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Nature, no stings attached

Meet fascinating, formidable creatures in an aquarium's safe environment.

August 24, 2006|Alex Chun | Special to The Times

HEAD to Seal Beach in the summer and it's easy to have an up-close encounter with a round ray -- albeit a painful one. Upward of 16,000 rays, each armed with a 1 1/2 -inch venom-coated, serrated barb, cruise the area. And they are responsible for one-quarter to one-third of the estimated 1,500 stingray injuries that occur in the U.S. annually, according to research by Cal State Long Beach professor Chris Lowe.

But just a few miles away, you can still get close without fear of injury. At Long Beach's Aquarium of the Pacific, the rays are among the featured animals in the exhibit "Dazzling & Dangerous: Venomous Creatures."

Along with the round rays, sea snakes, stonefish, lionfish and other marine life the aquarium has featured in the past, the exhibit, which runs through March 31, includes newly added animals such as the gregarious stinging catfish and the diminutive but deadly blue-ring octopus.

The aquarium's special exhibit gallery, home to luminescent jellies for the last six years, has also been renovated and now houses venomous and poisonous creatures from the sea and land of Southern California and its surrounding areas. Among the gallery's highlights are the Gila monster and the pinkie-sized bark scorpions, which hail from the Southwest; native Southern Californian species, such as the tarantula, the Southern Pacific rattlesnake and the purple-striped jellyfish, which can sting even when dead; and a touch tank where guests can safely pet round rays whose barbs have been clipped.

"A lot of venomous creatures live in the tropics, where you would see them only if you were scuba diving," says Beth Redmond-Jones, the aquarium's director of exhibits. "Most of our visitors, many of whom are from Southern California, might not have an opportunity to do that, so we wanted to expose them to those animals."

Scattered throughout the rest of the aquarium are potentially dangerous animals from around the world, including blue jellies from off the coast of Australia, colorful poison dart frogs from South America, prickly balloonfish from the Sea of Cortez and the banded sea krait, a sea snake that can be found off the coast of New Guinea, Southeast Asia and Japan.

Not to be missed but easily overlooked because of its size is the Indo-Pacific's leaf scorpion fish, which, like its flamboyant cousin the lionfish, sports a row of venomous dorsal fin spines that can inflict a painful wound.

"The leaf scorpion fish mimics algae both in terms of its appearance and the way it sways back and forth, even if there is no flow in the aquarium," says Sandy Trautwein, the aquarium's curator of fish and invertebrates. "Even though it's just 3 inches long, it's one of my favorite animals."

Through the exhibit, which also includes a new behind-the-scenes tour and a 12-minute film, the aquarium hopes to dispel many of the myths associated with venomous and poisonous creatures by educating guests about the animals and the way they use and deliver their toxins.

Round rays, for example, employ venom (toxins that are injected) rather than poison (toxins that are absorbed or ingested) and are drawn to Seal Beach by the estuary-like conditions created by the silt and power plant-warmed waters brought down the San Gabriel River.

To avoid injury in waters inhabited by the dinner-plate-sized, cartilaginous (non-bony) rays, Trautwein suggests that waders shuffle their feet, or what the aquarium staff calls the "stingray shuffle." "The rays don't want to get stepped on any more than we want to get stung," she says.

In contrast to stingrays, which use their venom defensively, animals such as rattlesnakes and the golf ball-sized blue-ring octopus, which is found in Australia's Great Barrier Reef, use their venom primarily to help subdue prey. Neither is to be taken lightly, however, as both are deadly -- the blue-ring, in particular, has enough venom in its tiny body to kill eight men -- and as such, the staff underwent special training on how to safely care for the new animals.

"We got a lot of help from the L.A. Zoo on how to handle the snakes and Gila monsters they lent for the exhibit," Redmond-Jones says. "We also worked with St. Mary's hospital here in Long Beach to make sure they had a ready supply of antivenin just in case."

While animal-produced toxins can be deadly, Trautwein is quick to note that those same compounds may save lives one day. Scientists are using toxins from sponges and corals to fight cancer, and the Food and Drug Administration has approved several drugs synthesized from the venom of the endangered Gila monster to use against two types of diabetes, she says.

"It's important that we protect these animals because these animals can help us in our survival now, and in ways we don't even know yet," Trautwein adds.

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