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IamA Toxinologist (a dude that works with venomous animals) at james cook univeristy in australia AMA!

Aug 18th 2014 by Jellydudeinnemo • 47 Questions • 3191 Points

My short bio: I'm affectionately known as “Jelly Dude from Nemo land” and havebeen researching and working with venomous and dangerous animals for over 20 yrs . My real passion (at least at the moment) is “Why do animals have venom?” Based in Cairns, in Northern Australia, an area that has an over abundance of venomous animals,(read heaps of thinsg that can kill you!) I'm sort of uniquely placed to study the ecology and biology of Australia’s venomous species. I teach at all levels at James Cook University, one of the top 5% of research universities in the world with my favourite subject being “Venomous Australian Animals”, a subject designed and taught by myself (with a little help from the odd friend!).

I have been successfully involved in programs designed to decrease the envenomings of humans by jellyfish, namely in Australia, Timor Leste (for the United Nations), Thailand and Hawaii. My research has been directly responsible for changes in the present treatment protocol for Australian jellyfish stings. I also established and am the director of the Tropical Australian Venom Research Unit (TASRU) which is now recognised as one of the premier research groups in the world for the studies of the ecology and biology of box jellyfish and research into medical treatment of box jellyfish envenomings.

My Proof: http://imgur.com/Tp9P9Db

ok, sorry folks, I have to go take a breather :-) have a grant proposal due in like 3 days and I so need to work on it, unless some one wants to make a donation to my research :-) Having said that, I'll get back to the other questions later tonight or tomorrow morning. Thanks for the questions, its been fun keep smiling jellydude [email protected] or
jamie @jellydudeinnemo

Q:

Ok, I'll start with an obvious one; What is the most dangerous and/or painful venom you've ever personally experienced?

A:

thats an easy one! Irukandji jellyfish sting! been there 11 times, dont EVER want to go there again https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CHshkF8GDU

and before everyone goes, "ive been bitten stung envenomed lost of times" thus I a tough let me say I've been nailed eleven times and thats eleven MISTAKES I have made. Not proud of that!


Q:

Has the pain gotten any easier to take after repeated Irukandji stings, outside of being more familiar with what to expect?

A:

nope, if anything its gotten worse (unfortunately)


Q:

How much truth is there to the "urine treatment"? I remember being about 7 years old when my brother was stung by a jellyfish in the Gulf of Mexico. I thought it was super funny when my dad said we had to pour pee on him to help. Was a good day (for me).

A:

this is so funny! it does not work, in fact it makes it worse. probably helps the pee-er, but will make the vicitm worse


Q:

You went through that 11 times?! I saw that video a few years back and it totally turned me off the idea of going to Hawaii for just not wanting to risk getting stung by that thing.

A:

the risks are small, rememebr I was actively working with the animals. This should not turn you off going to hawaii, its na amazing place!


Q:

you could become the new unidan for sure!

pls no downvotes @unidan 1,2,3,4,5

A:

Cool. A friend told me about this guy/girl/dude/dudette


Q:

Hi, I recently saw a video of you electrocuting anemones on Slow-mo cam to view the cells stinging, is this the most awesome way you've researched something or have you done something even more nerd-boner inducing?

Thanks for doing this AMA, it really struck me in the video how passionate you are about your field and I love that!

A:

you seriosly want me to own up to the fact I do nerdy stuff? Seriously :-) its a little hard to answer this one, as honestly I dont see it as nerdy, which probably means I'm a real nerd!


Q:

Hi, first of all I want to say thanks for doing this AMA. It's a pleasure to watch a venomologist enjoy his work as seen in Destin's videos from Smarter Every Day.

How has it been working with Destin, and will you guys be making more videos soon?

A:

GREAT question! being completely honest here, Destin was so much fun to work with. The guy si seriously a rocket scientist! I mean a REAL rocket scientist, but he thrives on taking the complicated and breaking it down into some thing simple that everyone can understand! as for more videos, you up for it Destin?


Q:

What are your thoughts and personal feelings on the platypus?

A:

Neat beasts. Dont get any real chances to work with them, but would jump at the opportunity to if it arose. Have a few theories about them and why they have venom that flies in the face of other scientists! (subtly saying "ask me what that theory is") :-)


Q:

What's the theory?

