Monday, September 04, 2006

The Death of Steve Irwin

Steve Irwin, the enthusiastic, but slightly nutty Australian naturalist was killed today by a stingray.

As a biologist I have done my share of close encounters with dangerous animals ... even a rodent can give you a really nasty bite ... right Marmot? One of the things you learn early on is first, to be very aware of the animal and what it is doing, and second, never, never, ever, trust them. Ask Roy Horn. Perhaps it was a part of Irwin's shtick to handle animals in a way that made me very nervous, but he seemed to know what he was doing, even if he were taking a chance I wouldn't.

We don't know the detail of what happened, other than the stingray barb penetrated between the ribs on the left side in the intercostal muscles. There is one report that it penetrated his heart. The venom, which is produced by a gland at the base of the barb is extremely painful in itself, and this may have caused a heart attack even if there was not lethal trauma to the heart, lungs or major vessels.

Above you can see a drawing of a Southern stingray found in US waters. Note that the barb is about halfway down the tail. The barb has a double row of really wicked fishhook-shaped projections, and much tissue trauma occurs when the barb is pulled from the body of the victim.

The largest one I ever saw was about three feet in diameter in a very shallow tidal pool on the lee side of Ship Island off the Mississippi coast. The barb appeared to be about 8 inches long. Since they are not aggressive we approached within a couple of feet of it. All of a sudden it took off raising a huge cloud of sand and mud. Where the hell was that SOB? The greatest danger is stepping on one. People who gig for flounder at night learn to shuffle along and just kick them out of the way and are seldom barbed.

The pectoral wing meat is very tasty. In fact you can take plugs of the meat and sell it to the ignorant turistas as scallops. The difference is that a scallop meat will have the muscle fiber running lengthwise and the stingray will be like a stack of dimes.


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