Blue blood & green bile

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach world history. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.


I was working on an urban fantasy story years ago that featured elves, and I went pretty far down the rabbit hole on dangerous iron could be to them — including the iron in most terrestrial blood. I discovered that some animals have copper-based blood instead, and it has some neat tradeoffs that eventually inspired the winged, lactating egg-layers I talk about so much.

Fun Facts

Vaccine Base

Hemocyanin is one of the strongest known antigens. Antigens are able to stimulate strong immune responses, so hemocyanin is often harvested from horseshoe crabs to help vaccine development Compared to hemoglobin, most hemocyanins (they aren't all the same!) are inefficient at transporting oxygen — except in cold, low-oxygen environments like the bottom of the ocean. From what I can tell, this has to do with the salt concentration of the blood, at least in blue crabs like the ones in the Chesapeake.

Allergic to Blue Bloods

People who are allergic to crustaceans like crab and shrimp may actually be allergic to hemocyanin proteins. Hemocyanin is a cross-reactive allergen of crustacean, cockroach, and dust mites. Incidentally, there's still a lot we don't know about dust mite allergies — which is frustrating to me in particular because a dust mite allergy may have been responsible for me developing dermatographia, a skin condition that functions like a "pressure allergy" — scratching or rubbing my skin causes me to break out in hives, possibly due to my histamines being surrounded by unusually thin cell walls.

Colorless Blood

The ocellated icefish lives in such an ice-cold environment that neither hemoglobin nor hemocyanin is a great solution for carrying oxygen around its body. Whereas the Antarctic octopus compensates by having 40% more hemocyanin than its warm-water cousins, the ocellated icefish doesn't bother with oxygen-carriers at all. Cold water holds more oxygen than warm water, it turns out. So the icefish's blood runs clear. Its lack of scales and oversized heart help oxygen get through the body instead. They don't have the enzymes to carry carbon dioxide away, either.

Green Blood

High levels of biliverdin in the hemoglobin of Papua New Guinea's skinks turn the lizards' blood green. In humans, biliverdin gets converted into bile — too much causes jaundice. 50 micromoles per litre of blood is deadly in humans, but these lizards can handle 20x that much. This sort green blood evolved at least four separate times on the island, but scientists are still trying to figure out why it might have been useful from an evolutionary perspective.

📗 If you found this interesting, you may also this newsletter about thermoregulation methods, and how different creatures stay comfortable in extreme environments via sweaty feet, poopy legs, & deep dirt.

💚 If you learned something from this overview, consider forwarding it to a friend and encouraging them to sign up for more overviews of my research into obscure history and science.

🩸 Do you happen to know anything weird about clear, blue or green blood? Please reach out — I'd love to hear about it, either via email or in a comment where other readers can see.


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