A:

yer, ok, I guess i asked for that didnt I? well ok, here goes. Males have venom, which they inject by big spurs on their hind legs. The venom causes pain. Ok, the females have venom sacks but no way of injecting the venom (they have spurs at birth but lose them as they grow up.) Ok the theory is that males have venom as they are territorial and attack other males to keep them out of their territories. Fair enough, that makes sense BUT................. why do they envenom the females as well? My theory goes like this. Female platypus are receptive to males for a very small window of time each year. Platypus mate by a little courtship type dance. If you are a male, you dance with the female for a while, convicne her to mate with you, then envenom her! She then swims back to her burrow, in a lot of pain, being pretty miffed at the world and hides out for a acouple of days. At the end of that time she is no longer recepetive to males and as such the enevenoming male has ensured he is the father . well thats my theory anyway!


Q:

Based on this quote by Isaac Asimov

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny..."

What is your "That's funny" moment in your career so far?

A:

ok, the most funny, lots, but one that sticks in my mind was when a mate of mine and I were filming stone fish. He is a emmy winning underwater videography and knows his stuff about fish. At any rate I was handling the fish, making sure I stayed away from the venomosu spines on the dorsal side of the animal. What my mate fAILED to tell me was there are a series of non venomous projections on the side of the naimal that are really sharp. Yep, you guessed it I got nailed by them. As I was yelling in pain, he wnadered over, and said words like "good fish, Good fish". It then flicked, my mate tried to grab it and he got stung! I laughed so hard AND we caught it all,on film! Probably make sme a bad guy, but it was so KARMA!


Q:

I'd say it's probably the moment in this video where they realise there's a 1/3 second delay between the nematocyst deployment and the venom being released.

A:

that was a seriusly EUREKA moment!


Q:

Could you give us a little insight as to why it was a eureka moment and what it could imply.

A:

sure, eureka moment as I had not even thought there would be a time delay between the discharge and the the venom release. Was SO obvious when we saw it but even now I dont really udnerstand what it means


Q:

When someone genuinely enjoys what he or she does for a living you can tell. I don't know why but their enthusiasm is so contagious it's almost impossible to not smile when you see it. It's people like you that inspires me to keep fighting to do something I genuinely enjoy to do. Thank you for that.

My question: What do you like about being a toxicologist and when did you realize that this is something you love to do?

A:

thanks for the compliment. Although people are going to say the enthusiasm is fake, ie put on, its not. I SERIOUSLY enjoy what I do, and if I manange to only enthuse one person to go and look at science then I have done my job! What do I like about being a toxinologist. Tough question but if I have to answer it, I'd say the fact that you can do pretty much anything on the ecology and/or biology of the animal in an attempt to work out what is happening. Put another way, I'm in love with learning, so being a tox person gives my liscence to just learn :-)


Q:

What degree did you finish school with to get into your line of work?

A:

I did a double major, zoology and marine biology and then did a PhD in entomology


Q:

What dangerously venomous animals are often overlooked? On the flip side, what animals are not as dangerous as they are hyped up to be?

How does animal poison actually kill you?

A:

Ok, lots of questions here. I'll start with the poison/venom bit. Think of it differently. Poisonous and venomous plants and animals have toxins. If you have to ingest the toxin (ie eat it or absorb it through your skin) then that animal or plant is poisonous eg poison arrow frog. If the toxin is inject via some type of structure (eg a fang, a barb, a sting a nematocyst ) then its a venomous plant or animal. So these toxins USUALLY but not always operate on ion channels. So whats an ion channle, well in the simplest view, think of it as a doorway into a cell. If you open that door it lets things in, if you close it it keeps thinsg out. So toxins may open a closed ion channel let molecules in that the cell is trying to keep out. One example is a sodium ion channel. Sodium is used to send nerve impulses along your nerves. they are open and closed at different times, so if i have a toxin that permantely opens the ion channle I can stop the impulse. At the other extreme I can permantently close the channel and that stops it as well.


Q:

venom and poison

Both are names for toxins depending on how they get into you.

A:

favorite venomous animal, hmmmmm Well its not snakes, thats for sure! Going to have to go with the irukandji jellyfish, carukia barnesi!


Q:

Why does Australia have something like 6 of the worlds most venomous snakes? What's the evolutionary reason for that?

A:

Great question and the answer varies depending on which scientist you ask................ my belief, well australia is a TOUGH palce to earn a living as a predator. A lot of the native things you wnat to eat as a snake, ie little marsupial beasts etc are not her in huge numbers or ou may not come across them all that often. As such you wnat a seriously toxic venom so that if you do come across one, you can make sure it will definately die if you envenom it Sort of a short answer, but I hoep that sort of explains it


Q:

1) What are your thoughts on Mithridatism and have you considered attempting it yourself given your field?

