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Republic of the Marshall Islands Biodiversity Clearing House Mechanism
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Non-dangerous environment

Many people associate the tropics with dangers- thick jungles full of venomous snakes, insects, scorpions as well as man-eating crocodiles and tigers, all out to attack any person foolish enough to wander by! This is NOT the Marshall Islands.

The land environment is about as docile as can found anywhere on earth. It is hard to find much terror in an attack of the top terrestrial predator, a land hermit crab! Sure, there are some "madepep" (scorpions), but these are not extremely venomous and the fear they inspire is far out of proportion to their sting. The only resident snake, the Brahminy blind snake is so small, it is hardly noticeable and its mouth is only big enough to bite minute insects.

Most land creatures that even approach being venomous are recent introductions - "kaulalo" (the spiders), "bi" (paper wasp, Polistes fuscatus), "kinal" (the fire ant Solenopsis geminata) and "eiae" or "noknej," (centipede, Scolopendra mahtans). These are more nuisances than real dangers and if they do bite or sting someone, these usually just dealt with at home, without seeking any outside medical assistance. The Anopholes mosquito, which carried dreaded malaria, isn't found in the Marshalls.

The sea around the Marshalls does contain some dangerous species. Top of the list has to be the "bako" (sharks) - and these do bite people. Most of the attacks, however, occur at night and to spearfishermen with bloody catches. Unlike Western Micronesia, the Marshall Islands are not home to sea snakes nor saltwater crocodiles. Yet there are venomous "no" (stonefishes, scorpionfishes) and "oo" (lionfishes). Fishermen and others occasionally do get jabbed by the spines of one of these and seek outpatient help at the hospital.

"Aulok" (Portuguese-men-of-war, Physalia uriticia) wash ashore every year around January. However, they are usually small and no one has ever died from them in the Marshalls. People quickly learn to schedule their water activities so as to avoid contact with them. They similarly learn to avoid venomous "likaebeb" (cone snails, Conus spp.), "eiae in lojet," (fireworm, Eurythoe complanata) and "lor" (sea urchins).

However, "ikaarar" or ciguatoxic fishes are harder to avoid and these are the real terrors of people living in the Marshall Islands. If circumstances are right, ANY species of marine fish can, at least at times, be ciguatoxic. To add to the danger, a fish species on one atoll may be perfectly safe to eat, but on another atoll - or even on another island of the same atoll - fatal if eaten.

It is figured that the initial source of ciguatoxosis is a minute dinoflagellate, Gambierdiscus toxicus. Little fishes which eat algae containing this microorganism are eaten by bigger fishes, then by still bigger fishes, and on and on through the food web until they are eaten by really big fishes. The toxins are retained in the flesh of all the fishes, and thus become greatly amplified all along the way. Hence, a small young "jujukob," (great barracuda, Sphytaena barracuda) or "drep" (giant moray, Gymnothorax javanicus) may be perfectly safe to eat, but a large old one may kill!

Traditional Marshallese remedies for ciguatoxosis are known, such as "utilomar" and "jon." Over the years, various modern medicines have been used to help people who have eaten the wrong fish. Unfortunately the success rate for all these isn't very good.

But in 1988, doctors working at Majuro Hospital developed the first scientifically proven cure for ciguatoxosis. It involves the intravenous application of mannitol. Their findings were published in 1988 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and is now become standard practice, even being used on an outpatient basis.


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