Wilderness Underfoot: The poison strategy

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-113882330817049.jpg’, ”, ‘A venomous chemical cocktail – Bees and wasps deliver a variety of powerful toxins through stingers on the rear of their abdomens. These may contain acids and alkaloids, enzymes and proteins.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-113882380224218.jpg’, ”, ‘Syringe-like teeth – Pit vipers use their teeth to inject their saliva—a complex mixture of enzymes that destroy blood and paralyze nerves. This eastern massasauga rattlesnake, the only poisonous snake found in our region, is extremely rare.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-113882384217662.jpg’, ”, ‘Tastes terrible and makes you sick –The monarch butterfly acquires toxins as a caterpillar, by eating the noxious sap of the milkweed. Like many other nasty-tasting critters, it advertises its repulsive flavor with bright colors. Millipedes, the creatures that curl up when disturbed, can excrete foul chemicals through their shells. Many frogs, toads, salamanders and newts have these toxins in their skin to defend against predators. Our own Eastern newt is especially toxic in its red juvenile or “eft" stage.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-113882387720848.jpg’, ”, ”);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-113882389220848.jpg’, ”, ”);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-113882390720848.jpg’, ”, ‘More poisonous than rattlesnakes – Black widows and brown recluse spiders, as well as many centipedes, are capable of painful and dangerous bites. Fortunately, they carry only tiny amounts of venom. ‘);

Animals have evolved an amazingly diverse arsenal of toxic chemicals

Of all the natural toxins on earth, those produced by animals are the most potent—perhaps 100 times more powerful than similar plant compounds. A few tiny drops of supertoxic animal poisons are often sufficient to kill an adult human.

Children are at even greater risk of poisoning, partly because of their smaller body size, and partly because of their inherent curiosity and desire to explore.

Most poisonous animals have evolved fast-acting toxins. The purpose of a poison might be defensive, such as diverting an attack with a painful jab or a foul, sickening taste—or offensive, such as disabling prey or protecting territory.

Just how do poisons work? Many of these chemicals strike the nervous system, interfering with neurotransmitters and shutting your “wiring” down entirely. If your brain can’t communicate with your body, you’ll have a hard time moving or breathing, for example. Some toxins attack your blood, rendering it incapable of supplying the brain and other organs with oxygen and fuel. Other toxins shut down your heart.

Toxins need not kill or seriously injure to be effective. Some cause your brain to suffer neurological disturbances, and many cause excruciating pain. Or they may simply inflict gastrointestinal distress such as vomiting or diarrhea—this is typical of poisons that are consumed, rather than injected or contracted through the skin.

Surprisingly, death or serious injury from poisonous animals is very rare in our country. Instead, the vast majority of reported poisonings are caused by man-made materials found in our own homes.

From the Feb. 1-7, 2006, issue

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