9 Things You Didn’t Know About Poison

A new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History explores the weird and wonderful world of poisons. Curated by evolutionary biologist Mark Siddall, “The Power of Poison” recreates a Columbian forest filled with deadly natural toxins, delves into the history of criminal ;poisonings, and brings to life famous fictional characters to investigate the science behind mythical poisons. The exhibit, which opened Saturday and runs through August 20, 2014, ends by examining how otherwise-deadly toxins can be used in medicine.

Here are nine little-known facts about poison you can impress your relatives with over Thanksgiving dinner. Or not.

Poison Dart Frogs

Poison Dart Frogs Aren’t Inherently Toxic

That is, until you let them eat. The batrachotoxins found on the skin of the frogs are likely synthesized from the insects they eat in the wild; frogs raised in captivity often produce no detectible toxins. Similarly, three New Guinean birds produce the same batrachotoxins thanks to beetles in their diet.
Venomous Spider

Venomous And Poisonous? Not The Same

While the terms are often used interchangeably, the delivery method—not the substance—determines if something is venomous or poisonous. A venomous creature actively delivers toxins, typically with a sting, scratch, or bite. Poisonous organisms have poisonous tissue or secretions that are harmful to but not actively injected into others.

Cyanide Is Probably In Your Food

Either that, or a cyanide-producing compound. Six of the world’s 10 leading food crops, including paddy rice, wheat, sugar cane, soy beans, cassava, and maize, contain varying amounts of compounds that metabolize into cyanide. So do lima beans, almonds, barley, and many fruit seeds and pits. You might not sprout an apple tree from your gut, but watch out for cyanide poisoning.

Eating Nicotine Can Be Good For You

The tobacco plant isn’t the only source of nicotine. In fact, the defensive poison is found many plants, including some vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and cauliflower. Eating foods that contain small amounts of nicotine has even been linked to a decreased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
Snow White in casket

A Poison Apple Could Have Paralyzed Snow White

Some poisons and venoms can incapacitate humans for up to a week. After a bite of an apple poisoned with pufferfish toxins, Snow White would become paralyzed in 4 to 20 hours. It can take up to a week to fully recover from a non-lethal dose. As for true love’s restorative qualities: the jury’s still out.

You Can Build Immunity To Some Poisons

Protein toxins produced by venomous snakes and some poisonous plants can be incredibly lethal, but small and properly administered doses of these lethal toxins can activate an immune reaction. This process of inoculation produces antibodies that reduce the severity of subsequent reactions. Snake handler Bill Haast regularly injected himself with snake venoms to increase his immunity. Other poisons, such as mercury and arsenic, accumulate in tissue over time, and prolonged exposure can be lethal.
Witches around coldon

Macbeth’s Witches’ Brew Was Full Of Real Poisons

Shakespeare’s recipe calls for some grotesque-sounding ingredients like newt eyes, dog tongues, and wolf teeth. But most of these were common nicknames for poisonous plants. “Tooth of wolf” is the highly toxic monkshood, and “tongue of dog” is the carcinogenic houndstongue. Brewed with well-known poisons, such as yew, nightshade, and hemlock, the potion is loaded with aphrodisiacs, neurotoxins, anesthetics, and psychoactives. The witches likely didn’t drink it, but inhaling the concoction’s vapor could induce a powerful reaction thought to be a magical trance. A life-size model of the witches with their glowing brew is on display at AMNH.
Hercules artefacts

Chemical Weapons Are Older Than You Might Think

Humans have used poisons as weapons for more than 3,000 years. Greeks tipped arrows and spears with poisons and tainted waters with toxic plants. But Roman soldiers favored a more unconventional biological warhead. Roman forces were said to throw fragile clay pots filled with venomous snakes or scorpions at their enemies. Here, the story of Hercules defeating a ravenous centaur with a Hydra-poison-tipped arrow appears on Greek-style urns at the AMNH exhibit.

Poisons And Venoms Can Be Good For You

While some early attempts to use poisons and venoms medicinally were ill fated, and they often deserve their infamy, scientists now use many toxins for medical treatments. Gila monster saliva lowers blood sugar, some viper venoms reduce blood pressure, killer cone snail venom is a powerful pain reliever, and poison yew bark was developed into one of the first chemotherapy drugs. Many more examples of these medicinal qualities line the walls of the exhibit’s “Science for Good” section.