Drawn by the jellyfish's sting

Expert: His forays into waters oozing with sea nettles have taught him things most people wouldn't stick around long enough to learn.

June 23, 1999|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

The spring drought that stunted the region's crops promises to bring a thick carpet of jellyfish -- a creature that thrives when dry weather turns the Chesapeake nice and salty.

Even in years of average rainfall, the bay is more densely packed with jellyfish than any other body of water. It's a fact that's unlikely to appear in a Maryland tourism campaign, but it has been a curious source of pride -- and inspiration -- for Dr. Joseph Burnett, a Maryland dermatologist who is one of the world's experts in jellyfish stings.

Burnett, chief of dermatology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, greets a bumper crop of sea nettles like an astronomer anticipating a meteor shower. As much as he understands the nuisance they create, he also respects the power and surprising complexity of their sting.

And, he is quick to say, jellyfish help to make the region unique.

"Baltimore is the only place in the world where venomous marine animals will predictably appear in abundance," says Burnett, using the city's name to stand for the entire region. "And this year, we should be set up for a nice abundant year."

Although the first nettles -- the type of jellyfish that thrives here -- appeared a few weeks ago, the population typically grows thick in July and reaches its zenith in August. By then, says David Nemazie, a marine ecologist the University of Maryland's Horn Point lab in Cambridge, you'll hardly be able to dive into the bay without hitting one.

Other regions put up with jellyfish, too. Florida and the Caribbean have the Portuguese man-of-war, a behemoth with 40-foot tentacles and venom 10 times more potent than the sea nettle's. Australians fear the box jellyfish, which pack 100 to 1,000 times thewallop and kill more people than any other species. In Greece, "mauve" jellyfish have been known to form armadas two miles long and 200 yards wide.

Burnett, 66, traces his fascination to the summer of 1967 when he came to Baltimore to teach at the University of Maryland medical school. One muggy day, he visited his in-laws near Annapolis, hoping to take a refreshing dip in the bay.

Stopped by more nettles than he could count, he never got wet. Burnett, a competitive swimmer at Yale, took their presence as a personal insult and vowed to get even by learning everything he could about the slimy blobs. He didn't realize it, but he had found his calling.

Burnett found a University of Maryland biologist who was studying sea nettles on Solomons Island and asked to see every research paper in his files. Then he went to work.

He traveled the world with a shrimp net, bucket and ice cooler, capturing and freeze-drying jellyfish from the waters off Malaysia, Australia and South America. To find sea nettles, he didn't have to go farther than his back yard, which faces the Chesapeake at Gibson Island.

Three decades into his research, he still totes a few to work in a diaper pail.

His graduate students are used to seeing Burnett drape jellyfish over his own skin -- even his lips -- to study his immune response or the ability of various ointments to repel venom. (None work, but he's still looking.) He has been stung thousands of times while collecting specimens and is living proof that repeated exposure does nothing to ease the sting.

His forays into waters oozing with jellyfish have taught him things most people wouldn't stick around long enough to learn. Like the fact that the animal brushes people all the time without issuing its sting. "When I swim in the bay, I know I feel the tentacles," he says. "I can feel them with my hand and know that I get stung maybe 33 percent of the time."

In his lab, where Burnett has analyzed thousands of specimens, he extracts the venom to study its chemistry as well as its effects on humans and animals. In his office, he sees patients who suffer the lingering effects of jellyfish stings -- such as blurred vision that comes and goes -- and consults with doctors and divers around the world.

He edits the Jellyfish Sting Newsletter, a publication that carries research and case histories from jellyfish capitals around the world. With two Australians, he compiled a 504-page textbook, "Venomous and Poisonous Marine Animals," which covers everything from toxic microorganisms to fearsome stingrays.

"In terms of venom work, he is the leading guy in this country," says David Bloom, a graduate student from New York who works in Burnett's laboratory. He is fascinated by the mechanics of a jellyfish sting. The animal has about 20 tentacles, he says, each of which contains billions of capsules called nematocysts that can spew venom. Each holds a coiled-up tube that springs outward when the jellyfish touches its prey.

Once sprung, the tubes act like hypodermic needles.

"Here is an animal which ejects a projectile that penetrates human keratin" -- a component of skin -- "with the force of a stiletto heel on an airline fuselage," Burnett says. "It can do this in less than a one-thousandth of a second."

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