The sun has emerged, the wind is still and the rain is nowhere to be seen, a perfect day for a trip to the beach. Wading into the shallows you can feel the soft sand beneath your feet until, ouch, you’ve trodden on something sharp, then the pain starts – you have been ‘weevered’.
When considering what the UK’s most dangerous fish might be, many would imagine it to be a species of shark or stingray, but a fish species which carries a very painful poison and often comes into contact with humans is the weever fish. There are two species of this fish which live in UK waters, the greater weever, Trachinus draco, and the lesser weever, Echiichthys vipera, it’s Latin name giving a hint to its venomous nature. The greater weever frequents deeper water whereas the lesser weever can be found in shallow water, which is why people are often injured by this species and although it may not be seen, if trodden on it will most certainly be felt.
Lesser weever fish are small fish, around 15cm long, are a yellow sandy colour in appearance and have their eyes on top of their head. Their most famous feature however is the spines which are situated on the first dorsal fin and gill-covers (Gibson, 2008). This species spends daytime hours buried beneath the sand, with only its eyes and dorsal spikes visible. Its spines are for protective purposes from predators. This species feeds on crustaceans as well as smaller fish. An interesting fact about weever fish is that they do not possess a swim bladder. They have an ambush hunting technique, catching their prey with sudden movement, but due to their lack of a swim bladder they sink unless they are swimming.
This species resides in shallow warm water in sandy areas. It is most likely to be encountered when the tide is low and beach goers wade into the sea, as they are unlikely to see the small fish hidden beneath the sand. They are more prominent in southern Britain, and the sight of someone clutching their foot is a frequent occurrence each year on many beaches. If you are unlucky enough to stand on a lesser weever fish, you can feel the prick of the spine, then shortly afterwards the pain begins to rapidly increase. Often referred to as one of the UK’s most dangerous fish, it goes without saying that the poison this fish injects causes agonising pain. Having been unfortunate enough to step on one of these fish I would agree with the general consensus that the pain is excruciating. The first 20 minutes after a weever sting are especially painful, but the pain often resides within an hour or two. The wounded area can become, red, sore and swollen, and tender for several weeks. The remedy for a sting from this little fish is to put your foot in water as hot as you can stand until the pain subsides, this may take around 20 minutes. It is suggested the water should be over 40oC (Suffolk Wildlife Trust, n.d.), however be careful not to burn or scald yourself. This simple treatment works because the heat deactivates the poison, as the protein is denatured (Suffolk Wildlife Trust, n.d.), so find yourself some hot water from somewhere as soon as possible. Unfortunately I was on the middle of a beach when I was stung, and I did consider buying a cup of tea from the shack by the car park and immersing my foot in it, but by the time I had hobbled back the extreme pain had thankfully subsided. Although very painful the poison is not considered deadly, but it is suggested you should seek medical assistance after being stung, especially if any of the spines broke off in your foot, you are suffering an allergic reaction, are having trouble breathing or have chest pains. If the beach you are on is patrolled by lifeguards, they know exactly what to do. One way to avoid the painful affair of contact with a weever fish is to wear shoes in the water, such as sandals or wet shoes, although a little inconvenient it is well worth preventing the sting.
It is fascinating to think that such a little fish can be so poisonous, the pain is something you might expect to feel from a tropical species not from a UK fish. It is also important to remember that the coastline of the UK is their home, and they probably don’t enjoy the thousands of feet that come stomping about in the water disturbing them every summer and especially not those that stand on their heads! If you do get stung however just remember it’s a good story to tell your friends.
Gibson, C. (2008) Pocket Nature: Seashore. London: Dorling Kindersley Limited.
Suffolk Wildlife Trust. Weever fish [www document]. http://www.suffolkwildlifetrust.org/node/15025