Life Science

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

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

September 11, 2006
A stingray off the coast of Florida. [CREDIT: ac4lt]
A stingray off the coast of Florida. [CREDIT: ac4lt]

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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About the Author



Ma says:

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.

Rochelle says:

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!

shanti says:

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.

Lauren says:

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.

The Stingray Hunter says:

From what I understand, Steve was holding the end of the Stingray tail and mouthing to the camera “Crikey” when the peaceful creature attempted to swim away at which point Steve tugs on tail, mouths “This will rrreally piss ’em off..” Stingray turns to Steve and camera, says, “Yelp!” then dispatches Steve for constantly disregarding the animals-reptiles/amphibians/name it, he was supposed to have such a profound respect for.
Anyway, that’s what I heard.. Oh, and the Stingray struck him “hundreds of times”.. Jesus that camera man must have been ssso high or he is ssso full of excrement.

tim says:

The ray was cornered because Irwin was on top and the camera men surrounded the ray so that it had no where to go.

Lisa says:

As Shanti said he was known for harassing wildlife! I’m sorry for his family but he got his just deserts! Obviously the word had spread among the wildlife world and as others have pointed out this animal was being harassed. This is not like other videos of people swimming with stingrays wonderfully and with respect in Baja California. This was an attack, as were Steve’s usual antics.

Tony Dawso says:

“He got his just deserts”? Steve might have not been perfect in his methods but you are saying he deserved to die? Sympathy to the Irwin family.

Verna says:

I’m sorry but no one deserves to “Get his just desserts” that was cruel and not a single person should die. He has a family,a daughter, why would anyone say something like that! Shame on you †

Steve irwin says:

Firstly I am just going to add he never pulled no stingray barb out of his chest the camera man that was with him even stated that. And all you disrespectful cunts saying he deserves to be dead well I wish I could say the same about you. And lastly people who say he was more in the entertainment industry he didn’t profit from it he invested all his money back into preserving animals. My god people need to educate themselves and do a little research before they comment.

Enrique Ballesté Peralta says:

I love how I asked google how often people die from stingray attacks and, from the whole blog post, it knew exactly which paragraph to read out loud with the answer.

Robert Goldman says:

I loved Steve Irwin’s genuine enthusiasm for conservation, which I wholeheartedly share, but do believe Steve often stressed out the animals he was trying to corral and film. In one of his Galapagos excursions he had to be told a number of times, by a Galapagos preserve ranger, to give more space to the critters he was trying to encounter. It’s clear to regular viewers that he routinely did this, with no one around to tone down his hyper kinetic pursuit of his subjects. I am very sorry Steve died in this way, for him and his family and friends. But, being so enthusiastic, he raced to get on top of this sting ray, in chest deep water in order to get the exciting video. The innocent ray instinctively reacted to Steve as a predator, likely a tiger shark about to attack. I’m sorry this happened but Steve Irwin, with his genuinely good intentions, invaded the space of a wild being again, and this time it caught up with him. His vital conservation mission will continue, through his family and through people around the world who share his loving values for the earth.

Lisa says:

RIP Steve Irwin. It was virtually inevitable that some creature would take his life. It’s just hard to believe it was a stingray. His time on this Earth was apparently up.

It is amazing to see his son carry on the family tradition. His son is SO very professional and a pleasure to watch just like his dad was.

Caitlin says:

Steve Irwin was absolutely not harassing wildlife, though it may seem that way. He was a daring man who made educational wildlife videos for the Australia Zoo.
His last words were, “I’m dying”, and prior to his death, many articles say that he knew he was going to die. Steve Irwin had no intentions on stressing out any of the animals, however, almost any animal (even domestic) has the potential to be stressed around humans or particularly unknown people.
This stingray was stressed and was in attack mode because it thought steve’s shadow was a shark shadow, one of its predators. Out of defense, the stingray attacked Steve Irwin thinking he was a shark.
Steve did nothing wrong to this animal, but unfortunately, this creature brutally killed him.

Abu says:

I would like to see the video. Steve was an interesting guy but he was living on the wild side (pun unintended) and it is what it is. Stingrays are beautiful creatures, I spotted one in the bed of shallow waters in the Indian ocean in the Maldives.

I’m sorry Steve Irwin died but I never liked the way he wrangled alligators and tied their mouth shut and tied their legs that was torturing them

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Rick says:

Just from reading some of these comments, too many people are ignorant Of the facts. Only the cameraman was there, and he witnessed a freak accident not caused by harassing the stingray.

Steve was a conservationist who tried to teach people about nature. Without people like him ( and now his family) we would have even more ignorance than is being demonstrated by a few here.

RIP Steve. God bless the Irwin family.

Scott varner says:

People are going to say negative things about anyone that’s great. Typically because they’re jealous or have not accomplished enough in their lies. I’ve even heard Christian pastors say if you don’t have people hating you then you’re not doing a good enough job.
I love that guy he was an amazing show me a naturally good with animals. Just want to say I’m sorry he’s dead but if you died doing something you got it is truly not a tragedy. He truly lived balls out awesome and I admire him for it. Any of us should be so lucky.

