The Amazing Flight of Little Ray
December 2017 by V. R. Duin

STINGRAY VENOM

Little Ray was anything but dumb.
He began swinging like a pendulum.
Upside down, his spine was aimed wrong.
He could fix that — Little Ray was strong!
(“The Amazing Flight of Little Ray”)

A stingray sting, with its stinging barb and stingray venom, also called stingray “poison”, forms part of the action in “The Amazing Flight of Little Ray”.

Do not worry about the bird in this story. Fish stories somehow seem to turn out well. One astonishing fact about stingray venom may seem like another fish story. Ancient Greek dentists used stingray “poison”, extracted from glands at the base of the stinging barbs, as an anesthetic! The stinging barb of a young stingray is small and not fully developed. Now, you know why bird may not be feeling pain from Little Ray's stingray sting. This is not to say that stingray venom or the stingray's venom delivery system should be taken lightly. It is highly toxic to humans. For this reason, stingray venom also is called stingray “poison” by many people. A stingray sting can result in sudden death.

The stinging barbs are only used for defense. Stingrays do not use them in hunting. The barbs are attached to the body and are not released like a dart. Scientists distinguish venom, which is delivered by injection from poison, which must be ingested. A large stingray strike to a vital body part, such as the chest or abdomen, is particularly dangerous. The stingray venom and the stinging barb can be deadly. The stinging barb is covered with a layer of skin called the sheath, which holds the stingray venom. The sheath is saturated in venom via a gland at the base of the tail. These barbs are not venomous without the sheath. However, a stingray sting can cause severe damage even without the venom. The serrated edges run the full length of the barb on both sides. The stinging barb cuts like a knife.

The wound made by a large stingray can be deep. It can damage muscles and tendons. The wound made by any stingray can become infected. Often, the stinging barb breaks off, requiring surgery to remove it. The pain and swelling from a stingray wound can be severe, particularly when augmented by the venom. In battles with a human, a stinging animal is sure to win. Early warriors made deadly arrowheads, spearheads and daggers, with stingray barbs for the tips. These may be found on display in museums throughout the world. The enormity of these collections indicates these weapons were effective for those warriors. In addition, the tails of large stingrays can be used as cruel and punishing whips. Because of the damage caused, restrictions have been placed on the use of these weapons in today's world.

Although sharks seem to be immune to stingray venom, a stingray sting delivered to a person requires immediate medical attention. The treatment is symptomatic. In addition to traumatic wound care, the stingray “poison” may cause such physical effects as bleeding, chills, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, dizziness, fainting, fever, hives, muscle cramping, nausea, pain, paralysis, redness, seizures, shaking, swelling and vomiting. The effects may last for hours. If the person is conscious, ask if medications to treat allergic reactions are on hand, such as an EpiPen. This is not a cure, but it may lessen some symptoms. While waiting for an emergency rescue team, do not give the person anything to drink. If his or her lips are swollen, they may aspirate and choke. Position the person on his or her back with the feet higher than the head. Loosen tight clothing and discourage movement to avoid further irritation and spread of the venom. Without proper medical equipment and training, do not handle or try to extract the stinging barb.

Some sharks also have stinging spines located at the base of the dorsal fin. These are surrounded by venom delivery glands. Careless handling of these sharks may result in envenoming. The injury is likely to be memorable, but it generally may be treated and cured. Even if there is no permanent damage, the fear is likely to remain. These animals cause reputed pain. The lesson to be learned is that not all creatures are friendly. Much like people, animals are what they are. Some of them are to be avoided. Most of them will try to avoid people. Never chase a fleeing, stinging creature, unless you work for a pharmaceutical company in search of a new cure. A stingray's toxic venom serves as the last line of defense for stingrays that have stinging barbs. Not all rays are stingrays, because not all rays are equipped to sting.

Some rays have no special defense mechanisms at all. Manta rays are stingray relatives that have neither stinging barbs nor stingray venom. Manta rays use their immense size to frighten away intruders. When this scare tactic fails, manta rays will try to flee from determined predators. The horns on a devil ray and a manta ray are not used for fighting. Devil rays have a name that makes them seem aggressive. However, only one member of this species has a venomous stinging barb. The horns are part of the filter-feeding apparatus that unfolds to funnel plankton, krill and small fish into their mouths. Flight is the first line of defense for these unaggressive, shy fish. As with devil rays and manta rays, most stingrays prefer to flee. They are not automatic stinging machines.