2) Have you come across examples of significant differences in venom compositions in any species that were originally assumed to be conspecific only to be later split thanks to molecular or other systematic revisions? I.E Have you had any examples of significant differences in venom composition between cryptic species? How important is alpha taxonomy to your field and is there a general movement away from such research in Australia and is it hampering our understanding of biodiversity and venom evolution in general?

A:

Mithridatism- SO AGAINST IT!
2) no, and probably for good reason. Venom profiles, ie the composition of the venom in an animal, varies within animals of the same species quite a bit, ie it will change from juvenille to adult, from changes in prey items etc. I have a student who is finsihing a project at the moment that managed to change the venom profile of his test organism JUST by exposing it to a predator. Can not say too much more as I will steal his thunder! As for alpha taxonomist, they are a dying breed but SO SO SO necessary!


Q:

In Africa we have a huge problem with local people tending to their fields being envenomated by saw-scaled vipers and puff adders in areas with a lack of knowledge of syndromic/symptomatic treatment and certainly no anti-venom even if it were required, do you think that any of your experiences with developing programs to reduce jellyfish envenomings might be able to translate to the terrestrial environment in areas with limited infrastructure?

A:

yes, a major major issue! short answer, yes I think it will, but in the long run its a matter of fixing the health systems in these areas. and thats a HUGE problem. I mean we have a huge number of venomous animals in australia an we have about 5-10 deaths per year, not hundreds, MAINLY due to our great antivenoms and the health system


Q:

What was it like working with Destin from SED? Also, what is the coolest thing that you are currently working on? Thanks for showcasing all the awesome science that gets you excited every day to work.

A:

working with the GREAT Destin was an absolute joy. My one dissapointment is he is in the other hemisphere! Hopefully if the stars align I can do some more work with him! Coolest thing I'm working on at the moment, tough one, to be honest there are so many, but.................... i think the stuff we are doing looking at how venomous animals cvan change their venom composition in a very short space of time ie weeks, is pretty cool!


Q:

I am doing a school project on the stonefish, how potent is its venom and what are the long term effects?

A:

stonefish are the MOST venomous fish in the world. I just had a student finish a honours project on their venom. the venom kills cells (we are not entirely sure how, but it seems it rpoduces pores in the membranes of cells). Its designed to cause PAIN and lots of it. As for long term affects, none, unless it gets infected, then it can get really ugly!


Q:

Was there literally a venom arms race amoung species in Australia?

A:

interesting question. Short answer is there is an arms race venom wise between ALL venomous animals and the prey or predators they are catching/defending against


Q:

Hi! I love your enthusiasm for science.

My question: I was stung by a jellyfish a few years back in the Philippines. The locals told me that it was a box jelly, but I thought those killed people. I was wondering if you could help identify the jellyfish that stung me. It was relatively large with tentacles stretching about 4 feet. I remember it being mostly without color and translucent.

Eventually my entire leg was purple and covered in hives. 2 months later my whole body broke into hives from what people told me was the jellyfish toxins being expunged through my skin.

Here are some pictures: http://imgur.com/a/lNemZ

Additionally, i frequently break out in hives after going into ocean water now. Is this related? What happened to me?!

A:

box jellyfish are found there and people do die there from box jellfish stings (different species than here in australia.) looking at the pictures, yep, that is box jellyfish sting! as for the hives, it MAY be related, but i doubt it


Q:

When you were young and still studying as an undergrad, when was the moment you knew the branch of science you were most passionate about? There are so many types and studies of science, what influenced you in pursuing toxinology?

Thank you in advance from the other side of the country (Perth, WA!)

A:

I think it came well before uni. Its was pretty much in my blood. Grew up on a river, had a set of parents who let me do anything and fostered my love for all things animal and all things aquatic. I sort of just fell in love woth learning, so when I got to uni, it was like a pandoras bxo, for example I did a double major in zoology and marine biology but did a heap of computer subjects, physics, biochem, geology basically anything they would let me do I did. At the time I was just doing ti cause I loved learning but BOT has it helped me now!


Q:

Does anyone ever tell you that you look a bit like Russell Crowe?

A:

in m,y dreams maybe :-)


Q:

What do you feel is the most important part of your work? Would it be to help find antivenoms, or to discover how the venom systems work, or something entirely different? I've loved seeing your work on the Smarter Every Day videos!

A:

that one is easy to answer, although I suspect many are not going to expect the answer. The most important part of my work, teaching and enthusing others! If what I do means more people do science, then I can leave this planet a happy man!


Q:

What is the most exciting thing that you've discovered?

