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Rocky and Spike make a splash

June 18th, 2008

They might look scary and prehistoric. But to those in the know, they're called Rocky and Spike. And they're cool.

These Barrier Reef stonefish aren't your typical aquatic specimen. They're venomous: one sting from their spines can cause intense pain, temporary paralysis, and sometimes death - if untreated.

These fish live in Associate Professor Wayne Hodgson's laboratory in the Department of Pharmacology. His team work with dangerous creatures, which most people avoid: mouse spiders, taipans, death adders, tiger snakes and the Australian box jellyfish. They are venom collectors.

Associate Professor Hodgson is unfazed about his stonefish. "They are not aggressive fish," he says. "As the spines are found along their backs, they are safe as long as you don't stand on them or push down on their spines. We handle them with protective mesh gloves."

Associate Professor Hodgson has shown in earlier work that 'milked' stonefish venom causes cardiovascular collapse - where blood pressure plummets and the heart slows down. While the currently available stonefish antivenom appears to work well, this isn't the case with box jellyfish antivenom, with experimental and clinical evidence suggesting it is ineffective. Therefore, this treatment is no longer used in Darwin where stings are common. Box jellyfish are the world's most venomous animal.
 
As antivenoms are expensive to produce and the local market is small, the development of new products isn't considered to be a high priority. Associate Professor Hodgson disagrees. "We're trying to find other drugs or strategies to treat box jellyfish stings," he says. "We hope the stonefish venom will give us an insight into the mechanism of action of the jellyfish toxin as we believe they may work in a similar way."

That's where Cairns-based Rocky and Spike come to the rescue. Each stonefish has 13 spines along its gnarly back and a venom gland underneath each spine. Associate Professor Hodgson places a stonefish into a tub of water, pushes down on a spine, venom squirts up and is collected into a vacuum tube. And no-one is hurt.

Associate Professor Wayne Hodgson with Spike in tank

Associate Professor Wayne Hodgson with Spike in tank.

Spike showing off

Spike showing off.