The best rule of thumb in nature is “look, don’t touch,” because sometimes the most innocent-looking animals can carry truly menacing toxins.
You’re probably familiar with a staggering variety of animals that can immobilize a grown human with a single bite or sting. There’s the King Cobra, which can down an elephant with just 7 ml of its venom. There’s the tarantula hawk, a monstrous black wasp whose sting that can render its victims nearly catatonic with pain. There’s the entire family of poison dart frogs whose vibrant colors warn predators of their deadly toxins.
But there are a few species of animals who don’t advertise the fact that they are poisonous or venomous.
For example, few people would expect a bird to be packing serious poisons, but there are a few avian species that arm themselves with toxins collected from their diet. The spur-winged goose munches on blister beetles, which produce cantharidin, a toxin lethal to humans. Instead of succumbing to this toxic diet, the goose sequesters the toxins into its tissues. As it happens, miniscule amounts of cantharidin also have a swelling effect on the urinary tract when topically applied, and were used as an aphrodisiac since ancient times.
Photo credit: markaharper1/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Pitohui birds of New Guinea contain poisons in their feathers and skin, making them even more immediately dangerous — even licking these birds will cause a predator to ingest the poison. These birds from New Guinea accumulate batrachotoxin, the same type produced by certain poison dart frogs and used by Colombian tribes to coat arrow-tips. If you try petting these birds’ vibrant feathers, you’ll feel numbness and tingling. In higher doses, the toxin causes instantaneous nerve paralysis.
Photo credit: Brisbane City Council / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Our fellow furry mammals are no less innocent. Not only do a few species produce toxins, but they can also deliver these toxins directly into the bloodstream of their victims. For instance, male platypuses use the spurs on their hindlimbs to administer an incapacitating venom. The spurs jump into overdrive during mating season, so the males are believed to sting rival males. The venom isn’t lethal, but the pain can last for weeks and won’t even abate with morphine.
You’ve probably seen that adorable video of a slow loris appearing to enjoy a thorough tickle session from its owner, but that impression couldn’t be further from the truth. These cuddly-looking primates actually loathe being tickled, and they respond by raising their arms in order to stimulate venomous glands in their armpits. Once they lick these glands to mix the secretion with saliva, their bite is armed with a toxin that induces anaphylactic shock. Before leaving their offspring alone to obtain food, slow loris mothers will also lick their babies to give them a noxious but protective coat.
Photo credit: pet/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
One of the strongest known venoms comes from an unexpected source. The agent of this deadly toxin is the deceptively charming cone snail. Snails enjoy an innocuous reputation as mild, passive critters no more harmful than the leaves they crawl on. But the marine cone snail is an efficient killing machine, armed with a harpoon-like tongue that it can shoot out to inject its lethal conotoxins. These protein-based substances have a paralytic effect strong enough that many researchers are attempting to develop painkillers based on their chemical structure. What makes these snails particularly lethal is their alluring, intricately decorated shells. If an inexperienced snorkeler tries to pick one up to add to her collection, she’ll be rewarded with a sting loaded up with a cocktail of up to 100 different conotoxins, each uniquely designed to hijack her nervous system. The geographic cone snail is the deadliest species, with 30 human fatalities under its belt.
These examples of surprisingly lethal animals just prove that the natural world is full of deadly delights. Don’t let the humdrum appearances and reputations of these species lull you into complacency — their poisons pack a powerful punch.