(Joe DoubleDeMarine, ecologist and ARC Future Fellow, University of South Australia) Adelaide, (The Conversation). As an octopus biologist, I get called every summer when someone encounters a blue-ringed octopus. Thankfully everyone turns out well. The blue-ringed octopus is famous for being one of the most venomous animals on the planet, and the symptoms of its bite are the stuff of a nightmare. But how worried do you need to be?
1,000 times more potent than cyanide
It is a common belief that the blue-ringed octopus is only found in the tropics. In fact, these tiny sea creatures are found all over Australia, including Tasmania. There are three official species in Australia, with a maximum size of between 12 and 22 cm, and all of them are highly venomous.
There are also several scientifically unknown species that have not yet been named and officially included in the blue-ringed octopus family. The venom of the blue-ringed octopus contains tetrodotoxin, a potent neurotoxin believed to be a thousand times more potent to humans than cyanide.
First discovered in pufferfish, tetrodotoxin is actually found in more than 100 species, including the Panamanian golden frog and the rough-skinned newt. But toxin levels vary hugely between species, and blue-ringed octopuses have higher levels. Surprisingly, scientists are debating where the source of tetrodotoxin in blue-ringed octopuses and other sea creatures is.
One theory is that it is produced by bacteria that live inside the host species, another is that it is obtained from their diet. Most of these animals use tetrodotoxin for self-defense, but the blue-ringed octopus uses it to kill prey such as fish and crabs.
Are blue-ringed octopuses on the rise?
The media often reports increased sightings of blue-ringed octopuses and an increase in their numbers. While we don’t have long-term data to confirm this, populations of some octopus species are increasing. For example, there are reports that the common European octopus is now on the rise in France. Octopuses are short-lived—blue-ringed octopuses only live for a few months and are highly sensitive to changing environmental conditions.
It is believed that some man-made habitats, such as breakwalls and lobster pots, or discarded waste, such as bottles and cans, may provide additional habitat for the blue-ringed octopus. Similarly, climate change may be beneficial for some octopus species that may find themselves better adapted to warmer waters. But we don’t know whether all this is favorable in the case of the blue-ringed octopus. Octopus populations fluctuate and increase due to fluctuations in temperature, food, and other factors in their environment.
how to be safe
Blue-ringed octopuses inject venom into their prey by biting them with their parrot-like beaks, which are found at the base of the arms. However, cases of blue-ringed octopus bites are rare as they are docile and shy creatures and not much interested in humans. But they may bite when harassed or provoked, so never pick them up. And remember, these octopuses only flash their characteristic blue rings when disturbed, so stay away from any small octopus, regardless. No matter how beautiful they look.
Blue-ringed octopuses are found in shallow coastal waters, including foreshores, so encounters are frequent. Their preferred habitats include rocky reefs and coral reefs, layers of seagrass and algae, and debris. Given that they are found throughout the Indo-West Pacific, you may encounter them while on vacation.
It is important to be careful when picking up empty shells or bottles in rock pools, crevices and beaches where octopuses can make their homes or dens, or even when pulling back fishing hooks as they may contain octopus pot or lobster pot Huh. Even curious, young children may be at risk of encountering one as they try to explore it in a beach environment – I know my own child would seek out an octopus habitat if given the chance. Also this month, several blue-ringed octopuses were found dead on a beach in South Australia following a mass marine death incident.
It is better not to pick them up as some of them might be alive and can harm you. Please also keep pets and small children away as their poison can take effect if they come in contact with them. What to do if bitten, and look for symptoms All three species of blue-ringed octopus have killed people in Australia, but such cases are extremely rare.
The severity of symptoms depends on how much poison has entered one’s body. In case of mild poisoning there may be tingling around the mouth and slight weakness. A severe case can lead to flaccid paralysis, which involves respiratory paralysis and the inability to breathe.
One intriguing thing with the blue-ringed octopus is that its bite is not painful, so people are unaware that they have been bitten. But the onset of symptoms can be rapid (within minutes) and therefore an equally rapid first aid response is important. If you think someone has been bitten by a blue-ringed octopus, get them out of the water immediately and seek immediate medical attention.
You don’t need to apply anything to the sting, such as vinegar or hot water. Rather, as with snakebite, pressure bandaging and immobilization are recommended. If the poisoning is severe, first aid also focuses on providing basic life support, especially breathing support. There is no antivenom available for blue-ringed octopus bites, the effects of the venom being short-lived (usually hours). So enjoy the sea fiercely. But if you see a small octopus, don’t pick it up at all.
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