While American troops are fairly well acquainted with the vicious habits
of the shark and barracuda, other varieties of dangerous fish exist in far greater
numbers in S.W. Pacific waters, where even the coral can cause poisoned cuts.
Many of these warm-water fish are capable of giving venomous stings, and are
far more likely to be encountered by troops in operations along the shore, than
the barracuda or shark. Among them are the stone-fish and scorpion-fish, small
to moderate-sized denizens of coral reefs; the weever, a reef fish resembling a
sea-bass, but equipped with venomous spines upon its head; numerous sea-urchins,
animated pin cushions that live among stone and coral, which are capable of giving
severe stings if touched, or disabling, poisoned wounds if trodden upon. In shallow
water, on both sandy and mud bottoms lurks the sting ray, see figure 1.
The authoritative magazine, Natural History, published by the American
Museum of Natural History, New York City, recently referred to the sting ray or
stingaree, as the "rattlesnake of the sea." A small specimen, perhaps a foot in
length exclusive of the whip-like tail, is capable of sending a man to the hospital;
a 200-pound ray can kill a man. Dr. Leonard P. Schultz, Curator of Fishes, U.S.
National Museum, to whom we are indebted for the following timely article, stated
that, on the mud-flats of a tropical river at low tide, he had seen sting rays, large
and small, lying as thickly as one per square rod. Such a congregation of highly
venomous fish constituted--to use Dr. Schultz's expression--a mine field. As
casualties have already occurred among our forces from ray stings, the following
article may well be of value to officers whose commands are assigned to areas
where these fish occur.
* * *
In general, many people and some uninformed naturalists have the opinion
that sting ray or stingarees do not have a poisonous sting. However, those of us
who have studied these fishes and have had personal experience with them, are
certain that the "sting" is highly venomous. Before I cite one or more cases
of persons who have been jabbed by the spine of a sting ray, I shall attempt to
acquaint the reader with these fishes and the nature of their sting or spines.
The stingaree is one of the rays, a fish related to the sharks and greatly
resembling them in structure. In shape, however, the rays are flattened and disk-shaped,
and have a long tail. The rays that bear a long sharp spine, usually in the
middle upper part of the tail, are known as sting rays, a word corrupted to stingaree.
Several dozen different species of sting rays are known to science. These
creatures occur in all warm seas, and in adjoining brackish waters as well as in
many of the tropical rivers, some freshwater sting rays in South America even
occurring more than a thousand miles above the river mouth. A few freshwater
sting rays occur in the S.W. Pacific area, in very shallow water. Wherever sting
rays occur - in the seas, bays, or in rivers - they are to be found, hiding on the
bottom in mud or sand. If disturbed, they swim with an undulating motion, usually
close to the bottom, and stir up a cloud of mud, then come to rest on the bottom,
the muddy cloud gradually settling around the ray. This "mud cloud" and the
camouflaged coloration of the fish itself, serves a definite purpose in concealing
it. While thus partly buried in the sand or mud bottom, the sting ray is in perfect
readiness to drive its sting into any unsuspecting victim who might inadvertently
step on it. The weight of a person stepping on the disk-shaped part of the body
anchors the sting ray, giving it the needed leverage to whip its tail upward with
uncanny precision and drive the already erected spine or sting into its target. The
sting, on the powerful tail of even a small ray only a foot across in size, can pass
through one's foot or into the bone of the leg.
Figure 2 (see p. 38) shows the sting or spine clearly with the barbs along the
sides and the groove near the base of these spines. Dr. H. M. Evans of the
Lowestoft Hospital, England, who made an extensive study of the sting ray, found
that the poison gland of the fish occurs in this groove. The barbs tear a jagged
wound and if the sting breaks off, it invariably has to be pushed on through or
dissected out by a doctor. J. Vellard carried out experiments injecting the venom
from the glands of South American freshwater sting rays in various animals, and
in several instances death occurred in a few minutes.
