Toxic animals and plants are the focus of a new exhibit, “The Power of Poison,” opening at Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History on Saturday, Nov. 16.
Although certain man-made radioactive elements, like plutonium, are among the most poisonous substances in the world, the objective of this display was “to go after poisons in the natural environment,” said exhibit curator Mark Siddall.
Visitors enter a section that represents the Chocó forest in Colombia, home to venomous species like the golden poison frog. A single frog has enough venom to kill 10 grown men.
The exhibit also explores poison’s role in history, from its use as a murder weapon to its benefits in medicine.
Visitors can get a good look at three golden poison frogs as they walk through a section about Colombia's Chocó forest. Though only the size of a paper-clip, the poison found in this frog's skin is, ounce-for-ounce, one of the most toxic substances on Earth. In the wild, the frog's poison comes from its diet. The museum's frogs are fed crickets and are not dangerous.
There are all types of venomous species in nature. The zebra longwing butterfly caterpillars can eat the toxic leaves of passion flowers, which makes the adult butterfly poisonous to predators.
Almost everything inside this beautiful aquarium is toxic. Sea anemones, for example, use poison to capture their prey. Other creatures may use poison to defend themselves.
This skull from an Eastern diamond rattlesnake represents a group of snakes, called venomous pit vipers, that have powerful toxins to defend themselves against opossums.
The exhibit also explores myths and legends associated with poison. It features a life-sized scene of the Mad Hatter from the book 'Alice in Wonderland' to explain the origin of the term 'mad as a hatter.' The saying dates back to the 19th century when mercuric nitrate was used by hat makers to turn fur into felt. Prolonged exposure led to mercury poisoning with symptoms that included trembling, memory loss, and anxiety.
Although mercury is highly toxic, forms of it have been used to treat illnesses for thousands of years. Mercury was even used in teething powder until 1948, when it was banned for making children sick.
This life-size diorama of three witches circling a boiling cauldron recreates a famous scene in Shakespeare's 'Macbeth.' The witches are drawing on the magical powers of a few highly-poisonous plants.
The poisonous apple that Snow White ate, causing her to collapse, produced a similar effect to pufferfish poison, according to the exhibit. The poison blocks nerve signals that make muscles move, but victims are otherwise awake.
The myth of Hercules and the Hydra is animated and projected onto ceramic Greek urns illustrating how humans used poison both for good and evil purposes in the ancient world.
In real-life, this clay pot would have been used to store 'curare,' a general term for a toxic paste made from the roots, bark, stems, and leaves of different tropical trees, vines, or plants. The plant material was boiled for hours and then left to thicken after the liquid was strained.
Curare was traditionally used by hunters in the 1930s to coat blowgun darts, like the one pictured here. The ball attached to the dart holds extra plant fibre, which is wound around the dart's end so that it would fit tightly into the blowgun tube.
This 'enchanted' book resembles an ancient botanical volume. It displays animations of poisonous plants and how they were used in the past. Drawings appear to come to life as the reader touches the pages.
The fear of poison also led people to find charms and other objects that would protect them from danger. According to Malaysian legend, Horbill spoons, made from the beaks of a large bird called the helmeted hornbill, would change colour in the presence of poison.
Amethyst necklaces were traditionally thought to protect people against poison. The ancient Greeks even drank from amethyst goblets, believing it would reduce the intoxicating effects of alcohol.
Hundreds of years ago, Europeans wore fossilized shark teeth (which they thought were the tongues of dragons) as charms to protect against poison.
These striped stones, known as agates, would be ground up and drunk in wine to cure poisoning. It was also applied to the skin to cure snake, spider, or scorpion bites.
Civilizations as far back as the ancient Egyptians believed that emeralds and garnets protected against snake venom and other poisons.
Fortunately, the science of detecting poisoning has come a long way. In a live presentation, visitors will learn about a real-world murder trial from the 1830s in which a man named John Bodle was accused of poisoning his grandfather with arsenic-laced coffee. (Arsenic was once regarded as the perfect murder weapon because it's odorless and tasteless. In France, it even became known as 'poudre de succession' or 'inheritance powder'). That changed when a chemist named John Marsh developed a method -- the Marsh test -- that could detect the presence of arsenic.
Not all poison is bad. Some toxins can be developed into medicines that help people. The venom of the Chilean rose tarantula, for example, contains a protein that seems to regulate heartbeat -- some studies even indicate that it might reduce pain and possibly be useful against muscular dystrophy.
The venom from cone snails can be used to block pain signals from reaching the brain and is being studied to develop medicines.
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