Angie says:

how did you do that

Doc croc says:

Crikey! I’ve had some really bad parrot bites.

Killer Croc (fictional supervillain) says:

“That’s not a knife, this is a knife!”

Peter Downes says:

I admired Steve Irwin in what he did but wasn’t surprised he died the way he did,he was just unlucky

Howard says:

I just got stung by a ray walking in thigh deep water in Southern California about to paddle out for a surf.
A different kind of ray than killed Steve E. stung me but let me tell you the pain in intense.
My wound is very close to a vein and made me think of Steve.

Rebecca Harp says:

All you fools criticizing the late Steve irwin are Uneducated fools
Time has proven the importance of his work I
HAVE NEVER associated
Rescuing, caring for. Or saving their lives and preparing them for release into their natural habitat as harassing behavior BUT
I gained knowledge from him
He missed
But his family has carried on his dream

???? To you ou what have you done to educate as he did

God bless the Irwins.

Ann says:

No disrespect to his family, but I also did not like the way it appeared he harrassed wildlife. I think it is wonderful that he was involved in conservation efforts, but I felt his ‘cowboy rangler’ style could be a bad influence on other people- inspiring others to ‘dare’ or provoke nature in dangerous says. Of course there is the other side, that maybe he got people interested in conservation after watching his episodes, but I am not sure. I feel like it was more for entertainment value.

Lynn Bonham says:

Steve Irwin tested the patience of every animal he encountered then just one had enough. Just desserts seconded.

ahm says:

let’s all talk about how we dont know people and use steve irwin as our subject, as he was (still is) portrayed on television.. a gentleman and curious observer that gave all he could to his audience (including those who crucify him for his tactics) to represent more human relation with nature even dangers of it.. hardly of which could be framed by any article or opinion from a reader of an article.. if you saw steve irwin pick up a duckling, it would have been softly and nimbly – as that is how an animal of that caliber is to be handled.. if you think any crocodile was harmed by mr. irwin’s judgment, either you must be anti-crocodile purses, etc.. (and therefore confused by the differences between penetrating such a thick-skinned creature with a gun or grabbing and holding it within the limits of a human body), or a buddhist – which i’d like to point out the only living and breathing thing which died trying to attain irwin’s goal in (re)connecting humans with nature (in his way) — was irwin.. and, just for the sake of digression, it is not so mesmerizing how people cannot understand reality anymore – spending so much of their limited time on earth criticizing others – its a mere production of the mores and values that have been cultivated in socio-psychological warfare found on majority of every newsstand digital or otherwise.. arent humans supposed to relate to one another? poor bastard irwin to have to succumb to posthumous rock-throwing by idiots.. but if it happens during one’s life, then it is certain to happen after their death, all intentions of the stoned beings erased by the all-consuming masses, their machinations and penchant for sucking life out of others.. it’d be ironical to say rip to steve irwin at this point (or at least in this article’s peanut gallery) so i’ll settle for a big middle finger to all those on behalf of a man who probably never possessed enough hostility to do that to his haters and their narratives..

Don Burgess says:

People need to learn proper punctuation and spelling first of all. I don’t understand how grown adults can still type like children. Stop being so lazy. As for Steve, he is sorely missed. Perhaps a bit overly enthusiastic with the animals, but I loved his energy. I’m curious how one post above says he did not pull out the stinger. Where did that information come from? Did he or did he not pull the stinger out?

Irwin Fan says:

Some of these comments are disgusting, Steve Irwin was a conservationist and did a damn good job at it. He helped animals, to us what may have looked mean was actually to keep the animal as comfortable as possible, how else are you going to take tests and tag and animal like a crocodile for research?? Think, people!!
Steve did NOT Deserve to die!! He was a great man with a young family! Shame on you people. Get your facts straight and if you think that footage will ever be seen by the public, think again-if you knew anything about Steve or his family, you would know the footage was destroyed shortly after his death.
I also agree with the person that criticized the lack of punctuation and writing like children! You people need to grow up in more ways than one!!

I did not like how he held up his child on the porch. Everyone gasped. There was no reason for that gesture other than entertainment! He never stopped that type of attitude or showmanship.

Dem says:

Irwin was an idiot. Every one has conveniently forgotten the other stupid stuff he did like take his baby into the crocodile pool. He wore khakis in the ocean not a wetsuit so the stingray would have been threatened. He risked his life that’s why he deserved death. He wasn’t a hero. He was a spectacle.

James Palmer says:

Steve Irwin was king ,up yours to you plebeian leptons who think different

Kayla says:

Truly some of the typing here is pathetic ..
And no one “deserves” to die you morons ..

Bob F says:

Regardless of his accident, Steve Irwin’s knowledge of animals was vast and interesting. Yes he teased animals sometimes, but he DID NOT harm them.
His showmanship was his way to educate and entertain us. Those people that
find negativity with Steve Irwin’s show are ignorant, self centered and smug.
Saying that he deserved death, be careful what you wish for, your karma is not good.

