Ornithorhynchus anatinus, platytpus, ornitorrinco, ornitorinc

Danger, poisonous mammals!

We usually associate snakes, spiders, jellyfish, etc. as venomous animals par excellence, but did you know that there are poisonous mammals? In this article we will discover who are they and the nature and use of their poisons.

THE PLATYPUS

The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is the most famous among the poisonous mammals, and not just for this feature. With a peak like a duck and oviparous (laying eggs), when it was discovered some scientists thought it was a fraud.

platypus ornitorrinco ornitorinc
Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus). Photo by Jonathan Munro

They belong to the order monotremes, which means “one hole” in reference to the cloaca, the end of the digestive and reproductive systems. Some evolutionary biologists refer to them as the “missing linkbetween reptiles and mammals, as they have characteristics of both groups. Monotremes are the only mammals that lay eggs, but his body is covered with hair and the young are fed with breast milk. They are distributed by Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea.

Platypuses have a spur on the hind legs, which only in the case of males, release poison produced by femoral glands (located in the leg). The male uses it mainly to defend their territory and establish their dominance during the mating season, although if it is bothered also uses it as a defense. This poison can kill small animals, including dogs, and cause severe pain and swelling in humans. This pain can last days or months.

Platypus spur, espolón ornitorrinco
Spur on the hind leg of a platypus. Photo by E. Lonnon

Toxins are four proteins, three of which are unique to the platypus. They are like the defensins (DLP, defensin-like proteins). These are globular proteins, small and compacted, involved in the activation of pain receptors. Understanding how these toxins act it has special interest because they cause a lasting and severe pain; it may open new chances in the synthesis of analgesic drugs.

short-beaked echidna, equidna de nariz corta, equidna de nas curt
Short-beake echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus). Photo de Tony Britt-Lewis

Echidnas (family Tachyglossidae) complete the order of monotremes with the platypus; consequently they are also oviparous. The family consists of four species, with the common characteristic of having the body covered with dense hair and spines. They are mainly insectivores specializing in ants and termites.

Like the platypus, they also have spurs behind the knees, but their secretions are not poisonous. The substances are used to mark their territory, according to the recent studies.

SLOW LORIS

As we saw in a previous post, lorises are primates in the prosimians suborder. They are nocturnal, arboreal and feed primarily on insects, vegetables and fruits. The slow lorises (Nycticebus) living in Southeast Asia, are the only poisonous primate. They possess poison glands on the elbows (brachial gland), and poison their body with arms and tongue, which can also join saliva and be transmitted by bitting.

lori pigmeo, nycticebus pigmaeus,
Pygmy slow loris (Nycticebus pigmaeus). Photo by Ch’ien C. Lee

In this case the poison is used as a defense against predators, causing them pain, inflammation, necrosis (cell death) in the area of the bite, hematuria (blood in urine) or in some cases anaphylactic shock (allergic reaction) which can lead to death, even in humans (some are threatened by the illegal pet trade and traditional Chinese medicine). The poison also serves as protection for the young, they are licked by their parents and the poisonous secretion is distributed throughout the coat. Being poisonous, unusual among primates, can help counteract the disadvantages of its slow movements. Exudate from glands, as in echidnas, can also give olfactory information of range and territory between individuals of loris (Hagey et al., 2007).

Loris de Kayan (Nycticebus kayan). foto de Ch'ien C. Lee
Kayan loris (Nycticebus kayan). Photo by Ch’ien C. Lee

Toxins are polypeptides (generated when glandular secretion is mixed with saliva) and an unidentified steroid. Secretion is similar to the allergen Fel d 1 which is in the domestic cat and cause allergies in humans (Hagey et al., 2006; Krane et al., 2003).

It is believed that slow lorises even have converged evolutionarily with cobras, for his defensive behavior when threatened, whistling and raising his arms around his head. (Nekaris et. al, 2003).

Loris, cobras, evolucion, convergencia
Mimicry between loris and cobras. 1. Javan slow loris, 2 y 3. Spectacled cobra, 4. Bengal slow loris. Photo by Nekaris et. al.

In the following video a lazy lori is disturbed and hisses like a snake while trying to bite:

SOLENODON OR ALMIQUI

They are small and nocturnal mammals, basically insectivores, that live in the West Indies. The Hispaniolan solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus), also known as the Dominican solenodon, Haitian solenodon or agouta, lives on the island de La Española (Dominican Republic and Haiti) while The Cuban solenodon or almiqui (Solenodon cubanus) is distributed throughout Cuba. They are considered living fossils because they have similar characteristics to primitive mammals of the end of the Mesozoic Era (kingdom of the dinosaurs).

solenodonte de La Española (Solenodon paradoxus
Hispaniolan solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus). Photo by Eladio M. Fernández.

