Surprisingly Poisonous

Hooded pitohui (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Hooded pitohui (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know that your fingers will go numb or burn if you handle this bird?  You’ll be lucky if that’s all that happens.  This bird is poisonous!

Though it superficially resembles our orchard oriole the hooded pitohui (Pitohui dichrous) is an Old World oriole that lives on the islands of New Guinea. Its skin and feathers are poisonous to touch though not as deadly as the golden poison frog of South America shown below.  Both animals exude batrachotoxin, a deadly neurotoxin that kills by paralysis and cardiac arrest.  The frog is 50 times more poisonous than the bird.  He contains enough poison to kill 10 men!

Golden poison frog, Colombia (photo from Wikimdeia Commons)
Golden poison frog, Colombia (photo from Wikimdeia Commons)

These animals are poisonous because they eat poisonous insects and yet they don’t die!


I learned this and more at The Power of Poison exhibit at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Power of Poison in the Natural World (exhibit banner from Carnegie Museum of Natural History)
Power of Poison in the Natural World (exhibit banner from Carnegie Museum of Natural History)

The exhibit explores our relationships with poison in nature including how we avoid it, work around it, use it to kill or use it to cure.  Throughout it all we are fascinated by its power.  Here are a few of the cool things you’ll see:

  • A terrarium with live golden poison frogs!  (Find out why these particular frogs are harmless.)
  • Foods we eat that are/were partly poisonous. How about cashews?
  • The real poisons behind famous literary scenes in Macbeth‘s witches’ brew, Alice in Wonderland‘s Mad Hatter, Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie.
  • What killed the Borgias’ enemies? Cleopatra? Ponce de Leon?
  • Poisons that cure cancer and treat high blood pressure.

In the end you’ll get to test your skills with solve-it-yourself poison mysteries.

Visit the Carnegie Museum’s The Power of Poison exhibit, now through September 4, and find out what’s surprisingly poisonous.

Make plans for your visit here.


p.s. By the way, poisons in nature aren’t that unusual.  We have poisonous blister beetles, jimsonweed and poison ivy in Pennsylvania, just to name a few.

(photo credits: bird and frog photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals.
‘Poisons in Nature’ banner from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

4 thoughts on “Surprisingly Poisonous

  1. Rattlesnakes are venomous, not poisonous. ^__^

    Similar meaning but the vector of the toxins are different. I did some basic googling and I don’t think there are any poisonous snakes(toxic to touch or eat).

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