The words “box jelly” may bring to mind something sweet and tasty, but the banded box jelly of Bonaire is a highly venomous jellyfish with a sting that can inflict serious pain. Recently discovered in the waters off the island of Bonaire in the Dutch Caribbean, this strong swimming creature has distinct brown to reddish-orange color bands on its tentacles and a body densely covered with warts. The warts and tentacles in turn are densely covered in poison-injecting stinging capsules. Roughly 50 sightings of this jellyfish have been confirmed since 1989, with three reported incidents of stings–one of which required hospitalization.
After a thorough scientific review in which the morphology of this jellyfish was carefully compared with the morphology of several close relatives, the Bonaire banded box jelly was officially given the species name Tamoya ohboya in a public naming contest organized by the Coalition of the Public Understanding of Science. Lisa Peck, a high school marine biology teacher, submitted the winning entry “ohboya,” as she explained in part, “I bet ‘Oh Boy’ is the first thing said when a biologist or layman encounters the Bonaire Banded Box Jellyfish.” Tamoya ohboya’s new name and a detailed scientific description were published in the scientific journal “Zootaxa.” Three reference specimens are preserved in the Invertebrate Zoology Collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
Box jellies are so named because their bodies are box shaped, rather than bell shaped like most other jellyfish. “There are more than 1,000 known species of jellyfish. The box jellies make up a small group of around 50,” says the description’s chief author Allen Collins, curator of Invertebrate Zoology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and biologist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. “Box jellies are special, because unlike other jellyfish they are capable of vision. They have complex eyes complete with a retina and cornea,” Collins says. Compared to other jellyfish, their vision allows them more maneuverability—they can swim around things, fewer wash up on shore and some can even recognize each other by sex, which helps with mating.
In addition, Collins continues, “some of the box jellies are highly venomous and have the ability to kill people quickly. One notorious box jelly from northern Australia can kill a human in about five minutes.” Box jellies eat small crustaceans and fish which they paralyze with their venomous stinging capsules. The minute capsules, known as nematocysts, consist of a barbed lancet, a long shaft, and a venom reservoir. When triggered, the shaft comes out in one of the fastest known biological events at up to 5-million g’s of acceleration. Thousands of nematocysts cover each square inch of a box jellies’ body. Sea turtles and ocean sunfish eat box jellies despite their ability to sting. Scientists advise caution when dealing with Tamoya ohboya.