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No. 85: Jan-Feb 1993

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When a bird in the hand is worse than two in the bush

When J. Dumbacher, an ornithologist working in Papua New Guinea, scratched his hand while freeing a hooded pitohui from a collecting net, his first instinct was to suck the wound. This was a bad move, for he immediately experienced a numbing and burning in his mouth. The reason for this, it turned out, was because the skin and feathers of pitohuis are loaded with homobatrachotoxin, a type of poison. This discovery makes the pitohuis the first known poisonous birds. Like many other poisonous animals, the pitohuis also emit a foul odor and advertise their unsavory nature with bright colors. (Dumbacher, John P., et al; "Homobatrachotoxin in the Genus Pitohui: Chemical Defense in Birds?" Science, 258:799, 1992. Also: Anonymous; "Bird with a Sting in Its Tail," New Scientist, p. 10, October 31, 1992.)

Homobatrachotoxin possesses a rather complex chemical structure Comment. As we see from the diagram, homobatrachotoxin possesses a rather complex chemical structure. One wonders how the pitohuis acquired the ability to synthesize it through random mutations. The puzzle deepens when one discovers that homobatrachotoxin is also manufactured by the New World poisondart frogs. Although far-separated taxonomically, both species traveled along the same path of random mutations to achieve this evolutionary convergence.

From Science Frontiers #85, JAN-FEB 1993. 1993-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:

Quotes

  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987