Wednesday, 12 October 2011



So, microorganisms and other humans aside, what do you think is the deadliest creature in animal kingdom? A snake, perhaps a lion or bear, a scorpion perhaps? Neah, not even close. The deadliest creature in the world is actually called a sea wasp.

Specialists use the term ‘deadliest’ when they refer to venomous creatures, that produce toxins that can be harmful or deadly to other animals or humans. When they make this ‘top’, they take into consideration two things:
- how many people can an ounce of the venom kill; and
- how long does it take to die from that venom.
For both of those things, the undisputed winner and (as far as we know) all time record holder is the sea wasp. Don’t let the name fool you, because the sea wasp is actually a jellyfish (we’ve been having a lot of those lately); on each tentacle, they have about 500.000 nematocytes. Nematocytes are basically needles that inject venom in everybody that happens to tocuh them.

They actively hunt their prey and they’re quite fast swimmers for jellyfish (5 mph), but are not aggressive and they try to avoid humans. What’s interesting is that turtles are not affected by their venom and actually eat these jellyfish (nature sure has its ways).

If (and we hope not) you would get stung by such a jellyfish, a bottle of vinegar and a first aid kit may very well save your life. Here’s how it goes: pour vinegar over the stung areas. The pain is almost unbearable and vinegar won’t help with that, but it will render the nematocysts that haven’t ‘fired’ harmless. If you attempt to remove the tentacles, it’s very possible to activate them and do even more damage. It’s quite safe to say that vinegar has saved dozens of lives, especially on the Australian beaches.

Not to worry.  There is not a “sea wasp” out of its element in your office workspace.
Wait, what exactly is a “sea wasp” you ask?  A sea wasp is the nickname given to the box jellyfish.  I’ll bet you asking yourself how does a jellyfish get the nickname “sea wasp”. Well, you probably didn’t ask that question, but since I asked it for you I’ll bet now your at least curious.

The box jellyfish is known as the “sea wasp” because it is known as the most venomous specie in the world.  The box jellyfish venom contains toxins that attack the heart, nervous system, and skin cells.  The venom is so painful that victims have been known to go into shock and drown, or die of heart failure before reaching shore.  For the lucky victims that survive the ordeal the pain has been known to last for weeks.  Since 1954 the box jellyfish has killed more than 5500 people.  The most deaths by an venomous species on earth.

Great, now we know why a box jelly fish is called a sea wasp…but how does this relate to my workplace?  Anybody who has ever worked anywhere has been subject to one of the most venomous species found in an organization’s culture; gossip!

Gossip is venomous enough to completely destroy an organizations culture and most assuredly relegate it to die a slow and agonizing death.  Gossip is defined in the dictionary as “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.”

When John the salesman runs to Jane the receptionist to talk about the “dim-witted” decision that Steve the manager made that is going to cost him several key accounts nothing productive is accomplished.  Jane cannot address John’s problem, so not only is he wasting his time, he is also wasting her time and both leave the discussion in a mood that is not positive for the organization as a whole.

The best definition of Gossip that I have heard to date, at least from a workplace perspective, comes from Dave Ramsey.  ”Negatives never go down or across, only up.”  Let’s dissect what this means.  Negatives by definition is anything that is not positive.  Conflicts between employees, disagreements about how to handle a situation, or overall whining and complaining can all be considered negatives.  If you work you will inevitably face something negative.  Negatives should never be addressed with peers or subordinates…this is the moving down or across portion of the definitions.  Negatives should always be addressed with the source, someone above the source, or with someone who can address the negative…this is the moving up portion of the definition.

Gossip is so venomous because it introduces a negative culture into the organization. Nothing will destroy a team faster than gossip.  Gossip fosters an environment where team members do not trust each other, produces high levels of tension, and politicizes relationships.  Anybody who has watched the reality TV show Big Brother can see the effects of gossip in full working form.  Companies that allow gossip allow problems to fester.  Team members will gossip about a negative issue because it allows them to establish their opinion with their peers without having to worry about addressing the issue.  It is easier to complain about the problem than to fix the problem.

