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Evolution of Highly Toxic Box Jellyfish

With thousands of stinging cells that can emit deadly venom from tentacles that can reach ten feet in length, the fifty or so species of box jellyfish have long been of interest to scientists and to the public. Yet little has been known about the evolution of this early branch in the animal tree of life. An international team of researchers has now largely unraveled the evolutionary relationships among the various species of box jellyfish, thereby providing insight into the evolution of their toxicity. “By determining the relationships among the different box jellyfish, some of which are capable of killing a healthy human, this study can help in the future development of antivenoms and treatments for their stings,” said Dr. Allen Collins, a specialist in Cnidaria, the phylum of animals that includes box jellyfish, and senior author of the report. “Researchers will now be able to make more informed choices about organisms for future venom studies, and make predictions on which species are likely to be of public health concern in addition to the known culprits.” Box jellies--also called sea wasps, stingers, or fire jellies--live primarily in warm coastal waters around the world. They are particularly well known in Australia, the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia, but they also occur in Hawaii and in waters off the United States Gulf and East Coasts. Their toxicity varies among species and ranges from being completely harmless to humans to causing death within minutes after a sting. Beyond their toxicity, box jellyfish have other interesting characteristics. Some species, for instance, have as many as 24 eyes, capable of sensing light and forming an image of their surroundings. Why they have complex eyes, how well they see, and what role vision plays in their mating and feeding behavior remain unknown. Using DNA extracted from tissue samples, the researchers used a number of genetic tests and analytical techniques to trace the evolution of the various species and their toxicity and to sort out misidentified species. The three-year study looked at dozens of specimens in collections around the world. The Australian box jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri), the largest box jellyfish species, is considered the most venomous marine animal and its sting can be fatal. Its close relative, Chironex yamaguchii, has caused deaths in Japan and the Philippines. A much smaller species, Carukia barnesi, is the first species known to cause Irukandji syndrome. Symptoms include severe low back pain, nausea, headache, and vomiting, and sometimes “an impending feeling of doom,” but the syndrome is usually not life-threatening. Other box jellyfish species are now known to cause the same symptoms. “Knowing who is related to whom among the box jellyfish will be very helpful in making predictions about species that are not well known,” said Dr. Collins “For example, we may not know how serious the sting is from a particular jellyfish species, but if we know its close relatives cause Irukandji syndrome, than it is highly likely that this species also causes the syndrome. Similarly, there is an antivenom for Chironex fleckeri, whose closest relative is Chironex yamaguchii. It may be that the antivenom will work against stings from this species as well.” The study results indicate that the venoms of box jellies may contain a novel and unique family of proteins. However, further toxicological tests and many more specimens are needed to resolve questions about venom and to develop antivenoms and treatments for box jellyfish stings. This article was published online ahead of print on November 18 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. [Press release] [PRS-B abstract]