Now that the reader is familiar with the habits of the stingaree and the
structure of its sting, I would like to cite a few cases to illustrate why fishermen
and bathers have great fear of this demon of the beaches, bays, and rivers of the
During 1942, my assistant, Rafael Navarro and I were collecting fishes for
the United States National Museum in a swamp north of Sinamaica, Maracaibo
Basin, Venezuela. We had walked nearly half a mile across this shallow muddy
mire, pushing a small boat (cayuco) in front of us. Along the way, we noticed
many sting rays measuring in size up to a foot across their disks. The water
was from a few inches to a foot deep and our feet sank as far in the soft muddy
bottom. We made a fair collection of the various kinds of fishes present and
started back. I urged my assistant not to pick up his feet in this mud but to push
them forward at the surface so that he would not step on one of these sting rays,
as they lie slightly imbedded in the upper layer of the mud. If you touch one with
your foot it wiggles off, but if you set your foot upon it, this gives the little demon
the needed leverage for driving its sting, which is one or two inches long, into your
loot or leg with terrific force.
On the way, I heard Navarro cry out in agony. A stingaree had driven its
spine into his ankle, but fortunately the spine did not break off. My assistant was
in terrible pain, jumped around wildly, and then lighted a match to stick into the
wound. At this point I knocked the match from his hand and forcibly shoved him
into the boat. Although my Spanish was not good, I made him understand that he
should let the wound alone. It bled some and he was very excited. He tried to put
a torniquet around the upper part of his leg to stop the flow of blood, but I observed
that it was not arterial blood and made him take the band off and let the wound
bleed freely for a few minutes, hoping to cleanse it of the venom. When we reached
shore, I got out my first aid kit and cleaned the wound, swabbing it out with iodine
(for lack of something better), and then bandaged it. Navarro said the iodine hurt
almost as much as the sting. At camp that night, I found the wound was about an
inch deep, clear to the bone, but showing no special swelling. I then washed it off,
put on a larger bandage saturated with one percent metaphen, and after a week of
this treatment, the sore was completely healed.
These freshwater sting rays are mere babies compared with the big ones
in the warm seas of the world. One species, the giant stingaree of Australia,
reaches a length of over 14 feet and a weight of at least 750 pounds. The sting in
such a large fellow is usually a foot long. One can well imagine what a terrible
thing it would be to have such a stingaree jab its sting through one's leg. Evidence
from fishermen around Europe indicates that the venom of stingarees in the
adjacent seas is most severe, its action not greatly different from that of cobras.
Dr. Lo Bianco saw a young man become extremely pale and fall down almost
senseless for a few minutes after having received only a very small puncture from
the sting ray called Trygon. Another physician relates the case of a colonist of
Demerara, British Guiana, who died in violent convulsions, and of the two Indians
who accompanied him, who, wounded in the feet, became seriously ill and recovered
the use of their feet only after a long period of suffering. The same physician
continues: "Along the China coast, a twenty year old Chinese was wounded in the
thigh. He fainted and, on regaining consciousness, had complete numbness and
paralysis of the limb affected."
These few accounts, and others that I know of which have happened to
acquaintances of mine, definitely verify the extreme virulent nature of the venom
injected by the sting of the stingaree. Besides the venom, bacteria may enter the
wound and infection set in, which has been known to result in death of the victim.
How to Avoid Stepping on a Stingaree
Since all stingarees hide, partly buried, in the mud or sand of the bottom,
they are always a potential danger to all who wade over such bottoms in tropical
seas or in certain tropical rivers. The chief hazard is to step on one of these
fishes. This is almost completely eliminated by scuffling your feet along the
bottom in the upper layer of mud or sand. The moment something touches the
ray, it wiggles off. In addition, it would be advisable to carry a pole and probe
the bottom in front of you as you walk forward. Remember the stingaree may
occur in water only a few inches deep.
How to Treat the Wound Made by the Stingaree
For treatment of the wound made by the sting ray or other venomous
fishes, I quote Dr. H. M. Evans. "From practical experience, I have come to the
conclusion that the most useful method is to inject into the puncture 0.5 cc of
5 per cent solution of permanganate of potash. Two patients I treated in this way,
having been stung by the lesser weever in the foot, had immediate relief from pain
and were able to walk away from my house in perfect comfort, and no inflammation
or gangrene resulted. For the resulting inflammation in untreated cases, cooling
lotions or hot fomentations must be applied."
No doubt some bleeding is beneficial as it may wash out some of the venom
left by the sting. Iodine has been found useful also, in the treatment of such wounds.