By eliminating gossip you ultimately force your team to confront each other. Ideological confrontation is a must for an organization that wants to create a good culture.  Team members must engage each other to better the team as a whole. People are going to make mistakes, make bad decisions, or just drop the ball all together.  If your team can’t encourage each other after making a mistake, be there to debate a decision, or pick-up the ball and give it back to the person who dropped it your environment is being held hostage by gossip.

So, how do you fix gossip?  Organizations cannot allow gossip to fester within the culture.  It must be completely eradicated.  The only way to completely eradicate gossip from an organization is to provide the harshest punishment for doing so. Employees should be fired for gossiping.  Sound a bit harsh?  Not really.  Especially when you consider how venomous this creature is and the damage it does to the culture of the organization.  However, be cautious here.  You can’t just make a decision that you will eradicate gossip from your organization and then flip the switch.  If gossip is rampant in your organization you will end up firing your entire team.  The goal is not to fire your team, but to improve the environment for your team.  You will have to start with warnings, and inevitably fire a person or two before the gravity of the situation begins to set in with your team.  Gossip will then eventually begin to die off almost like giving your organization a dose of anti-venom.

The brilliant tropical sun seems to pause in its daily routine to warm the beaches of North Queensland, Australia. The turquoise water glistens, reflecting its light. A line of bodies lie in the soft sand, allowing the sun to bronze their skin. One sunbather turns over to face the warm rays. Some energetic young people play a rousing game of volleyball. An elderly couple read under a palm tree, glancing up occasionally to watch the volleyball players.

The beach seems ideal, but something is wrong. The still water seems so inviting on this hot day, but no one is swimming. Red warning flags flap in the wind, lining the beach like sentries. Where the grass meets the sand a giant yellow sign depicts a large jellyfish’s tentacles encasing an unfortunate swimmer.

From October to May, the North Queensland beaches are haunted by a deadly animal, often forcing beach closures. The creatures that cause such havoc belong to a group of animals related to the jellyfish. Scientists named them Cubozoans for their box-like shape. Local residents call them box jellyfish or stingers.

Profile of a Spineless Killer

Box jellyfish have a square-shaped float with tentacles streaming from the corners of the bell. All box jellies can sting using nematocysts, tiny stinging cells that line the other surface of the animal. When an animal touches the box jellyfish, the nematocysts fire, puncture the victim and eject venom. The venom paralyzes and kills the box jelly’s prey, which are usually invertebrates.

The venom of some box jellies can be deadly to humans as well. Of the 28 known species, only three can cause death in humans. These live in the Gulf of Mexico, Japan and Australia, according to Jamie Seymour. Seymour is the leading researcher of box jellyfish at James Cook University’s Tropical Australia Stinger Research Unit (TASRU) and has been studying these animals for 10 years.

An encounter with one type of box jellyfish - Australia’s sea wasp (Chironex fleckeri) - could be fatal. The sea wasp possesses the most potent venom of any marine creature. A brush of a mature sea wasp’s tentacle causes heart failure and death within minutes.

This box jellyfish is similar to the species responsible for Irukandji Syndrome. (Image from (Click image for larger version)
On March 23, 2003, a seven year-old boy was swimming on an unprotected beach near Cairns, Australia. Suddenly he began screaming in pain. His grandfather rushed into the water and pulled the boy out of the water. After 10 minutes the child suffered full cardiac arrest. This boy was the 68th person to die from a sea wasp since 1883.

At a glance, the sea wasp may appear like a jellyfish, but nothing could be further from the truth. Unlike true jellyfish, all box jellyfish can swim. The sea wasp has been clocked at three knots or 3.35 miles per hour. Compared to true jellyfish that drift aimlessly on the wind and current, the sea wasp is a speed demon.

The body of a sea wasp may grow to be as large as a basketball. Long tentacles dangle from the four corners of the sea wasp’s body. Adults may have up to 15 tentacles, three meters long, on each corner.

The animal even has eyes, three on each corner. Two of the eyes in the set detect only light, giving the animal a sense of direction. The third eye is an image-forming eye complete with a lens, like our own eyes.

