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JCU study investigates box jellyfish movements

A GROUND-BREAKING study by a James Cook University (JCU) researcher may soon revolutionise swimmer safety by employing a cutting-edge technology capable of tracking one of the world’s most venomous creatures.

PhD candidate Scott Morrissey has demonstrated how Environmental DNA (eDNA) extracted from water samples can effectively pinpoint the location of both early polyp and mature tentacled medusae stages of the Australian box jellyfish in and around Port Musgrave on the western coast of the Cape York Peninsula.

“This breakthrough enables us to utilize eDNA to trace the movements of deadly box jellyfish, thereby enhancing our understanding of these perilous creatures and, ultimately, aiding in swimmer safety,” he said.

The study involved collecting water samples during the summer, when the stinging medusae stage is prevalent, to identify their whereabouts and behaviour.

Subsequent samples taken in winter, when the medusae are absent, helped pinpoint the location of their polyp stage, which gives rise to the stinging medusae.

“Detecting the polyps is crucial as they are the source of the dangerous stinging medusae stage,” Mr Morrissey said.

“Traditional methods of locating polyps are challenging, but with eDNA, we can detect their presence by identifying their genetic signature in the water.”

This breakthrough not only allows for the detection of polyps but also provides insights into their habitats, as evidenced by the absence of polyps in mangroves and their presence on carbonate reefs near sandy beaches during fieldwork at Port Musgrave.

The implications of this research extend beyond Port Musgrave and Mr Morrissey noted that the identification of polyps in Horseshoe Bay on Magnetic Island highlights it as a high-risk area for swimmers, prompting the need for adjusted monitoring strategies as the polyps mature into medusae.

Moving forward, the research team aims to translate their laboratory findings into a practical field tool, potentially usable by Surf Life Savers as an early warning system.

Distinguished Professor of Marine Biology Michael Kingsford and College of Science and Engineering Associate Dean Professor Dean Jerry served as co-authors on Mr Morrissey’s study, with funding primarily provided by the Australian Lions Foundation for Scientific and Medical Research for Marine Species Dangerous to Humans.

Keep up with the latest news in Cairns and the Far North, and check out some of our top stories this week: Significant donation pushes birth suite campaign over the line and New pair makes waves in Townsville dog squad.

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