The hooded pitohui, a small bird endemic to Papua New Guinea, is the world’s first and only scientifically confirmed poisonous bird.
The Melanesians of Papua New Guinea have long been known to steer clear of hooded pitohui, but to the western world, the bird’s venomous potential was only accidentally discovered three decades ago. In 1990, ornithologist Jack Dambacher was on a Pacific island in search of birds of paradise. He had put delicate gauze nets in between to catch the trees, and he ended up with some hooded pitohui birds in there too. When he tried to pull the birds out of the web, they scratched and bit his fingers, and he put his hands in his mouth to ease the pain. Almost immediately, Dambakar felt his lips and tongue go numb. Then they started to burn and did that for hours. Suspecting later that the bird was causing the symptoms, he took a pitohui feather and put it in his mouth. The numbness and resulting pain quickly returned. He had unwittingly discovered the world’s first poisonous bird.
Photo: Benjamin Freeman/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)
Wikipedia reports that in the same year that Jack Dumbacher made his grim discovery, scientists preparing the hooded bodies of Pitohui for museum displays experienced numbness and burning when handling them. However, most sources credit Dumbacher with discovering the bird’s venomous nature. He asked the natives of New Guinea about pitohui and they all knew about its toxicity. They called it “garbage bird” because it gave off a foul odor when cooked and was only consumed as a last resort when no other food source was available.
To learn more about pitohuis and their venom, Jack Dumbacher sent some quills to John W. Daly, the world’s leading scientist on natural toxins at the National Institutes of Health. In the 1960s he identified batracotoxin as a toxin in the poisonous dart frogs of Colombia, and fortunately he found the same family of toxins in the feathers of the hooded pitohui.
Compounds known as batrachotoxins (BTX) are neurotoxic steroid alkaloids that inhibit the flow of sodium ions through channels in nerve and muscle membranes, causing numbness and burning, and paralysis at low concentrations. , which at high concentrations is followed by cardiac arrest and death. , They are all considered to be the most toxic compounds in nature by weight (250 times more toxic than strychnine).
Later research showed that the hooded Pitohui accumulated toxins in their skin and feathers as well as their bones and internal organs, albeit in significantly lower concentrations. The fact that this poison was found in the bird’s internal system suggests that they are impervious to it. Interestingly, the concentration of batrachotoxin varies widely both from person to person and geographically.
The source of the venom in hooded pitohuis has been the subject of much debate among scientists, but the general consensus is that the birds do not produce the venom themselves, but obtain it from their diet, particularly the corsain beetle, which also contains venom. .
Why the hooded pitohui is poisonous is also not known. Some scientists believe it deters predators, but there is little evidence to support this theory. Little dart frogs need all the help they need to keep predators at bay, but a free-flying bird? Furthermore, the concentration of batracotoxin in hooded pitohuis is about three orders of magnitude lower than in poison dart frogs.
The more plausible explanation is that the venom on their skin and feathers is meant to keep the parasites away. Experiments have shown that lice tend to avoid the venomous feathers of hooded pitohui, and those that infest them live shorter lives than control lice. Batracotoxin, however, had no effect on internal parasites.
So there you have it, the next time you think of venomous animals, snakes, frogs, spiders and fish will not be the only things that come to mind. There is now a scientifically recognized poisonous bird and its name is the Pitohui Garbage Bird Hood.