A Scientist’s Quest to Understand the Box Jellyfish that Almost Killed Her

About 50 different species of box jellyfish live in the Pacific Ocean and on the coasts of Florida and New Jersey. When the box jellyfish stings, it shoots venom from its tentacles into a person’s flesh with as much pressure as a bullet fired from a gun. The unique venom contains many different types of poisonous substances called toxins, including some of the same found in dangerous bacteria and in cobra’s venom. The venom quickly pokes holes in the red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body, causing a spike in heart rate and bleeding in the brain. If you are stung with a large amount of venom, it only takes minutes for the venom to stop your heart. If that’s not scary enough, box jellyfish are clear, making them almost invisible to the human eye when swimming in the ocean.

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Angel Yanagihara, PhD, studies box jellyfish on Waikiki. Credit: A. Yanagihara

Angel Yanagihara, PhD, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, has made it her life’s mission to learn everything she can about the box jellyfish and its deadly venom. When I first met Yanagihara, I was intrigued by her passion for studying the creatures. It was only after a few conversations with her that I found out she nearly died after being stung by a box jellyfish while she was swimming off the coast of Waikiki. Surprisingly, in 1997—when Yanagihara was stung—very little was known about box jellyfish venom. Since that time, she has discovered what is in the venom and how to purify it to understand its toxic effects in the human body. She has also developed a topical cream that deactivates the venom before it causes harm to the body. This novel first-aid approach to treating a box jellyfish sting can help prevent the venom from killing.

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An early morning dive. Credit: A. Yanagihara

Yanagihara is currently studying the body’s response to the venom in the hopes of increasing a person’s chances of surviving a box jellyfish sting. I am lucky enough to be part of her study team that is looking at the physiological responses that occur after a sting. For her studies, Yanagihara goes diving very early in the morning, before sunrise. This time, she is sure to protect herself from the deadly box jellyfish by wearing a full-body wet suit.

Dao Ho, PhD

Dao H. Ho, PhD, is a biomedical research physiologist at Tripler Army Medical Center. The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of the Army, U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

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