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Painting Frogs, Licking Wounds & Other Adventures with Poisonous Animals

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In the current issue of the magazine, I’ve got an article called “Fifty Shades of Prey,” about poison dart frogs and some new research into why they come in so many dazzling colors and patterns. 

I was drawn to the story not only because of what Canadian biologist Mathieu Choteau discovered about these frogs (which is pretty cool all by itself), but also by all the stuff he went through along the way. His research involved hand-molding and painting several thousand fake frogs with the help of his girlfriend, getting them on a plane to Peru (worried what airport security might say when they opened his bag), and then painstakingly pinning them to leaves while trudging through the rainforest. 

Going back even further into what we know about dart frogs and other poisonous animals, there are plenty of other intrepid scientists and strange sounding field work. I couldn’t fit all of their stories into the magazine piece, so I wanted to share a little bit about two of them here. 

The first is a guy named John W. Daly. In the early 1960s, not long after he took a job at the National Institutes of Health, he was sent on a research errand by the head of his lab. Certain native tribesmen in Colombia were known to coat the tips of their hunting arrows and blowgun darts with skin secretions from local frogs, which gave the weapons a toxic punch. The senior scientist wanted someone to go down to the rainforest, harvest some frogs, and analyze the chemicals in their skin. He’d been unable to find someone in the lab, though, who 1) had experience in the field and could handle a trip to the rainforest, and 2) he could afford to commit to research that might not pan out. 

Daly fit the bill perfectly. He was a chemist by training, but always had an interest in biology. He’d grown up in Oregon collecting frogs, snakes, and lizards and keeping them in his own little zoo in the basement. He was also young and a new hire, so they could get away with paying less for the field work than the other scientists. 

Daly was soon in the Amazon collecting frogs for a $16 per diem. Without many resources to work with, he developed an unusual way to figure out which frogs were worth examining and which weren’t. He’d slide a finger along a frog's skin, and then touch his tongue. If he experienced a burning sensation in his mouth, then the frog was worth a look. Fortunately, Daly took the locals’ advice about one particular frog. Even experienced tribal hunters only handled Phyllobates terribilis with the utmost care—it’s the most poisonous of the dart frogs and may be the most poisonous vertebrate in the world. 

Daly’s time tasting frogs in the rainforest eventually led to the discovery of the batrachotoxins (“frog poison”), the class of alkaloid poisons that make some of these frogs so deadly. In the early 1970s, Daly and colleagues published the chemical structure of the toxin and detailed its biological effects. 

Almost 20 years later and thousands of miles away, John Dumbacher, a grad student at the University of Chicago, was studying the courtship and mating behaviors of the Raggiana Bird-of-paradise in Papua New Guinea. He and his research team stretched nets between trees to capture the birds for study, and sometimes caught other birds by accident. Some of these were songbirds known as Hooded Pitohuis

As Dumbacher tried to free these birds, they’d bite or scratch at his hands and sometimes he would get cut. Rather than stopping his work and finding a place to wash his wounds, he would usually just pop the injured finger in his mouth to give the cut a quick clean. Just a few minutes later, though, his tongue and lips would start to tingle and burn a little. The sensation wasn’t awful—Dumbacher has compared it to eating a chili pepper or touching your tongue to a 9-volt battery—but it was puzzling, and after another student experienced the same thing, Dumbacher began to wonder if it was the bird’s fault. 

The next time a pitohui got caught in one of the nets, Dumbacher and the other student tasted one of the feathers. Sure enough, their mouths started to tingle and burn. They asked a few of the team’s forest guides about it and learned that the locals called the pitohuis “rubbish birds” or “garbage birds” and wouldn’t eat them, unless they were skinned and specially prepared for safety and flavor. The birds, Dumbacher realized, might be poisonous. 

While poisonous birds were sometimes rumored to exist, none had ever been scientifically confirmed, and the idea wasn’t always considered legitimate. Dumbacher wanted some pitohui feathers analyzed for toxins, but couldn’t find a chemist who would take his hypothesis seriously. Dumbacher returned to the U.S. with a bunch of feathers in 1990. Knowing about Daly’s experience with poisonous vertebrates, he called the NIH, a little bit worried that Daly would laugh him off as “just a nutty kid.” 

Daly was curious, though, and took the feathers and began to run some tests. When he took extracts from the feather and injected them into a mouse, it began to convulse and quickly died. He called Dumbacher back looking for more samples from the birds—the young man seemed to be onto something. 

Daly eventually isolated what he believed to be the toxic compound and had a colleague run a chemical analysis on it. When the colleague called him with the compound’s analysis, Daly recognized the characteristics and patterns immediately. It was the same chemical he’d found, identified, described, and named decades earlier. Batrachotoxin, the “frog poison,” had turned up in a bird.

Daly, Dumbacher, and their colleagues announced their discovery two years later in a paper in Science, and the hooded pitohui became the first confirmed poisonous bird. A decade later, the blue-capped ifrita became the second

What was frog poison doing in two different types of birds? How could the frogs and birds, separated by vast oceans and so many twists and turns of evolutionary history, produce the same toxin—not a similar toxin, but the exact same one?

More than a decade of work by Dumbacher, Daly and other researchers suggests that these odd, toxic bedfellows get their toxins from their diets. In Papua New Guinea, Dumbacher heard reports from locals of a few types of beetle that caused tingling and burning sensations on contact. He found those same beetles in the stomachs of the pitohuis and later found that they contained high concentrations of batrachotoxin. In a 2004 paper, he suggested that the bugs provided a natural toxin source for the birds, and that other bugs might do the same for poison dart frogs. 

Daly had touched on the same idea before, noticing that a change in the frogs’ diet altered their toxic profile. Around the same time as Dumbacher’s study, Daly and colleagues from the NIH and elsewhere found evidence that ants and “moss mites” in Central America contained some of the same alkaloids as the frogs and made up a large portion of their diet. This second study supporting the toxic diet idea was one of the last papers Daly published before his death in 2008. 

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Listen to the Impossibly Adorable Sounds of a Baby Sloth
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Sometimes baby sloths seem almost too adorable to be real. But the little muppet-faced treasures don't just look cute—turns out they sound cute, too. We know what you're thinking: How could you have gone your whole life without knowing what these precious creatures sound like? Well, fear not: Just in time for International Sloth Day (today), we have some footage of how the tiny mammals express themselves—and it's a lot of squeaking. (Or maybe that's you squealing?)

The sloths featured in the heart-obliterating video below come from the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. The institution rescues orphaned sloths, rehabilitates them, and gets them ready to be released back into the wild.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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