Chironex fleckeri

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Geographic Range

Chironex fleckeri, also known as box jellyfish, lives in and around the waters of Australia and Southeast Asia. They inhabit parts of the Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and the Great Barrier Reef. Box jellyfish have been found in the waters on the western coast of Australia in the Exmouth Gulf to Gladstone in the northern waters of Australia. Humans are frequently stung by this species in the oceanic waters of Queensland, on Australia's eastern coast. Box jellyfish may also be responsible for stings near the Philippines. (Hamner, 1994; Hamner, 1995; Tibballs, 2006)

Habitat

Box jellyfish tend to inhabit shallow, murky saline waters near Australia. They are mainly found in the ocean but are also found inland in freshwater rivers and mangrove channels when spawning. During heavy storms, they move into deeper waters where the water is calm to avoid damage. Box jellyfish also inhabit shallow rivers during the reproductive season and during their polyp stage. Once young jellyfish mature into medusa, they follow the river out to sea. (Currie and Jacups, 2005; Hamner, 1995; Tibballs, 2006)

Physical Description

The name box jellyfish is derived from the shape of their bell, which is box-shaped when healthy. The bell is transparent and is usually between 16 and 24 cm, though some reach a diameter of 35 cm. The tentacles of box jellyfish dangle from pedalia, the corners of the bell. There can be as many as 15 tentacles hanging from each of the four pedalia for a total of up to 60 tentacles per jellyfish. Each of the tentacles has a slight blue-gray tint and can grow up 3 m in length. Each tentacle contains millions of nematocysts, which are microscopic hooks where venom is held and delivered. Box jellyfish contain sensory organs including 24 eyes, but they do not have a brain. (Carrette, et al., 2002; Currie and Jacups, 2005; Hamner, 1995; Seymour, et al., 2004; Tibballs, 2006)

  • Range mass
    2 (high) kg
    4.41 (high) lb
  • Range length
    3 (high) m
    9.84 (high) ft

Development

After the reproduction of sexually mature medusa, box jellyfish develop planulae, cells grouped together after fertilization. Planulae soon develop into polyps, which are sessile and small (1 to 2 mm) and look like a living ball with two tentacles. Polyps use their two tentacles to attach to a hard surface, such as a stone or the shell of other animals. Polyps usually attach themselves to a surface where they are not exposed, often on the underside or a crevice of the hard surface. Polyps rely on schools of plankton for food. A polyp can reproduce asexually via budding. After a polyp has metamorphosed into a small medusa, it travels from freshwater rivers to the sea. Once in the sea, a maturing box jellyfish continues to grow until it reaches its full size of 16 to 24 cm. (Hamner, 1994; Hamner, 1995; Hartwick, 1991; Seymour and Sutherland, 2001)

Reproduction

Box jellyfish find mates by swimming to freshwater rivers during the spring. Here, jellyfish release their sperm and eggs directly into the water. Shortly after spawning, box jellyfish die. (Hamner, 1994; Seymour, et al., 2004)

Every spring, box jellyfish gather to spawn in rivers and similar bodies of water. Mature box jellyfish release sperm or eggs into the water. Once fertilization occurs, planula attach to a hard surface and develop into a small polyp, which may asexually reproduce via budding. Once the polyp has finished budding, it develops into a juvenile medusa, which grows into a sexually mature medusa. (Hamner, 1994; Hamner, 1995; Hartwick, 1991; Seymour and Sutherland, 2001; Tibballs, 2006)

  • Breeding interval
    Box jellyfish breed once a year.
  • Breeding season
    Box jellyfish breed from late summer to early fall.
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2 months

Mature box jellyfish die soon after the release of sperm and eggs and, as such, do not invest in the upbringing of their offspring. (Hamner, 1994; Hartwick, 1991; Seymour and Sutherland, 2001; Tibballs, 2006)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement

Lifespan/Longevity

Because box jellyfish die shortly after spawning, their lifespan is thought to be under a year. The longest lived box jellyfish in captivity survived nine months. Until the invention of a modified tank in the 1990s, it was near impossible to keep box jellyfish alive in captivity for more than a few days. Water is in constant motion in new tanks, allowing box jellyfish to float in the current without being caught in the corners of the tank. (Hamner, 1994; Hamner, 1995; Seymour and Sutherland, 2001; Tibballs, 2006)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    9 (high) months

