spiderThis summer we’ve looked at many of the venomous and poisonous animals at Shedd Aquarium. Now we’re going to delve into the precautions and protocols staff members use to safely care for sea jellies, tarantulas, poison dart frogs, stingrays, lionfish and a host of other toxic marine and freshwater critters.

Posted in key work areas behind the scenes is Shedd’s protocol sheet for animal-related injuries. Long and laminated, it has detailed action plans for nonvenomous injuries as well as the toxic types, the latter broken out by taxonomic group: fishes, cnidarians (including corals and sea jellies), marine invertebrates (sea urchins and sea stars) and insects. The protocols were developed by Shedd’s animal experts and local doctors. 

In addition, those areas of the aquarium that are home to toxic animalsWild Reef, Amazon Rising, the Jellies special exhibit and a dry quarantine area—are equipped with unique first-aid boxes with animal-specific guidelines and an assortment of toxin neutralizers and treatments that run the gamut from vinegar and heating pads to bronchodilators.

Within easy reach in Shedd’s “bug room”—a high-security reserve area that houses additional specimens or breeding colonies of the invertebrates on display in Amazon Rising—are a collection of instruction sheets in page protectors. “These are our bite-and sting-treatment sheets,” says senior aquarist Dan Lorbeske, who is in charge of what is officially called the Arthropod Containment Facility.

“The sheets look kind of scary because we’re putting in all the possible scenarios,” he says. Animals covered include inch-long bullet ants, which deliver one of the most painful stings in the insect world, three species of tarantulas, and the Peruvian centipede. The last one, Dan says, “probably has the most severe venom among the animals we normally keep in Amazon Rising.”

First aid for a bite or sting is application of an ice pack (for up to 24 hours) to keep the venom from spreading and optional doses of Benadryl to counter a mild allergic reaction and ibuprofen for pain. The bug room first-aid kit also includes an epinephrine “pen” because venom can trigger a rapid life-threatening allergic reaction in sensitive individuals. That scenario would include an ambulance ride to the nearest emergency room.

Care of these venomous invertebrates usually doesn’t involve direct contact. When necessary, they can be handled with long tweezers. During routine care, aquarists work in pairs, one person cleaning the habitat, the other watching—more for potential escapees than anything else, but also a protocol for working with any of the dangerous animals. An intercom system used for routine communications between aquarists in the double-doored, double-locked bug room and the outside work area can also be used to call the security office for help in case of an emergency. So far, there hasn’t been one.

Despite their common name, the poison dart frogs in Amazon Rising aren’t much more toxic than our local toads. In the wild, they acquire their poison third-hand from eating insects that eat toxic plants. Erica Hornbrook, collection manager for Amazon Rising, says aquarists would wear medical gloves to handle the frogs only if they had a cut or other open wound on their hands. She notes that some people are sensitive to the toxic skin secretions of all frogs and toads.

octopusBecause their bite can be lethal to humans, beautiful blue-ringed octopuses were excluded from Wild Reef. But in the last few years, scientists have discovered that all octopuses, along with their cuttlefish cousins and some squid species, are venomous. That includes Shedd’s giant Pacific octopus.

Aquarium collections director and inveterate invertebrate champion George Parsons says, “When your entire body is soft and your favorite food has razor-sharp pincers, you better have something up your sleeve. Or in your salivary glands, in this case.

When an octopus sinks its sharp beak into a crab or other crunchy crustacean, its venomous saliva oozes into the wound, paralyzing the prey. It’s far less effective on people. George notes that he’s heard of divers and fishermen being bitten by giant Pacific octopuses and only suffering numbness around the wound. No one at Shedd has ever been nipped.

“For our octopus training at Shedd,” says aquarist Eve Poynter, “we are always sure to keep our hands free from the mouth area, but that follows basic animal training and interaction guidelines. I have not seen aggression with our giant Pacific octopuses, but we know and recognize the signs that they may be uncomfortable, so we would take precautions long before a bite could occur.”

Shedd is home to a number of usually nonlethal venomous fishes, both freshwater and marine. Aquarists take the greatest care to avoid the fishes’ venom-carrying spines—which can be on any or all of the fins, and even on the body—but occasionally someone gets brushed or scratched. Fish venom is protein-based, so the first course of action is to immerse the envenomated area in hot water—as hot as the person can tolerate without getting burned—until the pain goes away. The protein in the venom “cooks”—or is denatured—like the white of a hard-boiled egg. One aquarist who had a passing encounter with the spines of a green scat, a pretty 7-inch fish in Wild Reef, said that she quickly followed protocols “and it was no big deal.”    

The sea jellies on display in Jellies are in the low-toxicity range. When a jelly’s tentacles, and sometimes other body parts, come in contact with prey, a would-be predator, or anything else fleshy, they release nematocysts, or stinging cells, that inject venom at the least pressure. Once the nematocysts fire, you’re stung. But special exhibits collection manager Mark Schick says you can neutralize any unfired stinging cells by rinsing the exposed area with vinegar or, lacking that, salt water. Fresh water, on the other hand, triggers the stinging cells to fire. And Mark laughs at the much-held notion that urine is a cure for sea jelly stings, noting that it contains a lot of fresh water—and attracts bacteria to the wounds. Secondary infections, it turns out, can be just as bad as a venomous bite or sting.

Posted by Karen Furnweger, web editor