See Live Spiders in The Power of Poison
by AMNH on
You'll find live animals on display throughout the Museum's new exhibition The Power of Poison, helping elucidate the diversity and ubiquity of poisons in nature—and their myriad uses by humans, as medicine, weaponry, and inspiration.
LIFE-SAVING GILA MONSTER
Poisons can come from almost any species—and studying venoms and toxins has led researchers to promising new drugs.
In the exhibition, you will see a live Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum), a species whose venom includes a component that has been used to develop a medical treatment.
In the wild, Gila monsters move slowly but have a dangerous bite, the exhibition explains: "When these predators attack their prey, venom travels along grooves in their teeth into their victims. Scientists found that one component of the venom, exendin-4, lowers blood sugar. A drug made from exendin-4 has been successfully used to treat type II diabetes since 2005. Medical researchers are also studying other reptile venoms to design drugs for ailments ranging from high blood pressure to bleeding."
The venom of the Chilean rose tarantula's (Grammostola rosea) contains multiple toxins, which may help it immobilize and digest prey, as well as deter predators. But a bite from this spider would not cause a person serious harm.
Indeed, humans might get help from this arachnid: an extract from tarantula venom called GsMtx-4 appears to help regulate heartbeat and may one day be used in medicine. In diseased or damaged hearts, calcium enters heart cells through stretch-activated channels, triggering heart spasms. The spider drug blocks these channels, causing the heart to beat more steadily.
AID FROM ANEMONES
The flower-like anemones you'll see in a beautiful aquarium in the exhibition are no shrinking violets—they’re deadly predators. Without the ability to see or swim, they rely on their poisonous tentacles to snare prey. And, as it happens, venoms from various species are currently being studied for potential uses to treat cancer (Entacmaea quadricolor), obesity, and multiple sclerosis (Stichodactyla helianthus).
Ounce for ounce, the skin of these jewel-bright golden poison frogs, from the Chocó lowland forest, in Colombia, is among the most toxic substances on Earth: the skin secretions of just one frog might be enough to kill ten people! In the wild, the frogs get their toxicity from their diet, but in the exhibition, the live frogs are fed nontoxic meals of crickets and flies.
In Colombia, the Emberá hunters in the Chocó use blowguns and darts coated with secretions from dart poison frogs.
Two species of live caterpillars, including the zebra longwing butterfly caterpillar shown above, are on display in The Power of Poison. Both species evolved the ability to thrive despite feeding on toxic passionflower plants.
The leaves of this beautiful passionflower harbor cyanide-forming compounds in compartments within their cells. The poison is only released on contact with an enzyme stored in another compartment—and that happens when an insect is chewing on the plant. The live caterpillars on display in The Power of Poison chemically transform—that is, metabolize—those substances before they can combine to release cyanide, in effect disarming the plant’s chemical bomb.
This post is adapted from the text of The Power of Poison, open now through August 2014.