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 always seem to turn out well. One astonishing fact about stingray venom may seem like another fish story. Ancient Greek dentists used stingray “poison” from the stinging barb for an anesthetic! Also, 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 should be taken lightly. It is toxic. For this reason, stingray venom also is called stingray “poison” by many people.

The stinging barb is only used for defense. Stingrays do not use them in hunting. The barbs are attached to the body and are not shot like a dart. Scientists distinguish venom, which is delivered by injection from poison, which must be ingested. When a large stingray strikes a person in a vital body part, such as the chest or abdomen, 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 do severe damage even without the venom. The serrated edges run the full length of the barb on both sides.

Not only is stingray venom toxic to humans, but the stinging barb cuts like a knife. The wound made by a large stingray can be deep. The wound made by any stingray can become infected. The pain and swelling from a stingray sting can be severe. Early warriors made deadly arrowheads and spearheads from stingray barbs. 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 nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Certainly, a stingray's toxic venom serves well as the last line of defense for those stingrays that have stinging barbs. 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. Flight is the first line of defense for most stingrays.

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. 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.

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 grow new ones. New barbs generally push the old barbs off. However, multiple barbs may stack on top of each other. In this regard, 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, wasps and hornets 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.

The venoms delivered by bees, wasps and scorpions 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 bees, wasps, hornets and scorpions can be deadly to humans. Moreover, a stinging barb may be left behind by some of these stinging animals. Some sharks also have stinging spines located at the base of the dorsal fin, and are surrounded by glands. Careless handling of these sharks may result in envenoming. Stingers from any of these creatures must be removed during wound treatment. The toxins also can cause allergic reactions in humans that may require hospitalization.

Stingray Venom Comments

  • 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.