How to turn poison into venom…

Look at this face. I mean, butter wouldn’t melt, right? This little cutie is Osteopilus septentrionalis (a Cuban tree frog). I found him in my brother’s garden in Orlando, Florida, where they are an invasive species.  They’re quite a spectacular-looking, large frog (the largest in North America), and so it is (in some ways) a pleasant surprise to come across one – but it is at the expense of most of the other amphibians in your area, as these guys are voracious predators of Florida’s native frogs, geckos, and lizards.

But I’m not here to talk about non-native species invasions today; I’m talking poison. A poison (or, rather, what we’re talking here is a harmful chemical produced IN NATURE – making it technically a ‘toxin’) is something that causes you harm if ingested. The chemical may be the same, but the difference is the method of delivery. So when people speak about ‘poisonous snakes’, they invariably mean ‘venomous snakes’ – because venom is a toxin that is INJECTED rather than INGESTED. [You can now be THAT PERSON in the pub who corrects people on their poor scientific terminology – you’re welcome.] 

On my trip to see my family in Florida for Christmas, I picked up one of these guys, to immediately experience what I can only describe as being ‘foamed’ on. [In the words of Dr. Peter Venkman: “He slimed me.”]

The Cuban tree frog, upon being alarmed or generally perceiving a predator (read: being picked up by ecologists on holiday), immediately exudes a thick, foamy, sticky-yet-slippery toxin. Like many amphibians, this is a poisonous species (meaning that if you eat it, or ingest its toxin, you will become sick or suffer some other ill effects).

But in spectacular fashion, I managed to turn this frog’s poison into venom… See that rather sharp Yucca plant behind the frog in the photo above? The frog decided to make a run for it and dove out of my hand towards the plant, and in my “professional enthusiasm” I managed to skewer myself in several places with yucca thorns. This was not a problem for the first 15 seconds until the burning started…

By stabbing myself with thorns while my hands were covered in toxic foam, I had inadvertently introduced some of the toxin into my body via injection – I turned poison into venom!

Anyway, long story short, my brother spent half an hour tweezing thorns out of my hand, and no harm done really, just another cool story for my arsenal. It didn’t stop me picking up another the next day.

[Incidentally, if you’d like to learn more about venom, there is currently a Venom Exhibit at the Natural History Museum in London, which I went to this weekend. It’s a very well-put-together display of a variety of venomous creatures, and well worth the admission price.

3 Replies to “How to turn poison into venom…”

  1. Fascinating! How toxic is this poison to mammals? Can it be used to coat arrowheads for hunting, or just garden variety irritating to predators so they won’t try to eat that type of frog again?

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