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No. 115: Jan-Feb 1998

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A Strangely Selective Spider

Australia's funnel web spider is one of the world's deadliest. Before an antivenin became available, this species killed one human every four years. It is not this low death rate that impels us to mention this spider. It is because the bite of the funnel web is deadly only to insects and humans. All other mammals are said to be immune. Analysis of the venom yields the remarkable fact that it consists of 45 active compounds. One of these is specific to insect brain cells; another, to human nerve cells.

(da Silva, Wilson; "Spider Gives Kiss of Death to Pests," New Scientist, p. 23, May 17, 1997.)

Comment. Since humans are not on the funnel web's menu, it must be only a coincidence that its venom kills people so selectively. It would be nice to know if chimps, gorillas, and orangs really are immune.

A related phenomenon is seen in the venoms of cone shells. These snails are much more dangerous to humans, particularly naive shell collectors. Their venoms are extraordinarily complex and contain hundreds, perhaps thousands, of toxins. Many of these are specific to potential prey. Once again, humans are not on the menu but are included anyway.

(Concar, David; "Doctor Snail," New Scientist, p. 26, October 19, 1996.)

Comment. Both cone shells and the funnel web spider seem to possess venom factories capable of concocting wide ranges of toxins, even though some are of no practical use. Whence this amazing versatility in sophisticated chemical synthesis; how did these extraordinary glandular factories evolve?

From Science Frontiers #115, JAN-FEB 1998. 1998-2000 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