- Education and Science
The Golden Poison Dart Frog
How Humans use the Poison to Acquire Food
The Most Poisonous Animal
The golden poison-dart frog is a tiny creature that uses toxic chemicals as a defence in its body and is therefore technically a poisonous animal. Venomous animals on the other hand inject toxins via some sort of weapon, such as a tail, fang, spine, spur or tooth. The chemicals toxins only come into effect if the frog is actually attacked, and since it doesn’t want to be harmed, it advertises its lethality by sporting yellow or orange skin, a sure deterrent against even the most determined predators.
This little frog is not only the most poisonous of its frog brethren but possibly the most poisonous animal in the world. The toxin is in its skin- you can die even from the slightest touch, and each frog skin contains enough poison to kill up to 100 people. Though the frog has only been known to western science since 1978. The Chocó Indians that inhabit a small area of Colombia have known about it for generations, even going as far to use its skin gland secretions to poison their blowgun darts, enabling to despatch game in just a matter of seconds.
The golden poison dart frog gets most of its batrachotoxin or frog poison from other animals, mostly small beetles, which in turn get it from plants. Interestingly, poison dart frogs that are raised in captivity never become toxic at any time in their lives, presumably because they aren’t fed the toxic insects they would normally feast on in the wild. The frog is diurnal, and has few predators except for a snake that has evolved immunity to the toxin. Amazingly, birds have been discovered in New Guinea with the same kind of poison in their wings and feathers. The common link has been tracked down to a small beetle, similar to the species in Colombia that contain the batrachotoxin.
The Castor Bean Plant
The Deadliest Plant
The Castor bean plant produces possibly the deadliest plant toxin currently known, more than 6000 times more deadly than cyanide. Strangely though, for thousands of years it’s been known as a wonder plant, in fact one of the most useful plants known to man. Both the key to exploiting the wonder and releasing the poison lies with the seed. More than 50 per cent of it comprises of rich oil, but for protection it also contains ricin, a toxic protein that is lethal to almost all animals. If the poison is ingested, it shuts down the key protein building elements of a cell, without which it can’t survive without, resulting in death.
For animals like humans, the death is prolonged, ending in convulsions and failure of the liver and other vital organs. As of yet, there is no known antidote. The most usual cause of poisoning comes from the accidental ingestion of seeds. Ricin though, can be administered in aerosol form, in food or water, or injected, as in a famous case involving a dissident Bulgarian journalist. In 1978, Georgi Markov was waiting for a bus at Waterloo, when he was stabbed with an umbrella that injected a pellet containing ricin. This deadly poison is widely available and could prove to be a useful addition to the biological warfare arsenal.
It’s equally easy to extract the seed’s valuable oil, which has been used for at least 4000 years as lamp oil, soap and also as medicine for a huge array of different ailments. Today its uses include high grade lubricants, textile dyes, printing ink, waxes, polishes, candles and crayons. In the future, its array of protective chemicals may even provide a cure for tumours.
Exploring the Dolphin that kills Sharks
The Most Formidable Killer
So, which out of all of the fearsome predators on the Earth is the most formidable of all; one way of revealing the answer is to look at the largest animal that ever lived, the blue whale and see what can attack and kill it. There are only two kinds of animals that can do this, firstly ourselves with our modern weaponry and the orca or killer whale. But while blue whales may be enormous, they are rather docile creatures with few defences apart from their immense size, maybe a creature that is capable of attacking and killing a great white shark is better suited to the title of ‘most formidable killer.’ Again, we are capable of this, but we need our technology to make this possible. Imagine trying to take on Jaws armed with just physical strength and a few friends, this is exactly what the orca does successfully. At around 29 feet in length, the orca is the largest member of the dolphin family and among the largest of all predators. But what makes them all the more formidable is that their pack hunters and are able to work together to bring down large prey, they are truly the lions or wolves of the sea.
Several distinct forms of killer whale are known to science- the residents, transients and the offshores, each of which differ slightly in appearance, behaviour, group size and diet. It’s the transients that specialise in the larger prey items, but counter-intuitively they travel in smaller groups than their fish eating relatives; usually in groups of seven or fewer. The transients often devise different, sometimes ingenious ways of catching their prey. For instance, in the Antarctic they will tip seal and penguins off ice floes into the gaping mouth of one of its companions. In Patagonia they often risk their lives, beaching themselves in order to grab sea lion pups.
When Basque whalers first observed orcas feeding on the carcasses of dead whales, they called them ‘whale killers’ and the name stuck. Apparently, the ‘orca’ name is the more politically correct name to use, but the Latin translation is ‘belonging to the kingdom of the dead,’ so it’s not much of an improvement really.
The Different Types of Killer Whale
The Real Life Dragon
Man vs. Dragon
When Humans First Met the Komodo's Larger Relative
The Deadliest Drooler
The Komodo dragon is a renowned giant, with the average male measuring it at around 8 feet long; some exceptional individuals do grow up to 10 feet long. Incidentally, the longest lizard of all is not that Komodo but rather its much slimmer relative the Salvadori monitor from New Guinea, although it must be noted that two thirds of its 9 feet body length is made up by its tail.
The Komodo though is the heaviest lizard of all, with an average weight of 130Ibs with some reaching nearly 180Ibs. It’s also one of the most fearsome predators you could ever have the misfortune of encountering anywhere on the planet. It has large, sharp, serrated teeth for cutting and tearing prey, but its concealed weapon is its bacteria laden saliva. Once bitten, the victim commonly escapes, but within a few days the effects of the bacteria take hold. All the while, the dragon is tracking it down using its acute sense of smell, a sense that also makes it a very efficient scavenger.
