Harvesting defensive help & harmless paralytics

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach pre-teens about ancient civilizations. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.


I haven't done a lot with toxins in my stories, although I literally have a story titled Poison. It's a brief little wish-fulfillment piece about a woman who poisons a boorish patron. I haven't done more mostly because it's not a subject I know much about. This week, I decided to rectify my lack of knowledge.

Quick Facts

  • Poison arrowheads were developed in the Niger-Congo region sometime between 16,000 BCE and 9000 BCE.
  • Pufferfish emit one of the world's deadliest toxins when threatened, so teenaged dolphins (dolphins are jerks) pass them around to get high.
  • There exists a plant known as sandbog death camas that is particularly problematic for sheep and cattle but has killed humans before.
  • Paraquat weed killer is one of the most popular modern poisons.
  • Hooded pitohui are one of the few toxic birds. Their feathers have the same painful batrachotoxins as poison dart frog skin, which come from small melyrid beetles.

Contact Killer

Poisoned clothing is a common motif in history & myth. In Greek myth, Medea poisoned a rival's wedding dress and Hercules was killed by a poisoned shirt. In Indian history, ornamental robes were sometimes poisoned before being given as gifts. It's still used as an assassination method today, but contact poisons are used by regular people to kill their husbands too.

Toxic Fur

African crested rats chew on the bark of the aptly-named poison arrow tree, which mixes the toxin in with their saliva. They then lick special hairs on their flanks, which gives them a nifty defense against attacks. Their stomachs have four chambers and dense gut bacteria, so they don't get sick from the toxins themselves ā€” but animals like dogs can die from putting the fur in their mouths.

Cosmetic Microdosing

Pure Botox is the most valuable substance on earth per gram. It is made from the world's deadliest thing: botulism. Botulism spores are basically everywhere and are mostly harmless ā€” but the bacteria they can produce under the right conditions create deadly neurotoxins which, when eaten in even tiny amounts, paralyze you. Fewer than half the people who ingest botulism survive, which nearly killed the canning industry.

Venomous Relationships

Pygmy slow lorises, which are native to Vietnam, are the only venomous primate. They're one of only five venomous mammals. What's neat is that they are herbivores, and don't seem to use the venom for defense. They mostly only attack each other with it; they're extremely territorial. Lorises are weird in other ways, too; they're one of the few hibernating primates.

šŸ“— ICYMI: If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy my previous newsletters about metals that aren't & other edge cases.

šŸ’š If you learned something from this overview, consider forwarding it to a friend and encouraging them to sign up for more research deep dives into obscure history and science.

šŸ‡ Do you have a favorite story (fictional or real) involving toxins or unusual poisoning methods? Please reach out ā€” I'd love to hear about it, either via email or in a comment where other readers can see.


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