“How long can jellyfish sting after they are dead?”

The (then) Four-Year-Old inspecting her work on Santa’s Landing Pad. And yes, the landing pad worked. Santa and his reindeer came right on schedule.

Last Christmas, when The (then) Four-Year-Old was surveying Panama City Beach for a likely spot to construct a landing pad for Santa and his reindeer, she came across a jellyfish.

Naturally I panicked. “Don’t step in that! It might sting you!”

The (then) Four-Year-Old, practically: “But it’s dead.”

The jellyfish that started it all.

Mommyo: “Doesn’t matter. It can sting anyway.”

The (then) Four-Year-Old was dubious, but fortunately decided that if there was even a chance that Santa or his reindeer might be stung by a jellyfish, she needed a different spot.

She didn’t say anything else about the jellyfish at the time, but when we returned to the condo after building Santa’s parking spot, she immediately consulted a wiser power.

The (then) Four-Year-Old: “Grandma, can jellyfish sting you after they’re dead?”

Grandma: “Of course.”

The (then) Four-Year-Old: “For how long?”

Grandma, rapidly calculating how many days were left in The (then) Four-Year-Old’s visit: “Two weeks.”

(Or however long it takes for the stingers to run out of sting.)

Turns out jellyfish are not active stingers. Whether the animal is alive or dead means nothing to its nematocysts (the little cells in the tentacles in charge of stinging you). Each tentacle can contain hundreds or even thousands of these stinging cells. When a tentacle comes in contact with an object, pressure forces stinging threads inside the nematocysts to uncoil rapidly, acting as mini-harpoons to inject the unwary with paralyzing toxins.

Most species of jellyfish only release enough toxin to paralyze or kill small fish and crustaceans, but some jellyfish can be harmful to humans, depending on the strength of the toxin, your sensitivity to it, and the thickness of your skin.

The (then) Four-Year-Old: “That’s real thick in your case, Mommyo.”

That’s why the real question when you find a jellyfish on the beach isn’t “Is that thing dead?” but “Have the nematocysts released their toxins yet?” (See how much smarter you sound?) Until they do, that jellyfish is potentially bad news.

Of course, there’s no way for the average person to tell such a thing just by looking at (or using a stick to poke at) a jellyfish. So as Grandma says, the best thing to do is to steer clear of all jellyfish (and jellyfish bits) you may encounter on the beach entirely. Give those suckers time to be snapped up by sea turtles (who are unaffected by their sting) or at the very least washed back out to sea.

Related Links:

About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book will focus on science, and how parents without a science degree can answer their curious child's questions without enrolling in a college level refresher course. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Eleven-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
This entry was posted in Nature, Out and About and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to “How long can jellyfish sting after they are dead?”

  1. That’s a handy bit of advice to know. Not that I’m at the beach much, but you never know. It would be my luck I would get stung, not knowing this information prior. (I love getting down and dirty and touching things like this) SO, in the future, I’ll stay clear of all jelly like substances when and if I am ever on the ocean. 🙂


  2. Pingback: The Immortal Jellyfish and Other News of the Week | CATERPICKLES

  3. Pingback: Jellyfish Hunting! | DayDreamers Nest

  4. Pingback: “Why does Santa miss some kids?” | CATERPICKLES

  5. Pingback: Grandma’s Giant Box | CATERPICKLES

  6. Pingback: Classic Caterpickles: “Why does Santa miss some kids?” | CATERPICKLES

  7. Hayley says:

    I’m at a beach right now we needed to know I was scared I might get stung while boogie boarding


  8. Pingback: It’s December, must be time for some Classic Caterpickles | CATERPICKLES

  9. Pingback: Five years gone already? | CATERPICKLES

  10. Pingback: Another year gone already? | CATERPICKLES

What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.