Behavior

Box jellyfish have several behavioral traits that set it apart from other jellyfish. Most notably, box jellyfish can actively swim, whereas most species of jellyfish float wherever the current takes them with no control over their direction. Although box jelly have the ability to move up to 4 knots, during the day they typically travel at 1 knot or less. Box jellyfish usually swim slower during the day than at night, which is likely due to hunting and consuming of prey. Unlike other jellyfish, box jellyfish rest on the sea floor, not moving unless disturbed. Box jellyfish may require this rest phase to energetically compensate for the time they spend actively swimming. Box jellyfish also display this type of behavior when seas are rough, during which they sink to the sea floor until the water calms. Box jellyfish also unintentionally sting humans. The sting of a box jellyfish can be fatal to humans and has accounted for more than 60 deaths in the last 100 years. Most fatalities are documented in children and young adults. (Gordon and Seymour, 2009; Hamner, 1994; Hamner, 1995; Hartwick, 1991; Seymour and Sutherland, 2001; Tibballs, 2006)

Home Range

Box jellyfish have no known home range. (Hamner, 1994; Hamner, 1995)

Communication and Perception

Because box jellyfish have no brain, it is difficult to define their communication and perception. Box jellyfish do have eyes, which have photoreceptors. Photoreceptors give box jellyfish the ability to detect light from dark, but it is uncertain whether this species can process shapes and figures. Box jellyfish, however, are attracted to light and tend to avoid darker shapes. Box jellyfish can also detect vibrations, which is thought to be useful for finding prey and avoiding predators. Currently, little is known regarding methods of communication between jellyfish. If box jellyfish do communicate with one another, it is most likely through chemical signals. (Coates, 2003; Hamner, 1994; Hamner, 1995)

Food Habits

Adult box jellyfish tend to feed in shallow waters, mainly on small fish and prawns. Until they are fully grown, box jellyfish feed primarily on shrimp, most commonly Acetes australis. Box jellyfish rely on their venomous tentacles to capture their prey. The millions of nematocysts on their tentacles enable box jellies to deliver lethal does of venom to their prey, immobilizing or killing them in a short amount of time. Because each nematocyst is so small and releases only a minute amount of venom, box jellyfish discharge as many of its nematocysts as possible. Once the tentacles capture the prey, box jellyfish bring it in closer to their bell and other tentacles, allowing use of nematocysts from other tentacles to more quickly immobilize and kill the prey. (Carrette, et al., 2002; Currie and Jacups, 2005; Tibballs, 2006)

  • Primary Diet
  • carnivore
    • eats non-insect arthropods
  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • aquatic crustaceans

Predation

Box jellyfish have few known predators because of the stinging cells (nematocysts) on their tentacles. These nematocysts are extremely venomous to most species. The only known predator of box jellyfish are green turtles. Venom does not penetrate the thick skin of green turtles, which are thus unaffected by the stings of box jellyfish. (Hamner, 1994; Hamner, 1995; Seymour and Sutherland, 2001)

Ecosystem Roles

Box jellyfish prey on prawns, shrimp, and small fish, though box jellyfish do not greatly affect populations of these species. Green turtles (Chelonia mydas) prey upon box jellyfish, but jellyfish are not their primary source of food. (Hamner, 1994; Hamner, 1995; Seymour and Sutherland, 2001; Tibballs, 2006)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

The study of box jellyfish venom has led to a successful anti-venom agent, which can save human lives if administered quickly. Additionally, while this research is still in its infancy, scientists hope to better understand why jellyfish venom is so harmful to the human cardiovascular system. Once determined, this information can hopefully be used to design more effective medicine for other cardiovascular problems. (Hodgson and Isbister, 2009; Seymour and Sutherland, 2001; Tibballs, 2006; Winter, et al., 2009)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Box jellyfish are believed to be the most venomous creatures in the world. Their stings are extremely deadly to human beings, and have caused over 60 deaths in the last century. The amount of venom injected into humans by box jellies influences the certainty of death. It is estimated that if a total of 6 m of tentacles comes into contact with human skin - and therefore all nematocysts on those tentacles “fire” - the amount of venom injected is sufficient to cause death in just a few minutes. Shortly after a human is stung, they typically encounter symptoms such as extreme pain, shortness of breath, and purple welts. Some victims may also become irrational and suffer cardiac arrest. All of these symptoms typically commence within five minutes of being stung and can last up to two weeks before subsiding. Although box jellyfish are fully capable of killing adult humans, most fatalities are documented in children and young adults. To reduce fatalities, box jellyfish nets have been constructed on many beaches where box jellyfish stings are known to occur. Despite these nets, there are still reports of stings every year. (Coates, 2003; Hamner, 1994; Hamner, 1995; Seymour and Sutherland, 2001; Tibballs, 2006)

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans

Conservation Status

Box jellyfish are not considered at risk by the IUCN, CITES, or the US Federal List. Furthermore, there are no conservation efforts for box jellyfish.

Contributors

Timothy Schmidt (author), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Gail McCormick (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.

Glossary

Australian

Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map

Pacific Ocean

body of water between the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), Australia, Asia, and the western hemisphere. This is the world's largest ocean, covering about 28% of the world's surface.

