All that glistens is not gold

Posted: October 26, 2013 in Amphibian

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Its been just about a year since I started this blog; under circumstances still somewhat mysterious to me. According to the memories, or to use a more exact phrase, testimony, of my flatmates at the time, this occurred around the time I met someone called ‘Jack Daniels’; whom one day I hope to track down and see if he can shed any light on matters.

But anyway, incredibly, it appears some people, a few of them not motivated by a mixture of fascinated horror, contempt and pity, actually do read this blog. Using the viewing figures, aided by my favourite hobby (unwarranted extrapolation of statistics) I’ve managed to work out that by this time next year my viewing figure will be approximately eleven billion people. I mention this only because a) it indicates that we’ll find another four billion or so people during the next year and b) it’ll give you lot some time to get used to this blog changing from ‘an occasionally updated blog about animals’ to ‘the centre of a terrifying cult holding all humanity in its iron grip’

We’ve already designed our new offices!

This obviously brings us on to what animals should represent this blog, and after an intensive thought process lasting literally minutes, I’ve come to the conclusion that it should be the Golden Arrow Frog, or Phyllobates terribilis for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it is a nice, golden colour. Gold is of course associated with wealth and power, and since this blog has precisely zero of either, its presence will allow us to project an image which is far beyond our actual means. In addition, having a bunch of golden frogs hopping around might fool people into thinking that our success is based on solid financial foundations, rather than a combination of bluff and jaw dropping stupidity on the part of banking regulators.

Five dozen golden frogs hopping around the lobby is worth any amount of ‘Annual Reports’ and ‘Regulatory Frameworks’.
(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Secondly, it is from Colombia, which should please some perfectly legitimate businessmen in that country that we have occasional and utterly legitimate dealings with that are of no interest to anyone.

Thirdly, its cute! Its only about five centimetres long (females tend to be slightly longer) and lives in groups. A bunch of small, golden frogs, all hopping around and playing together will bring a smile to the face of even the most cynical and suspicious detective, regulator or politician, and persuade them to drop whatever ‘investigation’ or ‘inquiry’, or ‘inquest’ they are contemplating. In addition, they also eat insects (especially ants) and other invertebrates, which should cut down on pest control costs and the amount of cleaning staff. Which is good, because the idea of having loads of people wandering around our building unsupervised and potentially getting the wrong impression from certain documents gives us the heebie-jeebies.

Would this cheeky chappie be involved in anything suspect? (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 

Fourthly, its brave! This blog is brave, in that we are utterly unafraid to reveal the flaws of our opponents if there is no risk to us. In the same way, these frogs were observed to hop around cheerfully, and to never attempt to hide away from potential predators.

Therefore, I think it is obvious that these frogs are more than perfect to be the mascot of Horrific Animals of the World. Now, there are several drawbacks, I admit. The first, and indeed only one is the fact that it is slightly toxic, and by ‘slightly toxic’ I mean ‘extremely, incredibly, amazingly toxic, seriously-you-would-not-believe-how-toxic-this-very-small-frog-actually-is’; in fact there is some argument for suggesting that this frog might be the most toxic animal in the entire world. This is because their skin contains the alkaloid toxins batrachtoxins. Each frog has around 1-2mg of this toxin in its skin, which we admit it 1-2mg far, far too much. These toxins bind to sodium channels in cell membranes; which results in the nervous system becoming paralysed (since sending action potentials requires the cells to become polarised and then depolarised) (Dumbacher et al 2004). This results in heart failure, gagging, drooling and convulsions and probably death.

To kill one mouse requires around 0.05 micrograms of this toxin. To put this in perspective, one microgram is equivalent to one millionth of a gram, which is obviously such a small amount you can’t actually imagine it. Assuming each frog contains just a miligram of toxin, this is enough to kill 20,000 mice. So, on the plus side they could be quite useful in controlling the plague of mice our offices will undoubtedly suffer from, but on the minus side it does equate to each frog carrying enough toxin to kill many, many people. The toxin is also rather persistent; the researchers who originally described the frog report accidentally killing a dog by letting it sniff around on garbage on which gloves and bags used to handle the frog had been discarded.

(Boring bit here. Ed.) (Actual comparisons are hard; as a) it is unrealistic to just scale up toxicity (in terms of lethal dose per gram of tissue) from mice to man, and secondly the toxic dose varies enormously depending on whether the toxin is ingested, absorbed through the skin or injected; my own very rough calculations figure that one frog would kill (at the extreme high end) around fifty people if the toxin was injected, or around five if it was injected. These warnings apply to pretty much every attempt to work out the lethal dose of a toxin, whatever it is. The fact remains, however, that these frogs are extravagantly toxic, even compared to other poison dart frogs.

Now, the interesting thing about these frogs, aside from the fact that some depraved individuals feel that they might be a suitable mascot for their blogs, is that the frogs might not actually produce the toxins themselves. The researchers who first described the frog saw that the frog’s toxicity slowly decreased over time. This was originally put down to stress, but slowly it became apparent that this was not the case as frogs born in captivity did not contain these toxins. Instead, it is thought that the frogs somehow gain the toxins from their environment. Curiously, some birds from nearby New Guinea (from the genus Pitohui, as well as the species Ifrita Kowaldi), also have these exact same toxins in their own skin and feathers. In 2004, these same toxins were found in Choresine beetles, which is presumably where both the frogs and the birds get their toxins from; meaning that in some ways these beetles have the most useless counter-predator device ever evolved.

 

Besides, who ever heard of having a beetle as a mascot? We’ll stick with our cute, lovable, happy-go-lucky, plucky and extravagantly lethal frogs, thank you.

 

(You’ll notice there weren’t any references in this; but three sources I found very useful were a) the original paper describing Phyllobates terribilis (Myers, Daly and Malkin 1978), the paper describing the toxin also being found in birds (Dumbacher, Spande and Daly 2000), and the paper describing the source of the toxin, which also has some useful background (Dumbacher et al 2004).

The first paper in paticular is very useful, containing both everything you could ever hope to know about this frog, and the immortal line “such observations persuaded us against tasting secretions from…P. terribilis, since there seems a distinct possibility that respiratory difficulties might be encountered.”).

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