Pick up the wrong seashell on the ocean floor or accidentally brush up against an expertly camouflaged caterpillar and, unfortunately, you’ll be dead within minutes. Beautiful bright yellow frogs measuring just a few centimetres long pack enough poison in their skin to kill 10 adult humans, and one species of ordinary-looking bugs ‘kisses’ its human victims by sucking blood from near their mouths, passing on a fatal disease in the process. These unlikely assassins may look sweet, but each of them harbours a deadly secret.
The assassin bug is a quadruple whammy of deadly characteristics, starting with the fact that the paralysing venom it injects into its victims dissolves them from the inside out. It then starts sucking these bodily fluids back up through its beak, sometimes while the victim is still alive. While this particularly unfortunate end can only happen to the sorts of insects the assassin bug likes to eat once it reaches adulthood, it has some terrifying tricks up its sleeve for humans too.
In its nymph stage of life, the insect is known for sucking the blood of vertebrates, and one particular subspecies known as the kissing bug often chooses to latch on near a human’s eyes or mouth. That’s bad enough on its own, but this ‘kiss’ can pass on a parasitic disease called Chagas, which kills roughly 20,000 people worldwide every year. Some varieties of adult assassin bug actually wear their victims’ corpses on their heads like war trophies as visual and olfactory camouflage.
Golden Poison Dart Frog
Just one wild golden poison dart frog has enough deadly toxins in its tiny little body to kill 10 grown men, and a few drops can cause respiratory paralysis, seizures and death within minutes. The frog harbours batrachotoxin just under its skin and sweats it out when it’s agitated. Hunters in the Colombian rainforests where it’s found took advantage of this by trapping the frogs, provoking them and then applying the poison to the tips of their spears. Other subspecies of wild poison frogs don’t pack quite the same punch, but can still be deadly to humans, producing other forms of powerful alkaloid toxins. The general rule is: the brighter the frog’s colouring, the more poisonous it’s likely to be.
This little snail doesn’t look like much, and you probably wouldn’t think twice about it if you glimpsed it on the ocean floor. But step on or handle one of the larger fish-eating varieties, like the Conus geographus, and you could be paralysed before you know what hit you. The slow-moving gastropod evolved this ability to ensure that its underwater prey can’t just flit away after being stung by its harpoon-like tooth, which delivers a potentially fatal combination of hundreds of toxins. This tooth can even penetrate wetsuits and gloves, leading to dozens of recorded human fatalities. But once stung a human victim isn’t likely to feel much as, in an act of a small mercy, the venom also contains an analgesic component so powerful it’s now being adapted for use as a painkiller.
Birds aren’t exactly among the usual suspects when we’re making lists of venomous or poisonous creatures, but there’s at least one notable exception. Touch the vivid orange and black feathers of the hooded pitohui of New Guinea with your bare hand, and within minutes it’ll start tingling before going completely numb. That’s because it secretes the same neurotoxins employed by poison dart frogs from its skin, which may help protect it from predators and parasites. Scientists believe it doesn’t manufacture this poison itself, but rather gets it from a diet of Choresine beetles.
This little guy has an endearingly adorable face, but don’t let it fool you. The pufferfish contains a toxin 1,200 times more deadly than cyanide, and a single fish has enough poison to kill 30 people. That doesn’t stop people from consuming the few parts of its body that aren’t deadly. Chefs must train for two years to clean, cut and cook ‘fugu’, a risky Japanese delicacy that’s in demand for the pleasant tingling a diner feels when they’re exposed to minute amounts of the toxin. But if the organs and skin aren’t removed cleanly enough, the poison goes to work, causing numbness, a loss of muscle control, vomiting and diarrhea before paralysing the respiratory system and finally hitting the brain. The pufferfish attempts to avoid both its own death and that of its potential predators by blowing up like a beachball when it’s threatened.
Spines like these on any insect are an explicit warning not to touch, but if you ignore it with the assassin caterpillar you might just find yourself on the receiving end of a deadly dose of poison. Unfortunately, most of its human victims never even see it thanks to its camouflage. The Lonomia obliqua caterpillar lives in the rainforests of South America and blends in perfectly with its natural environment. When it punctures skin with its spines it injects a powerful anticoagulant venom that causes severe internal bleeding, renal failure and hemolysis, all within a few minutes.