Sunday, December 24, 2006

Birds and Frogs Share a Powerful Poison

The pitoui, a thrush-like bird from New Guinea, is one of the few birds that possesses any kind of chemical defence. Its feathers, skin and muscles contain a poison called homobatrachotoxin, which is also found in the arrow-poison frogs of South America, but in much higher concentrations. How these birds and frogs produce the same toxin is uncertain, but the answer may lie in their diet. Perhaps the pitohuis acquire their predator-repelling poison from the insects or berries they eat.

People living in Papua New Guinea do not eat pitohuis because they taste and smell repellent, and their flesh numbs the mouth. Scientists believe that birds of prey or snakes that seize pitohuis may also be put off by the toxins in the bird's feathers and skin, and they also spit them out.

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