Not so long ago, the Island of Flores, one of the modern haunts of the Komodo was home to a strange cast of dwarf animals including a dwarf elephant and the famous dwarf humans nicknamed ‘Hobbits’ upon which the dragon probably preyed. While the Komodo is a giant by our modern standards, it’s a mere pygmy compared to some of its prehistoric ancestors. As recently as 50,000 years ago Australia was home to a true giant, a monster that measured 25 feet long and over 1300Ibs in weight. It’s known to science as Megalania prisca and it became extinct around the 50,000 year mark almost straight after the arrival of the first humans. It’s unclear whether humans were responsible for its extinction and the loss of the rest of the megafauna, and the debate surrounding the issue is one of the hotly contested issues in science today.
The Komodo poses relatively little threat to humans, and only really attacks whenever it feels cornered. Megalania on the other hand, regardless of whether or not it was a deadly drooler like the Komodo would have been a lizard worthy of both the utmost fear and respect.
The Electric Eel
When a Caiman got Zapped
The Most Shocking Animal
The electric eel, the closest thing you can get to a living battery. It can grow up to 7 feet long, but all of its organs are packed in tightly behind its head, leaving 80 per cent of its body to generating electricity. It’s stacked with up to 6000 specially adapted muscle cells or electrocytes, aligned like the cells in a battery. Each electrocyte emits low voltage impulses that together can add up to 600 volts enough to render a human unconscious. The positive pole behind the eel’s head and the negative pole is at the tip of its tail. It tends to remain straight, when swimming, using its long ventral fin for propulsion, and so keeps an electrical force-field around itself.
Electricity affects almost every bit of the eel’s behaviour. As well as stunning or killing with high voltage pulses, it communicates with other eels electrically and uses a form of echolocation called electrolocation to detect objects and other creatures in the water. Fish and frogs make up the bulk of its prey, and it can use its electrolocation to detect and monitor the minute electric currents these and other living things produce. The electric eel cannot see well, but it matters very little, as its mainly nocturnal and lives mostly in murky water.
There are other electrified fish, including the related knifefishes, which generate their own electric field, only much weaker. They use it to sense objects, for hunting and communicating. The only other ‘shocking’ animals are the torpedo ray and the electric catfish, but neither come close to matching the electric eel’s shocking power.
The Beaked Sea Snake
The Most Dangerous Snake in the World
The Most Dangerous Snake
No list of natures deadliest would be complete without mentioning at least one species of snake. Very often with these creatures, defining which is the most dangerous depends largely on how you choose to measure danger. We measure danger through an animal’s ability to harm us, and many snakes are pretty good at that, although they do not hold any sort of desire to eat us, most kill when trying to defend themselves.
The one that kills the most often is the saw scaled viper. However it isn’t the most venomous, that dubious honour belongs to the sea snake whose highly toxic venom evolved to incapacitate fish and other marine creatures. Despite a formidable reputation they are rather placid in snake terms, lacking the fearsome striking fangs of vipers. The only time they do bite people is when accidentally handled in fishing nets. A more dangerous snake in terms of fatalities is the beaked sea snake, which inhabits coastal waters and thus comes into contact with people more often. Many sea snakes are found in Australian waters, and Australia is also the home of the greatest number of venomous snakes in the world. In fact 11 out of the top 12 in the world are found here, with the record holder being the inland taipan or fierce snake.
Australia however, doesn’t hold the record for the most dangerous of all the land snakes. When you take into account venom toxicity, venom yield, fang length, temperament and frequency of bite, then the out and out winner is saw scaled viper. It’s widespread, small (and easily looked) and very aggressive when threatened. As a result it probably bites and kills more people than any other snake. Its name comes from the fact that, when frightened, it rubs its scales together making a sawing noise- a reminder that most snakes would rather frighten people than actually bite them. Also, let’s not forget that despite their fearsome reputation, far more snakes are killed by people each year than vice versa.
Imagine Being Stung by Those
The Most Painful Stinger
In the eyes of some, the box jellyfish is the world’s most venomous animal, but attaching such a label to this creature depends on what sort of criteria you use. For example, is it the most venomous creature you are ever likely to encounter, does it kill more people than any other, or are the chemicals in the venom the most toxic? Certainly, a single box jellyfish contains enough venom to kill at least 60 people, and many do unfortunately succumb after being stung.
The box jellyfish however, holds no desire whatsoever to harm humans in anyway, but it is a hunter. An adult typically is as large as a human head, with tentacles stretching up to 15 feet in length. Each one has a full array of powerful stinging cells, called nematocysts, and hunts mainly fish. Unlike many other jellyfish, it’s very active. It propels itself through the ocean depths in search of prey. Its number one weapon, apart from its tentacles is its transparency, which ensures that it remains invisible to fish and humans alike.
A box jellyfish has four bundles of about ten tentacles, with even the smallest stretching up to 6 feet. Each one carries around 3 million nematocysts. This deadly toxin contains chemicals that affect heart muscle and nerves and also destroys tissue. The purpose of all this is to simply kill a fish quickly to lessen the chance of escape. But if a box jellyfish should ever encounter a human, it may elect to sting in self defence. The pain is excruciating, and without any anti venom, a victim can die from heart failure in just a matter of minutes, additionally, the nematocysts fire not just on command but when stimulated physically or chemically. Curiously, despite their ferocity, the stingers cannot penetrate women’s tights, and until ‘stinger suits’ became available. Lifeguards patrolled the beaches wearing tights quite unashamedly.