Mushrooms and Puffers and Peas, Oh my!
You may be starving out there in the wilderness, but do yourself a favor and keep these poisonous things off the menu.
As I discussed in podcast episode 20, “Everything Out West Wants to Hurt Me”, I’m very aware that nature can be cruel. Living things often come with a defense mechanism, whether you’re a tree, bug, animal, or mother nature herself.
While some things may scratch you, make you sneeze, or leave an itchy bite, other things could quickly end your life. Below are eleven examples of things that I was unaware of – until now, anyway – that could send a person to the hospital or worse yet, their doom.
From the Ground Up
These things grow from the soil and pack an awful punch if touched or ingested.
1. Manchineel Tree
Native to Florida (endangered), the Caribbean, the Bahamas, Mexico, Central America, and northern South America.
Each part of the tree offers strong toxins. The Manchineel tree’s sap contains phorbol which can cause allergic contact dermatitis.
If you happen to be standing beneath a Manchineel during a rain storm, the rain will cause blistering of the skin when exposed. Burning the tree will produce toxic smoke. The fruit, which is said to be sweet at first could be fatal if eaten. Your throat will tighten almost instantly and the symptoms will continue to worsen.
In many regions the trunks of the trees are painted red as a warning to steer clear.
2. Water Hemlock
Native to the western United States.
According to WebMD, “All plant parts are poisonous and can cause death in as little as 15 minutes. Even applying water hemlock to your skin can cause death. The first symptoms of water hemlock poisoning are drooling, nausea, vomiting, wheezing, sweating, dizziness, stomach pain, flushing, weakness/tiredness (lethargy), delirium, and uncontrollable bowel movements. These are followed by more serious symptoms including trouble breathing, convulsions, heart problems, kidney failure, coma, and death.”
Some children have died after just using hollow water hemlock stems as peashooters, flutes, or whistles; or rubbing the plant on their skin.”
Water Hemlock don’t play.
3. Rosary Pea
Native to Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Pacific region. More recently it has been found in Florida (where it is considered an invasive species) and Hawaii.
The undisturbed shells of a Rosary Pea are commonly used in ornamental bracelets, jewelry, and children’s toys made outside of the US. Holding one is fine but if the shell is broken, a toxin known as abrin is released. Symptoms from abrin exposure typically begin within a few hours and include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and “diarrhea that can worsen and become bloody.”
Some patients might also experience fast heart rate, headache, hallucinations, lethargy, seizures, fever, and organ failure.
There is no antidote for abrin poisoning.
4. Death Cap Mushroom
Native to Europe and North American coastal states.
Death cap mushrooms live up to their name. The toxins found in death caps cause 90% of mushroom poisoning deaths worldwide. Whether ingested raw or cooked, you can expect a rough ride. Within hours of eating just a portion of the poisonous cap, you may experience nausea and vomiting, bloody diarrhea or urine, extreme abdominal pain, and fever.
After 12 – 24 hours you might begin to feel better but the toxins in the mushroom are working on damaging your liver and kidneys. The following few days your liver and kidneys will shut down completely and what follows, if untreated, is jaundice, low blood sugar, delirium and maybe… probably… death.
Under the Sea
Going for a dip in the lake or the ocean? Keep your eyes peeled for any of these fun surprises.
Native to oceans worldwide.
According to the Tokyo Bureau of Public Health, “Pufferfish toxin causes paralysis, resulting in difficulty breathing. There is no specific medication for treating pufferfish toxin and pufferfish toxin is characterized by its extremely high fatality rate.”
Pufferfish are gentle creatures. They aren’t looking to sting or bite you. Touching them, however, is not a great idea. Pufferfish secrete lethal toxins from their bodies. There is enough poison in one pufferfish to kill 30 adult humans.
In Japan the pufferfish is an expensive delicacy. If prepared correctly by a trained, licensed chef if can be safe and delicious to eat. But how do you know for sure? I’ll let you take the first bite.
6. Comb Star
Native to the Indo-Pacific region
These little starfish friends contain tetrodotoxin, a potent neurotoxin that will lead to paralysis and death due to respiratory failure. In every gram of a comb star’s flesh there is enough toxin to kill 520 mice.
As of the posting of this article, there is no known antidote for tetrodotoxin poisoning.
Native to… water.
When a large group of these microscopic bacteria get together, the result is algal blooms. What is a bloom, you ask?
Blooms occur when colonies of algae or cyanobacteria grow out of control. This mass can be quite toxic or harmful to people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds. In some cases, swimming with the cyanobacteria has led to debilitating injuries or even death.
Google the words ‘algal bloom’ and you’ll see that lakes are frequently being closed off to visitors. Lake Marian in Florida is the latest example.
In the Air
Even some winged creatures carry a poison punch.
8. Hooded Pitohui
Native to New Guinea.
According to Wikipedia, “In 1990 scientists preparing the skins of the hooded pitohui for museum collections experienced numbness and burning when handling them.” Scientists realized shortly after that the Hooded Pitohui contained the same neurotoxins as Colombian poison dart frogs.
The Hooded Pitohui bird became the first documented poisonous bird.
The Hooded Pitohui dines on choresine beetle which are believed to be the source of the neurotoxin. The result is what’s known as batrachotoxin, which can cause symptoms of itching, burning, watery eyes, and numbness. If you played around with one of these birds long enough, or tried to eat one, the toxin can cause paralysis and even death when contacted in large quantities.
9. Spanish Fly
Native to Eurasia, though mainly a southern European species.
The Spanish Fly is a member of the blister beetle family which is known for its defensive secretion of cantharidin, a blistering agent. Throughout history, cantharidin was used as an exfoliating agent, anti-rheumatic drug, as well as the world famous aphrodisiac. In North Africa, parts of the beetle are used in some spice mixes.
All of these uses can be traced to deaths.
The poison is released orally from males and also seeps from different joints in the body. In small doses, it can cause skin irritation, blistering, bleeding, and discomfort. In some cases, things will get so bad inside your body that you may experience severe gastrointestinal bleeding and acute tubular necrosis. The end results could be organ failure and death.
Four Limbed Friends
You also have to watch out for the things that scurry and hop.
10. Poison Dart Frog
Native to Central and South America.
Like the aforementioned Hooded Pitohui, some species of poison dart frog carry batrachotoxins.
The frog gets its name from various native people of Colombia that cover their blowgun darts in the toxic secretions of the frog. This method is effective because the toxin is directly administered into an animal’s bloodstream.
While many poison frog species are known to be toxic, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are deadly. The poison that comes from their skin, when touched, can cause swelling, nausea, and paralysis. If you happen to come across the wrong species of poison frog, however, you might be in more trouble.
The golden poison dart frog is said to carry enough poison to kill upwards of ten grown men. It is widely considered to be the most poisonous creature on earth.
11. Rough-Skinned Newt
Native to the Pacific coast of North America from southern California to southeastern Alaska.
I was going to end the list at ten but as I was working on the article my daughter told me about this tiny amphibian that she was learning about in her science class.
Although most newts produce toxins from their skin glands as a predatory defense mechanism, the toxins within rough-skinned newts are particularly potent. You’ll know one is near by the acrid smell that radiates from the newt. In 1979, a 29-year-old man died from ingesting one of these little fellas. Typically touching one will cause skin irritation that can be transferred to your eyes or mouth if you don’t wash your hands immediately after.
Rough-skinned newts are friendly by nature, but if they are made nervous enough, the toxin that the rough-skinned newt produces has the ability to paralyze or kill a human.