Climate change begins to bite

Irukandji_A000043bgt Recently my wife and I saw an item on the TV about the Irukandji jellyfish, which was said to be moving south as waters warm. I thought it was the 7.30 Report, but can’t find it. Googling reveals that the same tale was being told in 2010.

Here’s the distribution map from Australian Venom Research Unit:


You won’t have much chance of seeing these things coming. This photo from the Courier Mail gives some idea of the size, but the bell can be up to 2cm and the tentacles up to a metre:


This article tells us the Irukandji is thought to be the most venomous creature on earth, 100 times more potent than a cobra and 1000 times more potent than a tarantula. Not as quick to kill you, though, as the larger box jellyfish which has a similar distribution. So far:

Australia has only had two confirmed deaths from irukandji and though the real figure could be higher, there have been 71 cases of death from box jellyfish sting.

Apparently in terms of sting to death the box jellyfish beats everything. It can be 20-30 cm across the bell, weigh up to 6 kg with tentacles up to two metres. The effect of the tentacles can be seen on this photo of a 10-year old girl, who was stung more than 20 kilometres up the Calliope River which empties into the sea just north of Gladstone:

box jellyfish_412412-3x2-340x227

Wikipedia points out that not all species are deadly, with most deaths being attributed to Chironex fleckeri, which can kill within two to five minutes.

The incidence of irukandji is not high from Rockhampton south, but the season in NQ has extended from about two months to six months. Irukanji have recently been found at Fraser Island, which would be about 100 km north of Noosa. As the Calliope River episode shows, the box jellyfish can be found in shallow waters and can survive as far inland as the tides go.

Less is known about the Irukandji, but appear to arrive in certain weather conditions.

As yet, scientists don’t know where the irukandji live most of the time, or where they breed.

“No reports of finding breeding sites have turned out to be true,” Dr Gershwin said.

That’s Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin, director of the Australian Marine Stinger Advisory Service and Australia’s only dedicated box jellyfish expert.

She says the choices will be wear a full body suit or stay out of the water!

“And look out for clusters of what looks like crushed glass or ice at the high tide line … they’re salps or weird jellyfish creatures that hang out with irukandji.

“If you see that on the beach, that’s the highest risk factor we know,” she said.

And expect to find them at Surfers paradise within 30 to 40 years.

Update: See also Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin’s comment.

Also her book Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean. It seems that jellyfish are taking over the oceans. We are past a tipping point on the way to a really yucky ocean with a vastly depleted range of fish species.

37 thoughts on “Climate change begins to bite”

  1. A similar climate change phenomena with the advance of Dengue Fever as heard on ABC RN Breakfast today. Normally the mosquito carrier dies off by May around Cairns but not any longer it seems. Cases of the debilitating disease are still presenting and health authorities are concerned about potential spread.

  2. Thanks, Peter @ 2. That’s impressive. I think it’s a worry when you can get into that much trouble by a smidgeon of poison from the glove.

    This link talks about magnesium as a treatment for some species:

    Dr Michael Corkeron, of the Townsville Hospital Intensive Care Unit, successfully treated patients stung by irukandji with magnesium infusions, delivered by intravenous drip.

    “The remarkable thing is that magnesium infusion is a long-established, very safe and inexpensive treatment,” Dr Corkeron said.

    Dr Gershwin said the treatment was absolutely remarkable, though not suited to every species.

    “For the more severe, it’s almost magic,” she said. “This treatment is a miracle indeed … it stops the syndrome in its tracks, just like that … boom, it stops the pain, everything.”

    It seems that if you have high blood pressure you could be dead.

  3. pablo @ 3, I heard that item. Dengue fever is a very debilitating disease by all accounts.

    Apart from the existing mossies surviving the winter, there is a new vector in PNG which, if it arrives and thrives, could carry the disease to Melbourne.

  4. Yeah, and I hear that Barmah Forest fever is heading North as well, from Victoria into NSW.

    Alan Ginsberg was right. Viruses, fevers and perverts are the future. Or was that the 70’s? Oh no! The 70’s were just a rehearsal?

    Someo9ne will find a way to make a quid out of irukandji, surely? A diesel additive, maybe. A sexual stimulant. The Japanese pay huge amounts for all sorts of weird shit like this like they did for the Kiwis with velvet from deer horns. Or wattabout … oh, nevah mind.

  5. On the plus side, the cold loving Jack Jumper Ant, and it’s increasing death toll may be reduced or even stopped.

    This tiny creature is considered one of the most dangerous ants in the world – and, indeed, the most dangerous animal in Australia! In Tasmania, the death toll from the jack jumper’s sting is about one person every four years – greater than the toll inflicted by sharks or by the most poisonous of snakes or spiders

    Jumpy may get a new gravatar ( if one of his kids shows him how)

  6. Don’t ever underestimate deadly species of jellyfish.

    There’s worse to come. Just wait until the scalies get down to highly populated beaches and rivers. A big one was spotted in the Mary River. If you have your lunch in Brisbane’s Botanic Gardens, best you keep well back from the river’s edge …. scalies are faster than greased lightning when they attack.

