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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Animal Update

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth’s Maggie Villiger reports on two toxic birds in New Guinea that give predators more than they bargained for.


VILLIGER: The people of New Guinea have known for ages that eating particular native birds can leave a bad taste in your mouth. Now scientists know why. It turns out pitohui and ifrita birds have a potent nerve toxin concentrated on their feathers and skin. The poison is gram for gram more dangerous than curare or strychnine. When predators taste these small, colorful birds, they are treated to a burning, stinging mouth. Even lice prefer not to stick around. No one's sure how these two unrelated birds produce their defensive mechanism, but it likely stems from something in their diet, maybe a berry or an insect. The pitohui and ifrita themselves seem blithely unaware of the pain they can inflict. The birds also possess some as yet mysterious protection against their own poison. That's this week's animal update. I'm Maggie Villiger.



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