Nature’s “Arms Race”: Scientists Discover Two New Species Of Poisonous Birds In Papua, New Guinea

I was unaware until recently of poisonous birds. In fact, their existence is still little known to much of the public. A dozen or so exist around the world and two more have recently been discovered in Papua, New Guinea. That giant island is home to many of the known poisonous bird species.

The birds are poisonous and toxic, not venomous. Poison can be ingested or hurt you from handling. Venom is injected.

The two birds are the regent whistler (Pachycephala schegelii) and the rufous-naped bellbird (Aleadryas rufinucha) . Neither bird was unknown to science but their toxic properties were not known.

According to PubMed

“Until very recently, toxicity was not considered a trait observed in birds, but works published in the last two decades started to shed light on this subject. Poisonous birds are rare (or little studied), and comprise Pitohui and Ifrita birds from Papua New Guinea, the European quail, the Spoor-winged goose, the Hoopees, the North American Ruffed grouse, the Bronzewings, and the Red warbler. A hundred more species are considered unpalatable or malodorous to humans and other animals….”

Dendrobates auratus (Green and Black Dart-poison Frog)
Poison dart frogs are one of a handful with potent toxins on or in their bodies. Newly identified poisonous birds have the same toxin.

The New Guinea birds maintain a potent neurotoxin in their feathers. The neurotoxin is similar to that used by poison dart frogs in South America. It is believed that the bird toxin deters predators. It definitely deters the local people who do not eat the birds because of the taste. Dart frogs live in Central and South American rainforest. Natives use the toxin to poison darts for hunting. They are small brightly colored creatures. Dart frogs eat a variety of insects and researchers think their diet creates the poison.

Unlike the dart frogs, the concentration of the neurotoxin in the birds is not likely to kill a person. The concentration in one of the dart frogs is said to be enough to kill 20,000 mice. But it definitely caused the researchers to be cautious in handling the birds.

According to Brittanica there are an estimated 1,000 chemicals that affect nerves and the nervous system. Some are common poisonous chemicals or metals such as lead. Others are venoms which can be injected by the fangs of snakes or even spiders.

A chart from Phys,org showing some of New Guinea’s poisomnous birds including the newest.

According to Phys,org:

“The poison in these birds’ bodies and plumage is called Batrachotoxin. It is an incredibly potent neurotoxin that, in higher concentrations, such as those found in the skin of golden poison frogs, leads to muscle cramps and cardiac arrest nearly immediately after contact.”

Golden poison dart frogs, (Phyllobates terribilis) are one of several poisonous frogs in the Americas.

A rufous-napped bellbird. The poisonous birds can be briefly handled.

Batrachotoxin works by interfering with cellular sodium regulation. It “holds open” gates in cellular structures, allowing sodium to flood the cells.

The birds are far less dangerous, according to the University of Copenhagen researchers. Handling them is uncomfortable, the eyes water. Natives say they taste bad and don’t eat them. This points to what the researchers called an “arms race” creatures at all levels of the food chain adapt strategies and weapons to defend themselves.

The research was conducted under the auspices of the Natural History Museum of Denmark

The museum is affiliated with the University of Copenhagen and represents the merger of several museums and libraries.

Recently we posted about the “war” between black and brown widow spiders. These creatures have venom with latroxin, also a potent nerve agent. That venom works by depolarizing neurons, causing uncontrolled exit of neurotransmitters and increasing calcium ions (that helps jam neural transmission).

Published by ursusrising

long time writer and editor living in Los Angeles

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