100 microliters of venom from field research is needed to establish sound results.

10. Centipedes - Class: Chilopoda

Fast, agile and a little bit creepy, Australian centipedes are known for packing a powerful punch. Centipedes use their abbreviated arms, called forcipules, to kill prey and for defence. Injecting small amounts of highly toxic venom, the stings can be persistent for up to a week. No deaths have been recorded in Australia but other species of centipedes overseas have been known to cause renal failure and be fatal to children and the elderly. Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Turkey and other less developed countries have reported numerous mortalities from centipede stings.