Petra says:

I think the fact that they destroyed the tapes of him being attacked, proves us right!

He provoked and harassed animals, all the time!! Anyone who has ever seen his show, can attest to that!! He had no respect for boundaries, and was constantly told by real wild life conservatives, to “stand back, and be respectful.”

I snorkel with sting rays all the time. They are sweet and gentle and even affectionate. Even I know NEVER to swim on top of them. It causes them stress and they feel threatened.
I’m sorry he died, but had he been more respectful of the ray, it wouldn’t have happened. He knew better.

Show me the tapes, and prove me wrong!

FYI, I’m a Marine Biologists. I specialize in both sting and manta rays.

Ramzi says:

Petra mind sharing your credentials?

I grew up watching this man educate and entertain so many people. He no doubt is the main reason for many a people who are today active in conservation efforts based on the genuine enthusiasm and passion he put into the world for the cause. To those claiming he deserved to die, I’d suggest a good deep meditation and an introspective journey. Rare are the ones who possess such evil in them in this world that are truly deserving of that fate wished upon them. Believe my words, they don’t resemble the late great man Steve Irwin. No one is without flaws. It’s quite easy to focus on the goodness in him, as it was abundant, and on what it did and how it can still impact the world. I am here because I saw for the first time his son Robert taking up his fathers role, and was doing a spectacular job of it. My love and best wishes go out to them and even every poster on this page. After death, it is important to remember to continue to celebrate the life of that person and keep them alive in our memories and actions so that they may continue to be a presence of good in this world.

The best to you all.

Martha says:

Steve Irwin was an educator and an entertainer. He taught people about animals and conservation through the medium of entertainment.

A number of people have made comments about how he handled the animals, and have complained about his energetic ways. But, I don’t ever remember any news stories about him actually being accused of harming any animal. The biggest complaint seems to have been that he stressed the animals by handling them. Stressed, not harmed.

Some years ago, i found a snake tangled up in garden netting. I don’t like snakes. At all. But if I ignored the snake, it would die, slowly and painfully.

After quickly Googling it, and verifying that it was a non-venomous snake, I got a pair of scissors for the net. Remembering everything I could about how Steve and others handled snakes, I picked it up carefully. While I worked, I kept talking in a low and soothing manner (as much to keep me calm, as to calm the snake. It took several minutes to free the snake from the net, and by the time I was done, it had calmed considerably.

I then carried it over to the rocky hill that led to the woods, away from the garden. By the time I released it, it looked around, then took off up the hill at a sedate pace.

Had I stressed the snake? Yes, unquestionably. Had it survived being stressed? Again, yes. But if I hadn’t watched Steve Irwin handling (and stressing) various snakes over the years, I would never have had the courage to touch, let alone handle, the snake in my garden.

And if I hadn’t, it would have died, either slowly in the net, or quickly, because if I had gone to option 2 (call the next door neighbor), he would have defaulted to his automatic response… kill the snake. Instead, the over 30plus inch long black snake with the pretty yellow ring around its neck survived that day.

I still don’t like snakes. But I’m glad that while Steve Irwin was entertaining me, he was also teaching me. That snake didn’t deserve to die, and neither did Steve.

For the most part, it’s not up to us who lives and who dies. I consider that a very good thing. I certainly wouldn’t want the responsibility.

I admit to finding it disturbing that anyone would actually state that someone “deserved” to die because they did something like stressing wildlife while teaching others. Not only is it horrific for the people who loved Steve to hear or read, but it also reflects a terrible callousness to life.

I love animals, mostly, even the ones that I don’t especially like. But please, let’s keep things in perspective. Steve Irwin didn’t “deserve” to die.

If someone deserves to die for stressing animals, then what should be the punishment for someone who hunts and kills animals for sport? Should people be punished for purchasing and eating meat? And what of someone who hunts or fishes for food? None of these people “deserve” to die.

Personally, I reserve the concept, “deserves to die”, for those individuals who deliberately torture or kill, or do terrible, harmful things to the helpless, like little children, the ill, or the elderly.

Steve Irwin was a teacher and entertainer who reached a lot of people, and enlightened at least some, with his message of the need for conservation and protection of the world we share. Everyone makes mistakes, but at least he was encouraging change for the good. Maybe we should try to remember him that way?

Gracie says:

Here’s some math. Steve was 5’11”. If he was in chest deep water, it was roughly 5ft deep. As usual, he was too close and the animal felt threatened. Very sad that he was killed, but it was an ‘inevitable’ attack, not a freak one.

Paige says:

That made me horrified. I thought I liked stingrays. Thanks a lot!

Cyn says:

It’s 2023 and we still miss you, Steve. ❤️

Dena says:

According to Primal Astrology, Steve Irwin’s spirit animal was the stingray. Another famous person with the spirit of the Stingray (Pisces/ Tiger) is Jerry Lewis. Both truly amazing people.

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