Blue warriors fire venom-tipped barbs into invaders

Run for your lives!

No, I’m not talking about Avatar*. The blue warriors I’m talking about are of the bluebottle (Physalia)  kind. They’re currently appearing in 3D at a beach near me, and the experience is even more lifelike than V-Max.

Beautiful but painful. Image credit: idonothaveacat, Flickr.

Generally, on Australia’s East Coast, northerly winds herald the arrival of these menacing creatures. Silent but brutally efficient, they drift along the surface, camouflaged in blue water or assuming the guise of an innocent bubble in turbulent water. Often the first time you’ll notice one is a vague irritation and the sensation of a string wrapping around an appendage, followed quickly by a stinging pain and frantic, involuntary thrashing to remove the offending tentacle. Grown men can be reduced to hapless, flailing buffoons, torn between the need to remove the stinging tentacles and not wanting to pull them off lest they end up transferring the problem to their hands.

So what makes these little critters so nasty? For a start, they work as a team: what we see as a single organism is actually a colony of three types of ‘medusoids’ and four types of ‘polypoids’. The next problem is their armament: the tentacles bear a type of cell unique to jellyfish, the nematocysts, which fire sping-loaded barbs on contact – even after the colony is washed up and dead on the beach! A recent study suggested that the hair-triggered barb discharge is the fastest cellular process yet discovered in nature – capable of generating an acceleration above 5 million Gs (!) and hitting the target with the force of a bullet (Nüchter et al. 2006).

A Scanning Electron Micrograph of a discharged nematocyst barb. Some bullet!

So, not only are they team-playing, ultra-barb-firing undead monsters, they load their barbs with physaliatoxin, which is just as menacing as it sounds (say it out loud: pure evil!). It attacks the nervous system, particularly the respiratory system, and can cause anaphylaxis in humans. A practical translation? It bloody hurts, and can send people into severe shock. I’ve had my share of tangles with these formidable little beasts, the most recent a week ago, and I still have a squiggly red scar on my stomach to remind me of it.

There’s a lesson in this: next time you’re unfortunate enough to have a close encounter with a bluey, you can take some consolation in the fact that it’s not your fault. How can you possibly contend with a team of amazingly adapted, brainless, poison-barb firing killing machines? At least you can say to your mates, “Ow, that bloody thing filled me full of physaliatoxin!” and put on a brave face while they look concerned and confused.

*Avatar is awesome, by the way.

Categories: Science, Surf | Tags: , , , | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “Blue warriors fire venom-tipped barbs into invaders

  1. That sounds painful! I’ve learned something new today and it’s not even 8 am yet.

  2. I once heard that people who are allergic to bee stings are also allergic to blu bottles. Any updates?

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  4. Scary and fascinating!

  5. Pingback: Sunday Science: Some of My Favourites | David Robertson

  6. Steve

    Great article David and especially a lovely photo.
    But your globe trotting must be making you a tad soft. They do sting, but I’ve seen school kids trowing them at each other in games of beach brandings.
    And also no mention of the instant beach remedy? Surely we should be sharing Aussie first aid
    PS: Great blog

    • Well yes, there’s that remedy – probably more effective for comedic relief, you have to admit. And kids throwing them at each other? They must have been dead for a while… there were hospitalisations in an Iron Man race at Bondi because of these things, they can be serious!

      • Steve

        Yeah admittedly they were dead, and one at a time they are painful but not much more than an annoyance. I suppose living around them so much while surfing and the like, we just become used to their nasty ways.
        Once again mate – lovely photography and a great blog – cheers mate.
        I’ll keep the home remedy to myself in case we encourage some odd beach behaviours


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