The trichomes stay in the skin for up to a year

Saturday, June 29th, 2024

Back before he came up with the easier-to-film Survivor, Mark Burnett produced the Eco-Challenge adventure race, based on Gerald Fusil’s Raid Gauloises adventure race in Costa Rica:

The teams raced non-stop, 24 hours a day, over a rugged 300-mile (500 km) course, participating in such disciplines as trekking, whitewater canoeing, horseback riding, sea kayaking, scuba diving, mountaineering, camel-back riding, and mountain biking. Teams originally consisted of five members, but the team size was reduced to four members early in the event’s history. A feature of the race is the mandatory mix of men and women for all participating teams.

I vividly remember watching the 1997 Australia race, when a bickering team mountain-biking through the rainforest at night, with headlamps on, stopped, because one of the guys screamed out in pain. He didn’t know what had happened, but his best guess was that a snake had bit him, or perhaps some other venomous creature. The team asked if he could go on, because he wasn’t going to get any help until they reached the aid station.

When they got to the aid station, the medic took a look and found no bite, but he did find some nettles from the gympie-gympie bush. What could they do about the excruciating pain? Nothing. How long would the pain last? Months.

Everything in Australia is trying to kill you.

He kept racing.

Other people have not kept going:

North Queensland road surveyor A.C. Macmillan was among the first to document the effects of a stinging tree, reporting to his boss in 1866 that his packhorse “was stung, got mad, and died within two hours”. Similar tales abound in local folklore of horses jumping in agony off cliffs and forestry workers drinking themselves silly to dull the intractable pain.

Writing to Marina in 1994, Australian ex-serviceman Cyril Bromley described falling into a stinging tree during military training on the tableland in World War II. Strapped to a hospital bed for three weeks and administered all manner of unsuccessful treatments, he was sent “as mad as a cut snake” by the pain. Cyril also told of an officer shooting himself after using a stinging-tree leaf for “toilet purposes”.

He’s had too many stings to count but Ernie Rider will never forget the day in 1963 that he was slapped in the face, arms and chest by a stinging tree. “I remember it feeling like there were giant hands trying to squash my chest,” he said. “For two or three days the pain was almost unbearable; I couldn’t work or sleep, then it was pretty bad pain for another fortnight or so. The stinging persisted for two years and recurred every time I had a cold shower.”

Now a senior conservation officer with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, Ernie said he’s not experienced anything like the pain during 44 years work in the bush. “There’s nothing to rival it; it’s 10 times worse than anything else – scrub ticks, scrub itch and itchy-jack sting included. Stinging trees are a real and present danger.”

So swollen was Les Moore after being stung across the face several years ago that he said he resembled Mr Potato Head.

“I think I went into anaphylactic shock and it took days for my sight to recover,” said Les, a scientific officer with the CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology in Queensland, who was near Bartle Frere (North Peak) studying cassowaries when disaster struck.

“Within minutes the initial stinging and burning intensified and the pain in my eyes was like someone had poured acid on them. My mouth and tongue swelled up so much that I had trouble breathing. It was debilitating and I had to blunder my way out of the bush.”

Wikipedia explains the mechanism:

Very fine, brittle hairs called trichomes are loaded with toxins and cover the entire plant; even the slightest touch will embed them in the skin. Electron micrograph images show that they are similar to a hypodermic needle in being very sharp-pointed and hollow. Additionally, it has been shown that there is a structurally weak point near the tip of the hair, which acts as a pre-set fracture line. When it enters the skin the hair fractures at this point, allowing the contents of the trichome to be injected into the victim’s tissues.

The trichomes stay in the skin for up to a year, and release the toxin cocktail into the body during triggering events such as touching the affected area, contact with water, or temperature changes.

I was reminded of this by the recent story of a hiker who suddenly lost feeling in her legs from a mysterious attacker in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains:

The woman had stopped around 6:30 p.m. to fetch water from a creek along the park’s Taboose Pass when she felt a sting that she thought was a spider bite.

“Afterwards, she was unable to feel the skin on her legs and could not continue her hike down,” Inyo County Search & Rescue officials said in a statement.

The unidentified woman used the last of her phone battery’s juice to call for help. She relayed her coordinates just before the device died.

The Inyo County Search & Rescue pushed a wheeled litter the 1.75 miles between the trailhead and the immobilized hiker — but came just a quarter mile short of the victim when the trail became too rough.

The team stashed the litter and forged ahead until they found the paralyzed woman, who they “slowly walked down the tricky section of the trail while ensuring her safety with ropes.”

The entire rescue operation took more than five hours.

In the days after the scary encounter, medical officials ruled that the bite wasn’t from a spider at all — nor was it even a bite.

“Rescuers believe that the individual who needed rescuing was stung by stinging nettles located on the overgrown trail,” Lindsey Stine of the county sheriff’s office told The Post.

Fortunately, the symptoms from California’s stinging nettles don’t last longer than 24 hours.


  1. Michael Towns says:

    Wow. Crazy stuff on this planet.

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