“Ohboya!” It’s the Bonaire banded box jellyfish, a new species

The words “box jelly” may bring to mind something sweet and tasty, but the banded box jelly of Bonaire is a highly venomous jellyfish with a sting that can inflict serious pain. Recently discovered in the waters off the island of Bonaire in the Dutch Caribbean, this strong swimming creature has distinct brown to reddish-orange color bands on its tentacles and a body densely covered with warts. The warts and tentacles in turn are densely covered in poison-injecting stinging capsules. Roughly 50 sightings of this jellyfish have been confirmed since 1989, with three reported incidents of stings–one of which required hospitalization.

A scuba diver swims with Tamoya ohboya, the Bonaire box jelly fish newly discovered by Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History scientists

Swimmer with Bonaire banded box jelly Tamoya ohboya taken in Bonaire, July, 2008. (Photo by Marijke Wilhelmus)

After a thorough scientific review in which the morphology of this jellyfish was carefully compared with the morphology of several close relatives, the Bonaire banded box jelly was officially given the species name Tamoya ohboya in a public naming contest organized by the Coalition of the Public Understanding of Science. Lisa Peck, a high school marine biology teacher, submitted the winning entry “ohboya,” as she explained in part, “I bet ‘Oh Boy’ is the first thing said when a biologist or layman encounters the Bonaire Banded Box Jellyfish.” Tamoya ohboya’s new name and a detailed scientific description were published in the scientific journal “Zootaxa.” Three reference specimens are preserved in the Invertebrate Zoology Collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Bonaire banded box jelly, St. Vincent 2008 (Photo by Ned DeLoach)

Bonaire banded box jelly, St. Vincent 2008 (Photo by Ned DeLoach)

Box jellies are so named because their bodies are box shaped, rather than bell shaped like most other jellyfish.  “There are more than 1,000 known species of jellyfish. The box jellies make up a small group of around 50,” says the description’s chief author Allen Collins, curator of Invertebrate Zoology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and biologist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.  “Box jellies are special, because unlike other jellyfish they are capable of vision. They have complex eyes complete with a retina and cornea,” Collins says. Compared to other jellyfish, their vision allows them more maneuverability—they can swim around things, fewer wash up on shore and some can even recognize each other by sex, which helps with mating.

Microscopic view of an undischarged nematocyst from Tamoya ohboya (Nematocyst prepared, photographed, and labeled by Tara Lynn)

Microscopic view of an undischarged nematocyst from Tamoya ohboya (Nematocyst prepared, photographed, and labeled by Tara Lynn)

In addition, Collins continues, “some of the box jellies are highly venomous and have the ability to kill people quickly.  One notorious box jelly from northern Australia can kill a human in about five minutes.”  Box jellies eat small crustaceans and fish which they paralyze with their venomous stinging capsules. The minute capsules, known as nematocysts, consist of a barbed lancet, a long shaft, and  a venom reservoir.  When triggered, the shaft comes out in one of the fastest known biological events at up to 5-million g’s of acceleration.  Thousands of nematocysts cover each square inch of a box jellies’ body. Sea turtles and ocean sunfish eat box jellies despite their ability to sting. Scientists advise caution when dealing with Tamoya ohboya.

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  • Dean Procter

    I wonder if there is a relative in the Indian ocean. I received a nasty wound from a similar looking jellyfish as a teenager. I have since been virtually immune to the less serious jellyfish, bluebottles etc present mild itching to me now. The ‘wound’ it caused was from a single large reddish-brown tentacle which left the appearance of a hot poker being dragged across my arm. I had difficulty breathing and the arm swelled like a football. The pain was somewhat severe. Within hours it really looked like a 3cm wide and 1cm deep burn. I recovered in a few days but the scar remained for decades. Does a sting result in the same effects from Ohboya? it would certainly be appropriate.

  • http://www.bonaireeastcoastdiving.com Gijs Hoogerkamp

    Wow i’v been diving on bonaire now for 10 years but this is one of the most beautifull discoveries in this decade, beautifull picture.
    Congratulations Gijs

  • http://www.hornypharaoh.com Sally

    It looks amazing.We can just marvel at the wonders our Planet still keeps hidden under the ocean.I feel so small all of the sudden, thinking about the vast life source that keeps us alive.
    I wish I could go swimming in Bonaire like now!!!

  • http://www.curacaowildlife.com Marcus DeMaaijer

    Bonaire banded box jelly, Tamoya ohboya, stung 3 people last saturday jun 11 2011 in Curacao. This is the first time this happened in Curacao since the discovery of this new species in Bonaire a decade ago.

  • http://h2ovisionsbonaire.com Brenda Yorke

    This was sighted this afternoon at 3 pm near 18 palms dive site or the Plaza resort at the surface. It actually swam to the surface as if it was taking a breath and then went back to about 1 foot below the surface. Luckily I was wearing a full suit as it swam below me as I first saw it.