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Stingray deaths rare and agonizing

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SYDNEY, Australia (Reuters) -- Normally placid stingrays can deliver horrific, agonizing injuries, even though fatal attacks are almost unheard of, marine experts said on Monday after the death of Australia's "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin.

Irwin, the bubbly, khaki-clad naturalist whose documentaries were watched by hundreds of millions around the world, died after he was struck in the chest by a stingray barb while he was diving off Australia's northeast coast on Monday.

Irwin's manager John Stainton said Irwin was swimming over the stingray during filming for a documentary when he was struck in the chest, the barb most likely piercing his heart.

Dr. Bryan Fry, deputy director of the Australian Venom Research Unit at the University of Melbourne, said stingray venom was "extraordinarily painful."

"If he was conscious he would have been in agony," Fry told Reuters.

Fry said stingray venom was a defensive weapon similar to that in stonefish but was not lethal. Serrated barbs on the stingray's tail would have delivered the fatal injury, he said.

"It's not the going in, it's the coming out," Fry said.

"They have these deep serrations which tear and render the flesh as it comes out," he said.

The barbs on stingray's tails can measure up to 20 centimeters.

Clinical toxinologist Dr. Geoff Isbister said little is known about stingray venom but agreed the physical trauma associated with the wound would have killed Irwin.

"What happened to Steve Irwin is like being stabbed in the heart," Isbister said.

Injuries caused by stingrays are relatively common but fatalities are extremely rare, with experts saying there are only one or two known cases in recorded Australian history.

An Aboriginal boy died several years ago, while the previous record death was in Melbourne in 1945.

"The majority of stingray injuries in Australia result from people stepping on them in shallow water and getting a stingray barb in the ankle," Isbister said.

Marine ecologist Sean Connell said stingrays, which feed on small animals on the sea floor, are related to sharks and use their long, barbed tails to protect themselves from predators, such as sharks and killer whales.

"I have never heard of an unprovoked attack from a stingray," Connell said. "Such attacks usually only happen when the ray is under severe stress," he said.

Copyright 2006 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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A Spotted Reef stingray is seen near Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt.

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