An Australian stinger expert believes a rare, giant bluebottle with multiple tentacles and a more severe sting could be responsible for a spate of emergency department presentations for suspected bluebottle encounters in Queensland.
Australian Marine Stinger Advisory Service director Lisa-ann Gershwin said this stinger belonged to the same family as the bluebottle and Portuguese man-of-war and was last seen in Australian waters in 2013.
“It tends to appear only every 10 to 30 years,” Dr Gershwin said.
Since January 1, Queensland surf lifesavers have had to call ambulances to attend to 23 of 9044 people treated for suspected bluebottle stings.
Of those 23 people attended by paramedics, eight were taken to hospital for further treatment – seven on the Sunshine Coast and one on the Gold Coast.
The Sunshine Coast Hospital and Health Service said there had been 35 presentations to emergency departments related to bluebottle stings since the start of summer.
There has also been a spate of Irukandji jellyfish stings in recent days.
Dr Gershwin said she did not believe the number of presentations was due to people having an allergic reaction to the common bluebottle and suspected something completely different might be at play.
“These cases make you wonder if a different species is to blame,” she said.
“That doesn’t sound so extraordinary when you consider we already know of another species native to eastern Australia.
“It’s very rare, we normally only get reports of it every 10 to 30 years, but it is a much larger species than the typical common bluebottle.”
She said the giant bluebottle-like stinger had not even been classified.
“It is of the genus Physalia, which is the same as the bluebottle and Portuguese man-of-war,” she said.
“It is more like the size of the length of your hand and it has multiple main fishing tentacles compared to only one of the common little guy.
“But the real kicker is the big one causes symptoms we would call Irukandji syndrome, which is often mistaken for anaphylactic shock.
“When I hear people saying people are getting anaphylactic shock (severe allergic reaction), it makes me wonder if maybe the cases are due to a species that isn’t the common little one, but maybe this big one is around and about and just hasn’t been confirmed.”
Dr Gershwin said the 2013 report of the big species was “quite a sizeable bloom at the time”.
“This armada stretched from Byron Bay to the top end of Fraser Island,” she said.
“It was quite an extensive area, but I haven’t seen any reports this year.
“But the cases of people ending up in hospital from bluebottle stings makes me really wonder if this is what is going on.”
She said with the number of stings being reported it was “absolutely possible that one in a thousand of those could be those larger species”.
“It’s hard to get enough observations and specimens to really study it.
“I’ve only ever seen one specimen and it wasn’t live, it’s probably a really amazing story about why it is so rare and without somebody tackling that and finding it why it so rare we don’t know.”
Dr Gershwin said the sting itself would “look like a normal bluebottle sting”.
“But then you would get systemic symptoms like severe lower back pains, abdominal cramping, nausea and vomiting, these kinds of symptoms typically associated with anaphylactic shock.
“But the other symptoms like lower back pain, sweating, Irukandji symptoms you wouldn’t get with standard old everyday anaphylactic shock.”