NEAL CONAN, host:
In 2002, the famous Australian Crocodile Hunter told reporters he did not mind getting killed on the job as long as it was caught on film. In a sad twist of fate, that's exactly what happened to television personality Steve Irwin today. Irwin was hugely popular and sometimes controversial, known for his bold tactics with dangerous animals. At times it resulted in injury. In this clip from one of his programs, he's wrangling with a crocodile.
(Soundbite of television program)
Mr. STEVE IRWIN (Wildlife Enthusiast and Expert): I've just got to get her over the fence, and she thrashes. Her head's out, chomp! She bit me. That's how quick it happened. She split me leg.
Unidentified Woman: We got it.
Mr. IRWIN: She sunk her teeth deep into me leg. What a drama. It's not her fault. It was my mistake. I don't blame her one iota. I should've secured her jaws better. Now I'm going to bleed a little, so be it.
CONAN: While filming a segment off the Great Barrier Reef today, Steve Irwin was stabbed in the chest by a stingray and died almost immediately. That, we read, is a highly unusual event.
Joining us to tell us a bit more about it is Leonard Compagno, the curator of fishes at Iziko Museums of Cape Town and also director of the Shark Research Institute, and he joins us from his home in Cape Town in South Africa. Nice to speak with you today.
Mr. LEONARD COMPAGNO (Iziko Museums of Cape Town): Yeah, hi. How are you doing?
CONAN: I'm well. I understand stingrays are generally very shy creatures.
Mr. COMPAGNO: Well, they're shy but inquisitive, probably much more intelligent than we might rate them and the like, but they do have a very powerful defensive weapon - the sting, which is on the, usually about at the mid-length of the tail, and it's a sort of a barbed spine with a poisonous sheath around it and the like. And they don't use this offensively. They can't use it for getting food and the like, but they can use it if a shark or other creature bothers them.
CONAN: And so it's strictly defensive?
Mr. COMPAGNO: It's strictly a defensive weapon, as far as we know, and no one has reported stingrays chasing them and trying to stick them with the stings, but if you do step on one or you pester one and the like, you may get this response that they raise their tail, or they may actually sling the tail and stick the barb in you. And the thing with the barb is that it pulls out like a bee sting. It doesn't kill the stingray, but it takes them a while to grow a new one.
CONAN: Now in terms of the damage it can inflict, as I understand it the toxin, the poison, on the sting is not that serious - uncomfortable, but not that serious for human beings or something that size. The sting itself is a different question.
Mr. COMPAGNO: Yeah. Well, the thing is that we only have a limited knowledge of the toxicology of the stinging spine. Some may be more poisonous than others. But the spines vary in size and some of them are up to about 18 inches long. And with a big stingray, it'll generally have a fairly big sting. And depending on the species of stingray, it may have a strong tail.
The further out on the tail and the stronger the tail it is, the further the sting can reach, which can be a problem for a diver passing over an animal which gets startled, which gets frightened and the like, and whips its tail up with the sting and the like and happens to put it in an unfortunate place.
I had heard of that happening at least once before, but it's a very, very rare sort of event. Usually what happens is that people step on them and get the stings in their feet, or if they pick them out of nets and such and they're still alive and the like, they might get them in their arms.
CONAN: But it would have to be a really tragic series of circumstances for this to be a fatal accident?
Mr. COMPAGNO: Yeah.
CONAN: Okay. Leonard Compagno, thanks very much for joining us today. Thanks for the time.
Mr. COMPAGNO: Thank you.
CONAN: Leonard Compagno is curator of fishes at Iziko Museums of Cape Town and director of the Shark Research Institute, and he joined us today from his home in Cape Town in South Africa.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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