I thought stingrays were harmless, so how did one manage to kill the “Crocodile Hunter?”

--asks Anonymous, from New York, New York.

A stingray off the coast of Florida. [CREDIT: ac4lt]
By | Posted September 11, 2006
Posted in: Ever Wondered?, Life Science
Tags: , , ,

For a man who made his living tangling with some of the most ferocious creatures on Earth, Steve Irwin met his end at the hands of an unlikely suspect. Irwin was filming a documentary off the coast of Queensland, Australia, on September 4th when a short-tail stingray swimming below him suddenly speared him through the chest with its dagger-like tail spine. The poisonous stinger punctured Irwin’s heart, killing him almost instantly.

The short-tail stingray, Dasyatis brevicaudata, is a huge and normally docile fish. The largest of all stingrays, the short-tail can grow up to 14 feet long and tip the scales at more than 750 pounds.

Typically regarded as inquisitive but wary fish, all stingrays are armed with at least one serrated venomous spine at the base of their whip-like tails. Short-tail stingrays possess two tail spines: a slender spike in front of a huge jagged bayonet. The ray that attacked Irwin plunged its rear tail barb, reportedly close to eight inches long, into his chest.

Stingrays harbor these weapons for one purpose: protection. Tail spines are an effective deterrent to predators, like sharks, that commonly target stingrays.

Fatal stingray attacks on humans are exceedingly rare. Only two have been reported in Australian waters since 1945. Both victims were stung in the chest, like Irwin. Worldwide, death by stingray is similarly rare, with only one or two fatal attacks reported each year.

But non-fatal stingray attacks occur frequently in shallow waters worldwide. These usually involve unwitting waders who step on rays nestled into the sand, hiding from predators. These types of attacks—some 1,500 per year occur in U.S. waters alone—are rarely ever fatal, though the pain from stingray venom is said to be excruciating. Little is known about the specific chemical properties of the short-tail stingray’s poison, but in general, stingray venom is a potent cocktail of neurotoxins, enzymes, and the neurotransmitter serotonin, which restricts smooth muscle contraction and slows blood circulation and subsequent dilution of the venom.

In Irwin’s case, the physical damage to his heart likely killed him before the toxin ever had a chance to take effect.

Australian police representatives, reviewing footage of Irwin’s final wildlife encounter, have suggested that Irwin was not harassing the stingray that killed him and that the attack was unprovoked.

Like most other stingrays, short-tail stingrays, also called smooth stingrays or bull rays, spend most of their time gliding over the ocean floor in search of the clams, fish, or crustaceans to eat. The wave-like undulations of their flattened pectoral fins propel them gracefully over the seabed and draw the attention of divers and snorkellers in the waters of the Indian and West Pacific Oceans.

If and when the video footage of Steve Irwin’s death is released to the public (see this week’s Scienceline Poll), the circumstances surrounding the fatal stingray attack can be more fully scrutinized. Until then, the attack is being characterized as a freak accident and a tragic end to the life of a dedicated conservationist.

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  1. Good article, Bob. I suffered a stingray’s barb going through my foot and it was incredibly painful. We treated it incorrectly until my college roomie ran up to a fire station to ask for first aid (we were stuck in traffic en route to hospital) – they sent her back to the car with HOT water: venum needs to come out, not be frozen with ice packs. That change of temp on my foot was painful, too!
    And to ruin the entire vacation, antibiotics require a cessation of alcohol consumption…. bummer.

    Ma, September 12, 2006 at 10:21 pm
  2. in a recent counseling lesson, i was working with a child who was perseverating about the death of the crocodile hunter. I cut my losses and allowed him to search the net for relevant articles, and yours was selected. Trying to gain some educational value, i asked him to read aloud and to tell me who wrote the article. The child said your name. Interesting that a former rickshaw driver can make it all the way in the big apple. Mazel tov on your accomplishments!

    Rochelle, October 7, 2006 at 1:03 am
  3. i have a hard time believing the stingray wasn’t harassed. Steve harassed wildlife, snakes, etc they were all clearly stressed out. This guy was in the entertainment industry not truly into conservation industry.

    shanti, May 13, 2011 at 1:26 pm
  4. Plus there’s the fact that Steve pulled the barb out of his chest – if he hadn’t done that, he may have survived long enough to get medical help. Another man was in the exact same situation a month or two after Steve died; because he didn’t pull the barb out, he didn’t suffer sudden and intense internal bleeding. Anything that gets stabbed into an organ acts as a cork; it will plug the wound and stop massive internal bleeding long enough to get help. If you pull it out, you’re dead.
    I recall the news reports stated that he was swimming over the top to the ray. It’s sad that a father and husband died; however as a conservation and environmental biologist, though I do support Steve’s goals, I can’t agree with his methods. There are strong laws that determine how close you and your crew/equipment can get to wild animals when filming them; I can safely say he broke every one at least once. Good intentions, but those laws are there for a reason.

    Lauren, December 17, 2012 at 10:54 am
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