Museum celebrates nature's worst [BBC 2006-07-28]
[Photo] In a jar: The safest way to look at the Australian box jellyfish
Rarely have so many deadly creatures and plants been gathered together in such a confined space.
The world's toxic terrors are on display from this week at the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum in Tring.
The exhibition is showcasing the animals and plants that use poisons to defend themselves and bring down prey.
Nature's Deadliest features the hellish Australian box jellyfish, which can kill a human in minutes; and lethal plants, such as ragwort and hemlock.
"It's a lot of fun; but I have to say, having put the specimens in their cases - they're looking a bit scary," said Alice Dowswell, exhibitions curator at the Hertfordshire museum.
The show, which runs right through the summer holidays to December, explains to visitors why animals and plants have evolved the ability to use powerful toxins and how they administer them.
The exhibition is a lethal rollcall of nature's nastiest needles, spears, and fangs.
Visitors can ogle the infamous Australian box jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri, also known as the sea wasp) - safely tucked up in its preserving jar. The live creature can kill the unsuspecting swimmer in three minutes.
"Jellyfish can't chase down their prey; they rely on prey swimming past and making chance contact," explained Ms Dowswell.
"They cannot risk a fight because of their jelly-like bodies, so their toxin has to be powerful enough to act almost immediately.
"The mole viper from Africa is another fascinating one. Unlike other snakes which generally have downward-pointing fangs, this one has horizontal fangs that it can stab out sideways without even opening its mouth.
"It's very dangerous to hold because it can wriggle back and puncture your hand," she told BBC News.
Plants are well known for their poison potential. Strychnine, cyanides, pyrethrums and tannins are just a few of the 30,000 chemicals they use to avoid being eaten.
The deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna, on display in Tring has a very poisonous root, but eating the leaves or berries can also affect your heart and your breathing.
The oleander (Nerium oleander) is perhaps the most lethal plant found in the British Isles today.
"It is fairly frequently planted in coastal and southern areas; and you often see it in the swankier parts of London, planted as a street bush or garden plant," explained Dr Mark Spencer, curator of the British Herbarium at London's Natural History Museum, a sister institution to Walter Rothschild.
"It's a very common roadside Mediterranean plant - it's a big blousy thing and is absolutely lethal. One small portion of a leaf would be enough to send you off into the land of nod," he told BBC News.
Fatal fungi feature, too. The death cap mushroom is responsible for more than 50% of all cases of mushroom poisoning. And even dangerous rocks and minerals have their place in the exhibition. Eating a piece of arsenic the size of a grape would kill an adult.
But the Tring display is more than just list of nature's greatest killers; it also details how knowledge of these terrors has huge benefit for humans.
Venoms have helped scientists create powerful drugs. For example, a pharmaceutical used to treat high blood pressure is based on a chemical in the venom of a South American pit viper.
"Aspirin is an extremely useful drug and was derived originally from willow - salicylic acid comes from one of its metabolic byproducts. Salicylic is derived from the Latin for willow - salix," said Dr Spencer.
"Think of fungus and you think of penicillin. Fungi are extremely brutal competitors and penicillin is produced to beat up other fungi and bacteria that might try to get to a food source first."
The Nature's Deadliest exhibition runs at The Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum in Tring, Hertfordshire, until 3 December. Admission is free.