A:

good grief, tough question. Not sure to be honest, they all sort of get me excited, i mean without sounding to egotistical, I only ask exciting questions :-) the most recnet one is the fact that it seems that vinegar may not be the best treatment for jellyfish stings, that one looks like it will turn the whole first aid for jellyfish stings on its head!


Q:

How is Australia's stance on environmental issues effecting your ability to do your job? and does it look like it will cause harm to the animals you work with?

A:

ok, thats tough. Depends on which stance you are talking about. Short answer is it really does not cause me too many issues. The vast majority of the general population dont care for venomous animals (i'm trying to change that!) so its still reasonable easy to work with them


Q:

At what age did you know that this is what you wanted to be doing? And what caused the interest in the first place?

A:

hmmm, Id say the venom interest side didn't come till about 20 yrs ago (yer Ok, I'm old, I turned 50 this year!). As to why, well long story but............. Im actually an entomologist (insect guy) by trade. Did my PhD on parasitoids (think Aliens but much smaller!) which are little wasps that lay their eggs in caterpillars. At any rate I got interested in why insects went into diapause (scientific name for hibenation!). Well when you go to funding body and ask for funds to study why crickets in the rainforest are not around during the winter time, its often a hard sell! HOWEVER, the worlds most venomous animal, the big box jellyfish, Chironex fleckeri, is highly seasonal, ie it is not around in the winter time (It actually dies off). Now ask the same question but pitch it this way "whay is the most venomous animal in the world not around during winter" and well, its a lot easier to get funds. As I said before, I'm just in love with learning, so to be honest, its the question thats important to me not the animal. (having said that I do love jellyfish!)


Q:

What other programs does James Cook University have besides marine biology?

Has their been anything positive about a substance so harmful as poisons?

Have you ever been to the states? If not where would you want to go?

And finally what advice would you give someone wanting to go into a field with the idea that they'd be the best in the area and understand that there is always something to to learn? I'm struggling with deciding on what degree I want to get personally. Thanks for your time to do this AMA!

A:

jcu does lots of other stuff, www.jcu.edu.au lots of positives from toxins (poisons and venoms ) lots of new and novel drugs etc Been to the USA lots of times, really enjoy it! Follwo your dreams and dont let any one tell you otherwise. I'm a believer that if you really want something you can achive it if you put the effort in :-)


Q:

Two questions!

Would you ever want to study somewhere else, like South America or Africa? Or is Australia pretty much the place to be when studying venomous nasties?

What's your go-to story when people ask you to tell them crazy stuff about your job? What's that thing that happened that's always fun to tell about?

A:

I SO love australia, but having said that, if some said, hey I have a free ticket to south america Id be on the next flight out. Actually to be honest, if some one said here is a free ticket to anyhwere in the world to study venomous animals for a short period, Id' jump at it! the go to story. hmmmm tough one not sure that is was fun, but lloking back it is pretty funny. We were doing a doco called menacing waters. My mate was filming it and the scene was me getting a small sting on the fingers and then describing the pain. Well we did it once and I thought it was pretty good, but as is always in the movies, its like, "that was ok, but lets do it again and see if we can do better". Well after about eight takes, i spat the dummy, walked off set and said if we had a decent camera man we would have had it on the first take! teh repl "we did, we just wnated to see how many times you woudl sting yoursefl"!


Q:

If you were to kill someone, what animals venom/poison would you use to do it so that it is LEAST traceable?

A:

seriously, you wnat me to answer that? the federal police will be all over me, trust me on that one! We did a conference many years ago were we asked that exact question. we had a panel of us ansewing questions. All the australians gave like really indepth questions then when the americans were asked it was like "no comment". Smart move on their part as the rest of us got quizzed by the federal police after that :-)


Q:

What kind of music (if any) do you enjoy?

A:

huge jethro tull fan!


Q:

My daughter is in 11th grade and is looking to pursue a career in a science related field. I'm trying to talk her into biology and after showing her your video, she is interested, but not yet convinced! Can you please tell her why your job is awesome and why she should consider attending James Cook or another university that is highly rated for their science programs? Thank you!

A:

easy! I come to work on a daily basis and I WANT TO COME TO WORK. i just love doing this. How many people go to work JUST to pay the bills. I get to work with animals, I spend heaps of time in the field, I meet some amazing people (from movie stars to presidents) and I get toi do what I like and learn new things on a dialy basis. I think she is asking the wrong question Its not "why do I wnat to do this" the right question is "why would I not want to do this"


Q:

If there was one price of advice regarding venomous animals, or just animal poisons or toxins in general, that you wish every member of the public knew, what would it be?

