Fall's Special Exhibition Is The Power of Poison main content.

Fall's Special Exhibition Is The Power of Poison

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Whether as a defense against predators, a source of magical strength, or a lethal weapon used as lifesaving medical treatment, the story of poison is surprising at every turn. Opening Saturday, November 16, the new special exhibition The Power of Poison will explore poison’s paradoxical roles in nature, human health and history, literature, and myth.

Rattlesnake image for Poison exhibition
This skull of an eastern diamondback rattlesnake, which will be on view in The Power of Poison 
© AMNH/C. Chesek

The exhibition is curated by Mark Siddall, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology, whose research focuses on the evolution of leeches and their blood-feeding behavior.

Ubiquitous in the natural world, poisons can be found in brightly hued longwing butterflies of Central and South America, like the one pictured below, or the seemingly innocuous skin of a mango in a New York City kitchen. In both cases, the toxins are part of a dynamic defense system that plants and animals deploy against predators.

Perched on a leaf, a Doris longwing butterfly, colored orange, black, and white.

Examining a variety of evolutionary strategies—including the linked escalations in the strength of a predator’s poison and the resistance of its prey—the exhibition will highlight many toxic species, including live golden poison frogs, in a walk-through diorama of Colombia’s dense Chocó lowland forest.

Golden poison frog

Other highlights of the exhibition include a selection of fascinating historical artifacts revealing ways humans have sought to detect the presence of poisons—and to protect against their toxic powers; how plant and animal toxins have been used in medical treatments; and the potent power of poison as a longstanding motif in fairy tales, legends, and children’s stories. 

Beaver Top Hat Power of Poison
The exhibition will include a life-sized scene of the Mad Hatter from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The saying “mad as a hatter” dates back to the 19th century, when mercuric nitrate was used in the millinery industry to turn fur into felt. Hatters working in poorly ventilated factories breathed in toxic fumes, and prolonged exposure led to mercury poisoning with symptoms—such as trembling, memory loss, depression, irritability, and anxiety—still described as “mad hatter’s disease.” 
© AMNH/C. Chesek


There is also a gallery of some of history’s most mysterious poisonings, from Cleopatra’s legendary snakebite to Napoleon’s alleged death by arsenic, followed by the Detecting Poison theater, in which live presenters and visitors explore a real-world poisoning case that highlights the dramatic advances in toxicology and forensics since the 19th century. An iPad game follows, in which visitors can try their hands at solving other puzzling poison-related cases.

Learn more in a video.

Tickets are on sale here. The Power of Poison opens on November 16, 2013, and will remain on view through August 10, 2014.