Unlike other poisonous mammals, toxic saliva is produced under the jaw (submandibular glands), which is transported by pipes to the front of the mouth. The second incisor teeth have a groove where toxic saliva accumulates to promote their entry into the wounds. They are the only mammals that inject venom through its teeth, similar to the way snakes do.

diente, solenodon, teeth, surco
Paradoxus Solenodon lower jaw incisor showing the groove. Photo by Phil Myers

The main function of this venom is to immobilize prey, as well as insects they can hunt small vertebrates such as reptiles, amphibians and birds.

Almiquí, Cuba, Solenodon, cubanus, Cuban giant shrew
Cuban solenodon (Solenodon cubanus). Photo by Julio Genaro.

This poison may have been developed to keep alive but immobilized prey during times of shortage, to aid in digestion, minimize energy expenditure in the struggle for hunting and face prey even twice as big as them. This venom is not deadly to humans.

SHREWS

The northern short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda), the Eurasian water shrew (Neomys fodiens) and the Mediterranean water shrew (Neomys anomalus) also have submandibular glands similar to solenodons. They are distributed by North America (northern short-tailed shrew) and Europe and Asia (water shrews), including the Iberian Peninsula.

Musaraña colicorta americana (Blarina brevicauda). Foto de Gilles Gonthier.
The northern short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda). Photo by Gilles Gonthier.

The short-tailed shrew can consume up to three times its weight in food per day. Their saliva is the most poisonous and uses it to paralyze their prey, to eat them or keep them alive in times of shortage. The water shrews also store its immobilized prey under rocks.

Musgaño (Neomys anomalus). Foto de rollin Verlinde.
Mediterranean water shrew (Neomys anomalus). Photo by Rollin Verlinde.

These animals attack from behind and bite the neck of its prey so that the poison acts more quickly, affecting the central nervous system (neurotoxins). The respiratory and vascular system is also affected and causes seizures, incoordination, paralysis and even death of small vertebrates.

Musgaño patiblanco-Neomys_fodiens, Wasserspitzmaus
Eurasian water shrew (Neomys fodiens). Photo by R. Altenkamp.

Its teeth don’t have grooves as the solenodons do, but a concave surface to store the toxic saliva.

neomys, anomalus, mandibula, dientes, veneno
Lower jaw of Neomys anomalus. Photo by António Pena.

It is suspected that other mammals also produce toxic saliva similarly, as the European mole (Talpa europaea) and other species of shrew, but there are no conclusive studies.

MANED RAT

The maned rat or crested rat (Lophiomys imhausi), lives in Africa and  uses his poisoned hair to protect themself from predators.

Rata crestada Lophiomys_imhausi, rata de crin, maned rat
Maned rat (Lophiomys imhausi). Photo by Kevin Deacon

Unlike other mammals that produce their own poison, the crested rat gets toxin (called ouabain) from the bark and roots of a tree (Acokanthera schimperi). Chews the bark and the mixture of saliva and toxins are distributed on the body. Their hairs are cylindrical whith a perforated microscopic structure, which favors the absorption of venom. In case of danger, it bristles and shows his brown coat with white stripes, warning of its potential danger. This strategy of persuasion based on brightly colored warning is known as aposematism present in many animals, such as bees.

In this BBC video you can see a crested rat and a hair under the microscope absorbing ink, showing its porous structure:

It is unknown how it is immune to the toxin, since it is the same substance used by some African tribes for hunting such large animals like elephants.

Ouabain is a glycoside which controls the heartbeat, causing infarcts if absorbed in large quantities. The study of the mechanisms that protect the crested rat of a substance that regulates the heartbeat, can help develop treatments for heart problems.

European hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) have similar behavior (smearing the body with foreign poison), but it is not established whether the objective is defensive because it does not scare away predators.

In conclusion, strategies, practices and nature of the poison in mammals are varied and their study may have important medical implications for drug development and increase awareness of the evolutionary relationships between different groups of living animals (reptiles-mammals) and their ancestors.

REFERENCIAS

MIREIA QUEROL ALL YOU NEED IS BIOLOGY

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