Electric rays stun prey and predators with electric shock. Electric rays can scale their shock levels depending upon whether they want to deter or kill a potential predator. The shock from an electric ray may knock a human or large animal down, causing death by drowning. Otherwise, the shock is likely to be painful, but not deadly to healthy, large victims. Like electric rays, catfish and eels have electric shock ability. The defense mechanism of electric shock is deadly to the smaller animals on which these rays dine. However, a large electric ray can kill some sharks. As with stingray venom, the electric charges omitted by these animals are of interest to humans. Their electric charges have been used throughout the ages as experimental cures and instruments of torture. However, these electric fish largely are disinterested in humans.

To attack, as shown in the above illustration from “The Amazing Flight of Little Ray”, the stingray swings its tail over its body to jab whatever is above it with its venomous stinging barb. The death of Australian naturalist Steve Irwin is a famous, and rare example. Mr. Irwin was swimming in shallow water directly above a stingray. This may have interfered with the stingray's perceived escape route and provoked self-defense by stingray sting. Only rarely are stingray stings fatal. One or two deaths from stingray stings are reported on average, throughout the world over the course of a year. The stingray's knife-like stinging barb speared Mr. Irwin in the chest, killing him almost instantly. This is unfortunate, because stingrays do not generally attack or defend themselves aggressively. The injury is typically made to the feet or legs of a person wading in shallow water. While swimming among stingrays, never touch the tail area, as this may provoke an attack. The stinging barb is located in that area.

Stingrays prefer to flee because, if a venomous stinging barb breaks off during the attack, it takes a long time to grow back. The stinging barbs also wear out, so stingrays continually are growing new ones. New barbs generally push the old barbs off. However, multiple barbs may stack on top of each other. Stingrays are luckier than honey bees. When honey bees sting a mammal, their stingers cannot be withdrawn without ripping off large sections of their abdomens. This causes these bees to die almost instantly. Other bees, ants, hornets, yellow jackets and wasps survive their stings, as do scorpions. As with the stingray sting, these creatures do not suffer massive abdominal ruptures after stinging. Like stingrays, these stinging creatures live to sting, again and again.

The venoms delivered by ants, bees, hornets, wasps, scorpions and yellow jackets are different from the stingray venom delivered with a stingray sting. However, all of these creatures have tails with stingers to inject their venom. As with stingray “poison”, the venoms delivered by ants, bees, wasps, hornets, scorpions and yellow jackets can be deadly to humans. A stinging barb may be left behind by some of these stinging animals. Stingers from these creatures must be removed during wound treatment. The toxins from any of these stinging animals can cause allergic reactions that may require hospitalization. A group of sharks is called a shiver, which makes sense. Many people shiver just to think of the damage sharks can cause. A group of stingrays is called a fever, which also makes sense. A fever can result from infections caused by a stingray's stinging barb or as a reaction to the stingray venom.

The toxins from jellyfish remain after these creatures tear apart or die. The stings come from tentacles that look like streaming tails. Different species of box jellyfish live warm coastal waters throughout the world. The lethal species of box jellyfish typically live in the waters of Northern Australia. They also are found in the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean and in nearby waters in the Pacific ocean. More people are killed by box jellies than by sharks. Box jellyfish also are called sea wasps and marine stingers. Most jellyfish travel by floating on currents. They do not swim with their tentacles. To move through the water, box jellies use body contractions that pump in water, then push it out. Prey get caught in the nearly invisible tentacles dangling behind them. Jellyfish have no brains and no intentions of being aggressive. Box jellies are considered among the most venomous animals in the world. Few human victims make it back to shore.

However, the most deadly creature in the world is not venomous at all. The World Health Organization provides an Executive Summary of Insect-Borne Diseases. Most people bitten by these insects suffer a very itchy bump. However, the blood-eating mosquito is responsible for diseases that kill several million people and sicken hundreds of millions of others, each year. Female mosquitoes feed on blood to aid in egg production. The saliva of this insect contains anti-clogging properties, as does that of vampire bats. When the saliva of a biting creature enters the bloodstream of the host, it can transmit deadly bacterial, viral and parasitic diseases to people and animals. There are many different types of mosquitoes. Only the female mosquitoes bite. Male mosquitoes feed on fruit and flower nectar. Fortunately, mosquito repellents may work better than those for other noxious beasts. Electrical, chemical and magnetic repellents do not ward off all rays and sharks.

Stinging Barbs

  • stingray sting admin says:

    For information after a stingray sting in the United States, call the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

  • stingray venom admin says:

    Stephen Robert “Steve” Irwin died from trauma and stingray venom, but his enthusiasm for wildlife remains, thanks to his family and documentaries co-hosted with his wife.

    • stinging barbadmin says:

      Any stingray with a stinging barb can sting, even the babies, so beware when entering or moving through water.