Poisonous Birds and Papa New Guinea
Here is a fascinating lecture by Jack Dumbacher from the California Academy of Sciences in which he talks about his expeditions to Papua New Guinea to research tropical birds and their diseases including poisonous birds.
This first video is a segment from the full video. Here Jack Dumbacher talks about the first scientifically confirmed poisonous birds, especially the pitohui.
Phyllobates terribilis or commonly refered to as the Golden Dart Frog contains exactly the same poison as the Variable Pitohui or the Hooded Pitohui birds in Papa New Guinea. The poison is know as batrachotoxin.
Jack Dumbacher describes the toxin:
Wow! Jack explains just how potent and how much these birds contain:
Just 0.05 micrograms of batrachotoxins if injected subcutaneously into a mouse will kill it within a minute. Every gram of muscle tissue has about 100 times that. Enough to kill 100 mice. That is certainly tells us that these birds are somehow insensitive to the toxin, that the toxin is not poisoning them.
Jack believes that the birds could possibly be using it as some sort of chemical defense:
The highest concentrations of the toxins are found on the outside of the bird. If you want to use these toxin as chemical defense you don’t want to put them in your heart because your predator is going to have to kill you before he founds out that your poisonous. You want them on the outside of you body, in your feathers or skin where your predator will readily encounter them and can react accordingly, ie let you go.
Jack describes what just one feather can do. Now, I’m not sure who who he talked into doing this!
Again just to put this into perspective, if you take just a single feather from a Hooded Pitohui and you pop it on your tongue, pretty quickly within a minute or two you begin to get this tingling and burning sensation and continues to increase in severity for quite sometime. In some of the more toxic birds, this can last for several hours or even over night. Its pretty poisonous stuff and that’s just one feather.
Now the video above is just a few minutes from the entire lecture that is below. The full lecture is just under an hour, but contains some really interesting stuff and in my opinion really worth the time.
In it Jack describes a few different expeditions to Papa New Guinea. He describes the island and gives us an idea of the immense amount of biodiversity through wonderful photos of birds that are found there.
In the photo above is the world’s smallest parrot called the Yellow-capped Pygmy Parrot. You can really get an idea of the bird’s size when compared to the thumb in the photo. This bird is one of the birds found on Papa New Guniea.
About 50% of the bird species on Papa New Guinea are found no where else in the world which also includes roughly 40 different birds of paradise!
Jack describes New Guinea’s bird diversity:
About 9% of the world bird species can found on New Guinea and yet the land mass of New Guinea is less then 1% of the earth’s terrestrial surface. So it’s very diverse compared to its size.
He discusses the expedition that was sponsored by the BBC and ended up as a documentary called Lost Land of the Volcano which was broadcast on the BBC in 2009. I really enjoyed seeing where they lived during the whole process.
I honestly found the entire lecture just fascinating. Especially seeing all the different birds and everything that goes into learning about them. The people put in so much hard work no matter what the weather is like or the living conditions. Despite all of this, they ended up taking back hundreds and hundreds of samples of to do further testing on. Jack even gives us a simplified explanation of what some of this testing is.
Maybe one day I can tag along and document the incredible work the biologists do while they document all the wonderful birds!
Definitely worth a watch! Let us know what you think in the comments!