“The animals have eyes but no brain. No one knows how they process what they see,” Seymour says.

The venom of an adult sea wasp is so powerful that the victim may not even have time to swim to shore. (Image from (Click image for larger version)
Irukandji Syndrome – The aftermath of a sting

The sea wasp is not the only dangerous box jellyfish off the North Queensland beaches. This January, the Cairns beaches were closed for several days after three people developed Irukandji Syndrome, a set of symptoms caused by other species of box jellyfish. Initially, stings from these box jellyfish cause only a mild irritation with almost no marks. A half hour later, the victim may feel pain, cramps, nausea, headaches, severe back pain and even a sense of doom. These symptoms could then lead to heart failure and difficulty breathing, resulting in death.

Several different types of box jellyfish are responsible for Irukandji Syndrome. Throughout the world, 12 to 16 species of box jellyfish cause Irukandji Syndrome. Australia’s waters have six to 12 of those species. Most are small, measuring 3 mm – 10 mm in length, according to the TARSU website. That’s about the width of a pencil easer. They are often clear or opaque with a single tentacle streaming from their four corners. The bodies and tentacles of the box jellyfish that cause Irukandji Syndrome are covered with the stinging nematocysts. Only the tentacles of the sea wasp have nematocysts.

The intended and accidental victims

Warning signs, like this one, are common along the North Queensland beaches. (Image from (Click image for larger version)
Seymour and his team are involved in a series of research projects to better understand these animals. Some of his research is devoted to learning how and why the venom is so potent to humans.

“The venom is not targeted to humans,” states Seymour. Instead, he explains that the sea wasp and those that cause Irukandji Syndrome are hunting fish. Most box jellyfish and true jellyfish eat only invertebrates. The venom of the sea wasp is targeted toward a vertebrate nervous system, like ours.

“When it is scaled up,” Seymour explains, “the same amount of tentacle is needed to kill a fish as a human.” A seven inch fish will die from contact with one half inch of tentacle, but humans need seven to eight feet of tentacle – proportionally the same amount.

Not only is the venom directed towards nervous systems like ours, but it is also particularly potent. “Jellyfish don’t have hands or feet,” Seymour remarks. “They have to kill and kill instantly.” The venom has a direct effect on the heart and causes immediate death to the tissue it contacts. “The venom begins to digest the tissue immediately,” Seymour continues. “It turns the tissue into soup.”

The venom of the box jellyfish that cause Irukandji Syndrome has a weaker effect on humans. “The Irukandji jellies feed on larval fish,” according to Seymour. The fish larva has a vertebrate system but the venom enters the lymphatic system before it reaches the heart. In humans, the venom takes 20 minutes to pass through the lymphatic system and into the heart, but for fish larva the venom directly enters the heart.

Surviving the stingers – Treatment and prevention

During the winter months (June – September) swimmers can enjoy the North Queensland beaches without fear. (Image by Rebecca Straw. Townsville, Australia) (Click image for larger version)
Stings from any box jellyfish are immediately treated with vinegar. “The vinegar does not stop the pain or remove the venom,” Seymour states. Only 20 percent of the nematocysts fire when a person is stung. Vinegar prevents the reminder of the stinging cells from injecting venom into the victim. Afterwards, the victim is taken to the hospital. He is given painkillers while doctors monitor his breathing and heart rate.

Currently, patients are receiving a new treatment for stings. The doctors are giving victims magnesium to control the pain – the same treatment given to women in labor. Doctors recognized that the labor pain is similar to the pain caused by Irukandji Syndrome. “No one knows why [magnesium] works,” remarks Seymour.

Avoiding stings is better than the best treatment. Seymour and his fellow researchers are becoming more accurate with predicting the beginning and the end of the box jellyfish season. During these months, swimmers, snorkelers and scuba divers are encouraged to wear “stinger suits,” full-body protective gear. Swimming is also allowed within nets that prevent box jellies from entering. In time, the number of causalities from box jellyfish may be reduced to zero.

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