Also, what advice do you wish you would have know when starting out in the field of science?

From a 15 year old kid who wants to be a scientist.

Yeah, 'being a scientist' is about as specific as I've got.

A:

one piece of advice..... if it is venomous or poisonous , not play with it! How many times have I had to go to a hospital to identify a beast that bite or stung some one cause they tried to kill it or pick it up................TOO MANY TIMES! what advice when I first started............... learn to communicate with others!


Q:

Your question "Why do animals have venom?" is a wonderful question, and I'm glad there is someone there trying to answer it. What are some of the venomous species that have you and others stumped?

A:

all of them I think. Let me put it another way. If venoms were good, all animals would have them. If venoms were bad not animal would have them. as such there is a trade off, there are pluses and minuses for having venoms. the trick is to work those pluses and minuses out


Q:

From what I can tell, it's generally accepted that Australia is an island full of terriying things that can kill you which I imagine is heaven for a toxinologist such as yourself. Do you generally subcribe to that definition or is there anything you'd like to say to people that hold that belief to maybe change their minds? I'd really love to visit Australia one day, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't more than a little intimidated by the amount of deadly organisms you guys have over there. I'm a big fan of Destins' Smarter Every Day and his current series over in Australia. My second question would be that, by the nature of your job you have to have had some close calls when dealing with venomous/poisonous creatures, got any good stories?

A:

ye, australia has the most venomous species in all the naimal groups than any other country EXCEPT for the scorpions, dont know why. Having said that, we only have about 10 deaths a year on average from venomous aniamls, so its one of the safest in the world from that point of view, so dont be shy, come on over :-) close calls, had a couple, but I'll probably get into trouble if I recount them here :-)


Q:

What are your thoughts on this guy? He injects himself with snake venom...for fun. He acts like a connoisseur of venoms and believes there may be some health benefits and apparently is quite healthy despite his very odd habit.

A:

ok, really short answer here and I'll get into trouble I'm sure, but he is a dead set idiot!


Q:

At what point did you realise what you're doing right now is the thing that you love doing? Is it like a "I've been fascinated since I was a kid" story or something else?

A:

i wish there was a great story here, but nope, sort of "started when I was a kid, sorry :-)


Q:

You must have heard of the Bullet Ant Glove initiations. Would you wear a bullet ant gloves as a challenge?

A:

seriously? why in a million years would I wnat to do that? short answer NOPE! :-)


Q:

The videos you've done with Destin are incredible. Have you considered starting your own separate channel to update people on your work?

A:

working on it. Watch this space


Q:

Why did you choose this line of work? It seems amazing, and I think you're doing all of us a favor, but what was your inspiration?

A:

thanks for the vote of confidence :-) no real reason except it allowed me to ork with animals, both on land and in the water, but I feel more importantly its an area that we know so little about and you get to learn new things on a daily basis!


Q:

Do you have any examples of Australian evolutionary arms races between venomous predators and resistant prey, or venomous prey and resistant predators? (Like in the states, where we have an increasing potency of rattlesnake venom and an increase in rattlesnake venom resistance in the opossum, a primary predator of the snakes)

A:

yes, you find that in ALL venomous predator prey interactions (and venomous animal predator interactions). The trick is to be able to show it.


Q:

Thank you for doing this AMA, I was really hoping you would do one after the jelly fish video was posted. Anyways, which venom/ toxin has the most interesting chemical reaction in your opinion?

A:

my pleasure. Ok, I'm going to go with the venom from Irukandji jellyfish. Why? well it seems that the venom is non cyctotoxic(ie does not kill cells) yet it causes lots of problems in people. What we think happens, and this is really just all hypothetical at the moment, is it stimulates thje continual release of adrenaline. How well, we dont know how, JUST YET!


Q:

Why is everything in Australia trying to kill you ... painfully?

A:

its just the way australians roll :-)


Q:

Hey! I'm a ninth grader here who is interested in science in general and is now fascinated in venomous creatures after seeing the video. Can you recommend any books/courses I can read/take on the topic?

A:

first up, go for it! an interest in science is fantastic! as for books, courses, there are a few docos around, but no courses etc I know of, at least not for some one your age. best advice is read widely on all sorts of things, dont be too narrow just yet


Q:

So have you ever been envenomed by anything accidentally? If so, what was it and how bad did it hurt?

A:

yes, ALL my stings bites etc have been accidental. ie they have ALL been mistakes on my behalf and tis not some thing I am proud of! Worst one is irukandji jellyfish If some one had of given me a gun I would have shot myself, seriously it is THAT bad!