  7. Brian I heard about this on ABC radio, it was part of a conversation by a marine biologist on the migration of many species due to global warming. The scientist was for the most part talking about warm water species now being found ever further south and their cold water cousins doing likewise which in turn is going to put enormous pressure on targetted table species.I think it might have related to

    A site to encourage recreational fishers to record/photograph and advise as citizen scientists to help fill in the gaps of knowledge.

    Deeply concerning though, we really do need to elect politicians who will take this seriously.

  8. Graham Bell: WTF is a scalie? It just gets worse and worse! Is it a type of Nat? Left over from J. B-P days? So hardened to corruption that it just bites and stings whatever the target? Or is it a “natural” form?

  9. Maybe Graham meant snailies.
    We don’t get them up here in jellyfish country…….yet!!

  10. OMG, desipis, what can I say?

    Jumpy @ 7, I gather it is the anaphylactic shock that actually kills some people. I work on some properties in Upper Brookfield in Brisbane’s west. On one property I’ve been bitten a few times, standing up whippersnipping, a sudden jab on the hand or arm. At one stage when we were worried about fire ants I put a bottle over the hole and had them identified.

    Speaking of fire ants, I see the f*cking idiots in the Newman government have cut the program. That was December 2012. Then in May 2013, we have Cr Tully of Ipswich:

    Cr Tully called for an urgent increase in federal and state government funding to stop the spread of fire ants.

    “They will eventually cross the border into NSW and reach the Darling Downs with farmers being the big losers. The march of the fire ants will not be halted unless a new major effort starts soon,” he said.

    “We had a situation in Goodna where people were stuck in their own house and had to run to their car to get into it. The kids couldn’t play in the yard because it was covered in ants. They destroy farmland and if they get into people’s yards kids can’t play and dogs can get bitten and die. They can cause severe allergic reactions to people if they are bitten.”

    They have the potential to take out every small native animal between here and Melbourne, as they attack the eyes and orifices.

    This is where they are and this is what they do (from the US).

    Here’s jumping jacks v, huntsman spider:

  11. Yes I saw that article, too, Brian. Whas it on Catalyst? The comment was about both the spread and extending of the danger season.

  12. I just thought I might chime in with my two cents worth, given that I was mentioned. Irukandjis are indeed small and potent little critters! The commonest species, Carukia barnesi, is only about 1cm tall on a good day, with meter long tentacles as fine as cobwebs. And it really only takes a brush of the critter so softly that you don’t feel it and it leaves little or no mark, to make you very very sick. But the good news is that we’ve gotten really good at treating their stings, really good at preventing their stings, and researchers are currently awaiting funding to continue developing a forecasting system that shows great promise so far. And while it might initially sound undesireable to wear protective clothing, you actually don’t feel it while you are in the water, and it works incredibly well at preventing all sorts of stings, and it’s an ecofriendly way to prevent sunburn because all that sunscreen isn’t leaching off into the water.

    Anyway, thanks for talking about them – even though talking about them is a bit scary, it opens up exchange of ideas and communication about safety. And that’s a lot better in the long run than not talking about them and having unaware people continuing to get stung.

    You might also be interested to read my book Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean. It only discusses boxies and irukandjis briefly (though vividly with interesting stories, I suppose), but is more about human impacts on the oceans and the unexpected role of jellyfish.

  13. Bilb,
    7.30, I think. A little while ago. I remember seeing it too.
    A while ago there were reports Ross River fever could be down as far as New England within 5 years or something.

  14. Gotta rush now, but thankyou Dr Gershwin. I’ll put an update at the end of the post referring to your comment when I get in tonight.

    I can’t find the story in the Catalyst archive, but found one on Dengue fever.

    Couldn’t find it on 7.30. I reckon it was 7.30 and for some reason didn’t get included in the archives.

  15. AKN @ 19

    Sorry, thought everyone knew the slang term for ‘crocodiles’ …. and, after all, the title of this thread is “Climate change begins to bite”. 🙂

  16. It’s ok GB. Just kidding. Although, with Oz reputation for small and deadly critters, I wouldn’t have been surprised at all to find that ‘scalies’ were a previously unheard of nasty. I only recently became aware that ‘bull routs’ are in fact fresh water stone fish. The treatment after stepping on one is to immerse the affected limb in water as near to boiling as possible. This apparently denatures the toxin. It also feels better than the pain! Fortunately, in many years of bushwalking and camping, I never stepped on one. As to the Tasmanian ‘jumping jack’ ant – all I can say now is ‘oh, is that what that was’. Damn but it hurt.

  17. Just caught the end of a story on ABC news radio about a cure for Dengue fever that’s in the works.
    Just 15 minutes ago.
    It also mentioned a village in Indonesia ( I think ) puts hand made balls of natural stuff, including sea shells, into places mosquitos normally breed and it stops em.
    Since they started the practice not one infection has occurred.
    Too early for story to be up on the ABC site it seems.

  18. akn @ 23
    The good news is that most of Australia’s deadly beasties are passive (seawasps, stone fish, etc.) or not aggressive unless they feel threatened (standing on a snake does not make it happy) – only a few actually hunt us (crocodiles, sharks, mosquitos). No bears, no leopards, no tigers – thank goodness.