World Map

asexual

reproduction that is not sexual; that is, reproduction that does not include recombining the genotypes of two parents

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

coastal

the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
drug

a substance used for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease

ectothermic

animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

metamorphosis

A large change in the shape or structure of an animal that happens as the animal grows. In insects, "incomplete metamorphosis" is when young animals are similar to adults and change gradually into the adult form, and "complete metamorphosis" is when there is a profound change between larval and adult forms. Butterflies have complete metamorphosis, grasshoppers have incomplete metamorphosis.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nocturnal

active during the night

nomadic

generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

radial symmetry

a form of body symmetry in which the parts of an animal are arranged concentrically around a central oral/aboral axis and more than one imaginary plane through this axis results in halves that are mirror-images of each other. Examples are cnidarians (Phylum Cnidaria, jellyfish, anemones, and corals).

reef

structure produced by the calcium carbonate skeletons of coral polyps (Class Anthozoa). Coral reefs are found in warm, shallow oceans with low nutrient availability. They form the basis for rich communities of other invertebrates, plants, fish, and protists. The polyps live only on the reef surface. Because they depend on symbiotic photosynthetic algae, zooxanthellae, they cannot live where light does not penetrate.

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

venomous

an animal which has an organ capable of injecting a poisonous substance into a wound (for example, scorpions, jellyfish, and rattlesnakes).

vibrations

movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

Bentlage, B., P. Cartwright, A. Yanagihara, C. Lewis, G. Richards, A. Collins. 2009. Evolution of box jellyfish (Cnidaria: Cubozoa), a group of highly toxic invertebrates. Proceedings of the Royal Society. B, Biological Sciences, 277/1680: 493-501.

Carrette, T., P. Alderslade, J. Seymour. 2002. Nematocyst ratio and prey in two Australian cubomedusans, Chironex fleckeri and Chiropsalmus sp. Toxicon, 40/11: 1547-1551.

Coates, M. 2003. Visual ecology and functional morphology of Cubozoa (Cnidaria). Integrative and Comparative Biology, 43: 542-548.

Currie, B., S. Jacups. 2005. Prospective study of Chironex fleckeri and other box jellyfish stings in the "Top End" of Australia's Northern Territory. Medical Journal of Australia, 183/11-12: 631-636. Accessed February 26, 2012 at https://www.mja.com.au/public/issues/183_11_051205/cur10057_fm.pdf.

Gordon, M., J. Seymour. 2009. Quantifying movement of the tropical Australian cubozoan Chironex fleckeri using acoustic telemetry. Hydrobiologia, 616/1: 87-97.

Hamner, W. 1994. Australia's box jellyfish: a killer down under. National Geographic, 186/2: 116-130.

Hamner, W. 1995. Swimming, feeding, circulation and vision in the Australian box jellyfish, Chironex fleckeri (Cnidaria:Cubozoa). Marine and freshwater research, 46/7: 985-990.

Hartwick, R. 1991. Distributional ecology and behaviour of the early life stages of the box-jellyfish Chironex fleckeri. Hydrobiologia, 216-217: 181-188.

Hodgson, W., G. Isbister. 2009. The application of toxins and venoms to cardiovascular drug discovery. Current opinion in pharmacology, 9/2: 173-176.

Jacups, S. 2010. Warmer waters in the Northern Territory-herald an earlier onset to the annual Chironex fleckeri stinger season. EcoHealth, 7/1: 14-17.

Kavanau, J. 2006. Is sleep’s ‘supreme mystery’ unraveling? An evolutionary analysis of sleep encounters no mystery; nor does life’s earliest sleep, recently discovered in jellyfish. Medical hypotheses, 66/1: 3-9.

Ottuso, P. 2010. Aquatic antagonists: Cubozoan jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri and Carukia barnesi). Cutis, 85/3: 133-136.

Seymour, J., T. Carrette, P. Sutherland. 2004. Do box jellyfish sleep at night?. Medical Journal of Australia, 181/11-12: 707.

Seymour, J., P. Sutherland. 2001. Box jellies. Nature Australia, 26/12: 32-41.

Shorten, M., J. Davenport, J. Seymour, M. Cross, T. Carrette, G. Woodward, T. Cross. 2005. Kinematic analysis of swimming in Australian box jellyfish, Chiropsalmus sp. and Chironex fleckeri (Cubozoa, Cnidaria: Chirodropidae). Journal of Zoology, 267: 371-380.

Tibballs, J. 2006. Australian venomous jellyfish, envenomation syndromes, toxins and therapy. Toxicon, 48/7: 830-859.

Winter, K., G. Isbister, S. McGowan, N. Konstantakopoulos, J. Seymour, W. Hodgson. 2009. A pharmacological and biochemical examination of the geographical variation of Chironex fleckeri venom. Toxicology Letters, 192/3: 419-424.