Australian teen chewed and bloodied after bizarre ocean feeding frenzy

An example of a lysianassid amphipod.

After an intense football match Saturday in Australia, 16-year-old Sam Kanizay dipped his legs into the chilly waters off Melbourne’s coast, hoping to soothe his sore muscles. Half-an-hour later he stepped out, bleeding profusely from countless tiny bites.

The gory and bizarre situation is now making international headlines. The images of his feet and ankles (here and here) really are quite disturbing (you’ve been warned). But the incident left medical professionals initially confused and media reports garbled. Some blamed the vicious attack on wee crustaceans called isopods, or “sea lice,” but experts are trying to clear up that error.

In a press statement Monday, local authorities reported that marine scientists had identified the flesh-eaters as lysianassid amphipods, a type of scavenging crustacean sometimes called “sea fleas.” They’re not known for swarming and attacking people. But scientists have long studied their affinity for flesh and ability to sniff it out in warm, cool, deep, and shallow waters around the world. Typically, they descend upon carcasses of marine animals and munch away the meat, tiny-bite by tiny-bite.

Enlarge / Sea fleas captured by Sam’s father. Here they’re seen feasting on a morsel of raw steak.

The task of identifying the critters was made easier by Sam’s father, Jarrod Kanizay. After bringing his son to the hospital with the severe leg wounds, he returned to the scene of the attack, dropping chunks of raw steak into the water as bait. The meat was quickly swarmed by a large pack of small, carnivorous critters, likely recreating what happened to Sam. Jarrod scooped them up for experts to identify.

Museums Victoria marine biologist, Genefor Walker-Smith, determined they were sea fleas after examining them under a microscope. “It was just unlucky,” she said in a statement. “It’s possible he disturbed a feeding group, but they are generally not out there…

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