Milking the world's most venomous fish

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Meet Professor Jamie Seymour, he milks stuff. But nothing that moos, has hooves, wool or fur. He prefers to live life on the edge, milking the venom from the most venomous animals on earth, including stonefish.

Stonefish have notorious reputation due to their 14 venomous spines each fashioned with two venomous sacs that run along their backs. The sacs contain a potent cocktail of vemon that is designed to cause immense pain for anything silly enough to try and eat it such as sea snakes, eels and even turtles.

They’re venomous as soon as they hatch with no differences in the venom profiles of juveniles and adults. What’s really interesting is that stonefish are one of the few animals that use its venom for defence.

So how do you milk a stonefish? The first challenge is finding them. They’re the kings of camouflage and as the name suggests they look like stones. But their cryptic cloak of camouflage can’t fool one of the world’s leading experts, whose lab consists of murky estuaries and colourful reefs where he collects these fugly looking fish.

Once Professor Seymour finds his fish, which he fondly refers to as being ‘So ugly only a mother could love them’ he takes them back to his aquarium facility at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia. Here you’ll find the deadliest animals in the sea; box jellyfish, cone snails and blue-ringed octopus to name a few.

Milking venom from stonefish in the past involved killing the animal to cut out the venom sacks. Professor Seymour and his team have developed a new technique which keeps the animal happy and healthy while giving Jamie and his team a regular supply of venom.

The team takes the stonefish out of the water (they can survive for up to 5 hours, due to the fact that they can hold water in their gill cavities and they they’re not very active so have a low oxygen demand) and places a wet towel over the head. Think of it as a day spa for fish that decreases the visual stimulation and stress to the animal. A syringe is then inserted into the venom gland and the venom extracted.

On average they can milk around 0.5ml from a fully grown stonefish and it only takes around four weeks for the fish to replenish the venom which is impressive. This enables the team to milk the stonefish 13 times a year. The venom is dried and supplied to the pharmaceutical company to develop an anti-venom. Surprisingly the stonefish venom it’s the second most used anti-venom in Australia behind the red-back spider. But that’s another story for another day.. that’s the Nature of Science.

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