Weever fish stings are one of those infamous scare stories that can make even the nicest day at the beach a nightmare.
These tiny little fish pack a big punch with grown men known to cry in pain from their sting.
The small, sand-coloured fish bury themselves in the sand – and if you stand on them, their dorsal fin embeds into your foot and injects venom which causes the excruciating pain often experienced.
They are one of the most common incidents RNLI lifeguards have to deal with around the south west coast.
In a single week in July, lifeguards at Perranporth in North Cornwall dealt with 26 weever fish stings.
Even careless handling can be a risk as the fish can twist its body to use that spine in self defence.
Beau Gillet, an RNLI lifeguard supervisor, offers the following advice.
He said: ‚ÄúWeever fish stings can be really painful but they affect everyone differently. I‚Äôve seen grown men cry from the pain and then a small child not be affected by it at all.
‚ÄúThe severity of a weever fish sting really depends on how you stand on it. If you stand directly on to the spinal fin, it causes the most pain.
‚ÄúYou can avoid the fish either by wearing wetsuit or swimming shoes to protect your foot or by dragging your feet along the sand as you walk. This movement disrupts the sand and scares any nearby fish away.
‚ÄĚLifeguards treat weever fish stings by soaking the affected area into hot water. This breaks up the venom and usually after around ten minutes, the pain will ease.”
Funny you should ask – marine biologists and coastal scientists from the University of Plymouth are joining forces to find out why weever fish tend to inhabit certain areas, what they do there and what factors make a sting more likely.
They also hope that by establishing their habitat needs, natural influences and human impacts on weever fish populations can be anticipated.
Dr Benjamin Ciotti, lecturer in marine biology, is working with students to conduct the research.
He said: ‚ÄúWeevers are small fish with a big reputation but we still don‚Äôt know much about them. Our students are generating valuable new insights into the ecology of the species, including what types of beaches support weevers and promote stings.
‚ÄúThese notorious little fish can‚Äôt be blamed for defending themselves, but we do hope that our research will help reduce the risks of getting stung.‚ÄĚ
A number of marine biology students are involved in the research, including PhD researcher Anna Persson and undergraduates Shane Griffin and Matthew Haynes. They are small nets to catch and sample weever fish at 17 beaches across Devon and Cornwall.
By working with the university‚Äôs Coastal Process Research Group, they will be able to match their data with detailed physical measurements, such as wave conditions, to establish how the characteristics of beaches determine which areas weevers prefer.
Fish are also being taken back to the lab to study their feeding, growth and venom properties.
Student Shane Griffin said: ‚ÄúDespite a fearsome reputation with bathers and fishermen for causing painful injuries, weever fish are relatively unstudied as a group.
‚ÄúIt was this lack of knowledge and the opportunity to contribute something tangible to our understanding of weever fish and their ecology, which initially attracted me to the project.
‚ÄúThe information we obtain from this study will have real practical application in helping predict when and where weever fish are most likely to occur and managing our interactions with them.‚ÄĚ