Box jellyfish

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Organisms

iBox Jellyfish
"Cubomedusae", from Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur, 1904
"Cubomedusae", from Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur, 1904
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Cnidaria
Class: Cubozoa
Werner, 1975
Order: Cubomedusae
Haeckel 1877

see text

Jellyfish net enclosure at Ellis Beach, Queensland
Jellyfish net enclosure at Ellis Beach, Queensland

Box jellyfish are water-dwelling invertebrates belonging to the class Cubozoa, named for their cube-shaped medusae. They share many characteristics with their relatives the true jellyfish in the class Scyphozoa. The name sea wasp is also applied to some species of cubozoans, including Chironex fleckeri and Carybdea alata.

Box jellyfish are found in Australia, the Philippines, and many other tropical areas. They are known for the often-fatal effects of their venom, although not all species are venomous.

Defense and feeding mechanisms

Box jellyfish use powerful venom contained in epidermic nematocysts to stun or kill their prey prior to ingestion, or as an instrument for defense. Their venom is among the most deadly in the animal kingdom and has caused at least 63 recorded deaths since 1884. Most often, these fatal envenomations are perpetrated by the largest species of box jellyfish, Chironex fleckeri, owing to its high concentration of nematocysts, though at least two deaths in Australia have been attributed to the thumbnail-sized irukandji jellyfish (Carukia barnesi). Those who fall victim to Carukia barnesi suffer several severe symptoms known as Irukandji syndrome.

The venom of cubozoans is very distinct from that of scyphozoans, and is used to catch prey (fish and small invertebrates) and for defense from predators. Turtles, however, are unaffected by the sting and eat box jellyfish.

In the Australian summer from November to April or May, box jellyfish are abundant in the warm waters of northern Australia and drive away most swimmers. It is not known where they go in the Australian winter. Australian researchers have used ultrasonic tagging to learn that these creatures sleep on the ocean floor between 3 pm and dawn. It is believed that they sleep to conserve energy and to avoid predators.


Some theorize box jellyfish actively hunt their prey—for effective hunting they move extremely quickly (moving at speeds up to 3 to 3.5 knots (1.5 to 1.8 m/s)) instead of drifting as do true jellyfish, and have an active visual system of 24 eyes located on the centre of each side of its bell.

The eyes occur in clusters on the four sides of the cube-like body. Sixteen are simply pits of light-sensitive pigment (eight slit-shaped eyes and eight lens-less pit eyes), but one pair in each cluster is surprisingly complex, with a sophisticated lens, retina, iris and cornea, all in an eye only 0.1 millimeters across

The lenses on these eyes have been analyzed and could form distortion free images. Despite the perfection of the lenses, the retinas of the eyes lie closer to the lens than the optimum focal distance, resulting in a blurred image. One of these eyes in each set has an iris that contracts in bright light. Four of the eyes can only make out simple light levels.

It is not currently known how this visual information is processed by Cubozoa, as they lack a central nervous system, although they seem to have four primitive brain-like organs.

Treatment of stings

First aid

If swimming at a beach where box jellyfish are known to be present, a bottle of vinegar is an extremely useful addition to the first aid kit. Following a sting, vinegar should be applied for a minimum of 30 seconds. Acetic acid, found in vinegar, disables the box jellyfish's nematocysts that have not yet discharged into the bloodstream (though it will not alleviate the pain). Any adherent tentacles should then be removed. Removing the tentacles without first applying vinegar may increase discharge of nematocysts increasing envenoming. If no vinegar is available, however, careful removal of the tentacles by hand is recommended. Vinegar has helped save dozens of lives on Australian beaches. Although commonly recommended in folklore and even some papers on sting treatment, there is no scientific evidence that urine, ammonia, meat tenderizer, sodium bicarbonate, boric acid, lemon juice, or papaya will disable further stinging, and indeed these substances may even hasten the release of venom. Pressure immobilization bandages, methylated spirits, or alcohol should not be used for jellyfish stings. Often in severe Chironex fleckeri stings cardiac arrest occurs quickly, so Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) can be life saving and takes priority over all other treatment options (including application of vinegar). Activate the emergency medical system for immediate transport to the hospital.

Further treatment

If the effects are minor, pain may be managed with local application of ice, analgesics, and antihistamines. If significant envenoming occurs, further treatment for systemic symptoms may be required. Box jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri) Antivenom is available from ambulance crews, hospitals, and medical centers close to where the box jellyfish are found. It may reduce life-threatening complications, and has been suggested for significant stings to possibly reduce scarring. However, there have been conflicting studies over the efficacy of this antivenom. Whether the antivenom has the potential to reverse the life-threatening cardiotoxicity remains uncertain. Antivenom may need to be given within minutes and possibly in large doses to reverse the symptoms of significant stings. There is no antivenom for irukandji (Carukia barnesi) stings with treatment being largely supportive with analgesia being the mainstay of management.

Prevention of stings

Pantyhose, or tights, were once worn by Australian lifeguards to prevent stings. These have now been replaced by lycra stinger suits. Some popular recreational beaches erect enclosures (stinger nets) offshore to keep predators out, though smaller species such as Carukia barnesi can still filter through the net.


There are two families of Cubozoa, Chirodropidae and Carybdeidae containing 20 species between them. A phylogenic analysis of their relationships is yet to be published.

  • Family Chirodropidae
    • Chironex fleckeri
    • Chirosoides buitendijkl
    • Chirodropus gorilla
    • Chirodropus palmatus
    • Chiropsalmus zygonema
    • Chiropsalmus quadrigatus
    • Chiropsalmus quadrumanus
  • Family Carybdeidae
    • Carukia barnesi
    • Manokia stiasnyi
    • Tripedalia binata
    • Tripedalia cystophora
    • Tamoya haplonema
    • Tamoya gargantua
    • Carybdea alata
    • Carybdea xaymacana
    • Carybdea sivicksi
    • Carybdea rastonii
    • Carybdea marsupialis
    • Carybdea aurifera
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