This NUI Galway researcher is trying to take the sting out of jellyfish venom

30 Aug 2019450 Views

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Jasmine Headlam, NUI Galway. Image: Eamonn Lenihan

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Jasmine Headlam of NUI Galway has shown much of the literature on treating jellyfish stings has been wrong the whole time, but that’s about to change.

Every year, creatures that resemble something from another world wash up on Ireland’s shores  but get too close to some of them and you’ll be left in agonising pain. In Irish waters, jellyfish come in many shapes and sizes, from the large mushroom-like barrel jellyfish to the visually stunning compass jellyfish, named because of its lined surface similar to the navigational device.

However, one of the most frequent terrors on Ireland’s beaches is the lion’s mane jellyfish. As one of Ireland’s most venomous native species, it has a very distinctive flower-shaped bell with eight lobes, underneath which are tentacles that can stretch out to as long as four metres.

The sight of them on any beach in Ireland will get it shut down by local authorities, such is the fear over people being stung. But the reality is that it happens, and Jasmine Headlam at NUI Galway is eager to make sure that those who find themselves on the receiving end of the jellyfish’s painful venom know exactly what to do.

Along with her NUI Galway colleague Dr Tom Doyle, Headlam has collaborated with Dr Angel Yanagihara of the University of Hawaii, Manoa, who is one of the world’s leading box jellyfish venom experts. Having most recently travelled to Hawaii earlier this year as part of a Fulbright-Marine Institute student award, Headlam learned several methods for purifying and investigating the toxicity of jellyfish venom from Yanagihara.

Through this work, they were able to develop a first aid management protocol for jellyfish stings that is almost the opposite of what is currently advised. A quick check of the HSE’s website tells you – in the case of a sting from a lion’s mane jellyfish or other common local varieties – to wash out the site of the sting with sea water and apply a ‘dry cold pack’.

A lion's mane jellyfish swimming in deep ocean water.

A lion’s mane jellyfish. Image: © prochym/Stock.adobe.com

A sting operation

“We found that sea water and a [deep sea pack] were actually ineffective and, in some cases, worse than the sting,” Headlam said in conversation with Siliconrepublic.com.

“We found that rinsing with vinegar and using a hot pack was a more effective method of treating a sting because it reduces the amount of venom injected into skin.”

When asked why contradictory advice is so widespread, Headlam said that this was likely determined by just reading through previous literature, “but no one had done any experiments before or any kind of similar experiments to prove it worked”, she added.

As a whole, jellyfish are often just as mysterious a creature to researchers as they are to the general public. While exhaustive efforts have been put into understanding many different types of creatures we classify as jellyfish, getting to study a live creature is an exceptionally difficult task.

As Headlam explained, most of the information scientists have been able to accumulate on them has been from dead jellyfish washed ashore.

While other researchers have started work on capture devices capable of safely collecting sea creatures in the depths of the ocean, Headlam said she is working on a model that could help predict where a particular species of jellyfish may land, not only for her research benefit, but for the public as a whole.

“This has potential to be used as an early warning system,” Headlam said. “They can tell beaches there’s a huge bloom of lion’s mane jellyfish coming and then we can recommend they close the beach down if we think it’s going to have a big impact.”

This could prove vital with reports over the past few years indicating a surge in jellyfish sightings off the Irish coast. As for what could be causing such a surge, it’s too early to tell. But certainly a potential factor is the ongoing climate crisis, which is already altering the world’s oceans.

As temperatures rise elsewhere, these mysterious creatures could seek shelter in the slightly cooler waters further north. In particular, Headlam added, the reproductive cycles of a lot of jellyfish need a particular temperature to spawn.

A jellyfish washed up on a beach beside a person's foot.

Image: © Sharpshot/Stock.adobe.com

Big Irish interest in jellyfish

“If people think that perhaps that’s why jellyfish are increasing, it’s actually very difficult to tell because they fluctuate ever year,” she said.

“Some years you’ll have hundreds of jellyfish, then another you might not have very many. In order to be able to determine whether climate change has had an effect, you would have to look at the numbers of jellyfish over a 20-year period or more.”

Overall, Ireland isn’t one to be left ‘stranded’ by the sudden arrival of a large number of jellyfish on its shores, with Headlam saying that many here can count themselves as amateur jellyfish researchers, both through a need to protect themselves and just because they’re curious about the creatures a whole.

“I think because Ireland is such a small island, there’s a lot of coastal communities and there’s a lot of open water swimmers who visit the beaches regularly that are really interested in jellyfish,” she said.

“We actually have a Facebook page called The Big Jellyfish Hunt and we have almost 4,000 followers. We get a lot of reports on there from people who are interested and who might have seen a jellyfish, take a picture and ask what it is.”

As for her research, Headlam is focused on completing her PhD in better understanding how harmful jellyfish – such as the lion’s mane – are contributing to large fish mortalities in the salmon aquaculture industry, among others. But afterwards, she hopes to continue learning more about them.

“I think there’s a lot that can be done so I think I’d like to continue researching jellyfish,” Headlam said.

Colm Gorey is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

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