    Jumpy @ 24
    There have been many reports of imminent cures for one type of malaria or another over the years; I’ll just hold off on celebrating a cure for dengue fever until I get rock-solid confirmation …. it would be terrific though.

    Meantime, I recommend that everyone in potentially susceptible area of southern Australia start thinking about the usual anti-mosquito precautions: sleep under a mosquito net, roll down sleeves at sunset, empty out any potential mosquito-breeding containers around the house, etc. They might be necessary sooner or later.

    Of course, climate sceptics quite are welcome to throw all such precautions to the winds and to put their faith firmly in their beliefs.

  19. Further to Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin @ 18, here’s an interview and article about her book Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean.

    Jellyfish are taking over, predating up the line by eating the eggs of bigger, smarter, faster species. Gershwin believes we’ve past a tipping point on the way to really yuck, gummy oceans.

  20. A few years ago I was working on a place with lots of old irrigation lines, a couple of hundred acres, and most of it was stuffed so we were doing alot of repairing lines and drippers. There were places where I’m sure there were fire ants. They were living in 10 mm irrigation line that had failed or been chopped off and left in the paddock. Tried reporting them to the boss but he clearly didn’t pass on the report to anyone else.

    They were small but varying in size, red, aggro as, and left tiny painful blisters where I was bitten. Not as bad as i’d been expecting from the stories but I can imagine being swarmed by them from multiple points, not the end of an irrigation line would be harder to deal with. In the course of working there the manager I’d previously reported the ants to got sacked and I took the new one out to find the alleged fire ants.

    We checked every line in the area, and only found those small native black ants, which are also v aggro but but don’t bite – well a tiny nip that barely hurts. Naturally we had nothing to report at this point. I was working in Northern NSW but it was near the head of the Tweed River so further north than some parts of Qld.

    I’m from Hobart originally and can conform that jack jumpers are dangerous. I had a few friends as a kid who were very allergic to them – to the point where we were warned they could die if bitten. Nasty little things.

    BTW Thanks for the stuff re Dr Gershwin. The jellyfish have been on the rise for nearly a decade now, if you watch the reports. i remember reading about somewhere in eastern Europe where the trawlers had given up on fish and were catching the jellyfish to export to E Asia, cos there was a market for them there. This was a few years ago.

  21. jules, it sounds like fire ants. You can be sure they will be there somewhere.

    I’m not sure whether everyone knows about anaphylactic shock. Apparently something under 2% of the population have it at some time. My wife once had a preschool child who was diagnosed as a 1 in 30,000 case in terms of sensitivity within the small percentage of those with the susceptibility. When she was diagnostically tested in a medical facility she nearly died right there.

    In that case it was peanut butter, which is common along with fish and certain types of insect sting. When this child was in the playground a teacher had to be nearby with the antidote needle at the ready. As she grew older she would have to take that responsibility herself.

  22. This thread reminds me of the old dystopian SF novel The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner, in which pesticide resistance caused an explosion of nasty creepy-crawlies across the landscape.

  23. Paul @ 20
    Ross River virus is already established along the E, coast of Tassie. Contracted it myself some years ago, and was exceedingly ill. Thankfully, I don’t suffer from the recurrent arthritis which many report.
    Apparently there are two types or “phases” of the virus. Type A produces relatively mild symptoms (likened to a ‘flu attack) which are followed by recurrent arthritis for years after the initial infection. Type B , with severe initial symptoms (fevers, delirium etc.) without ongoing symptoms.

  24. Wrt to “tipping points” in the oceanic ecosystems, I read somewhere that as humanity effects the elimination of the top predators from the oceans, squid are moving into the now vacant niches. Squid, however are typically short lived in comparison to scalefish, and by recycling nutrients more rapidly will further disrupt the oceanic food webs, favouring algal blooms and the rise of the jellyfish.
    The Humboldt Squid being one such “critter” – not your average calamari.

  25. Hallo wats dis?

    Golspie wind farm (abandoned)
    Principal: Wind Prospect CWP
    Scope: Construction of a wind farm with upwards of 100 turbines and associated infrastructure
    Status: Project abandoned
    Value: $700 million
    Silverton wind farm (deferred)
    Principal: AGL Energy
    Scope: Construction of a wind farm comprising 282 turbines and associated infrastructure
    Status: Project deferred
    Value: $800 million

    Apart from the obvious question of why 100 turbines cost $700M and an extra 182 cost only $100M more, what’s happening in the wind industry for such back-pedalling on investment ?
    Although Boco Rocks $750M project is in construction now.
    Anyone know how many turbines that brings?
    ( oh, and I’m sure I’ll get capacity comparisons and happy to hear them )

  26. Another one in doubt

    Stony Gap wind farm (proposed)
    Principal: EnergyAustralia Victoria
    Scope: Proposed construction of a wind farm comprising 41 turbines and associated infrastructure
    Status: Development application refused appeal lodged
    Value: $400 million

  27. Oh, it seems I was mistaken about Boco Rocks.
    The contract is $350,000,000 to Downer EDI for 100 turbines and associated infrastructure.

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