As a graduate student in the early 1990s, ornithologist Jack Dumbacher performed the almost obligatory trek to New Guinea to study the island's legendary birds-of-paradise. It was there, in the country's lush, dense rainforest that he unwittingly discovered the world's first known poisonous bird.
Dumbacher and his compatriots had placed mist nets up in the forest in order to capture and study the native flying fauna. One day, extracting birds from these nets, he was handling a number of hooded pitohuis, songbirds with black and orange plumage. Frazzled by their temporary captivity, the birds bit and scratched wildly as they were being released from their tethered confines.
"The cuts really stung, but we had so many nets to [deal with] we didn't have time to stop and put band-aids on our cuts," Dumbacher recalled, "so we popped our fingers in our mouth and ran off to the next net."
But the researchers quickly started to feel funny.
"Our mouths began to tingle, burn, and even go numb. The sensation lasted for several hours," Dumbacher remembered.
Dumbacher and his colleagues had inadvertently ingested a pernicious neurotoxin called batrachotoxin. When consumed, the toxin adversely interacts with nerve cells by keeping their voltage-gated sodium channels open. This means that muscle and brain cells can't generate an ion potential and fire like they're supposed to. In low doses, the toxin merely renders nerves and muscles inoperable, but in higher doses, it can actually cause paralysis and inhibit one's ability to breathe, potentially resulting in death.
But where did such a perilous toxin come from? Dumbacher had a theory, and after querying the indigenous people, his suspicions were confirmed: It was those darn pitohuis!
It wasn't until 2004 that Dumbacher, now a curator at the California Academy of Sciences, would discern how the pitohuis acquired their toxicity. As it turned out, the birds imbibe batrachotoxin from consuming a certain type of beetle. The birds are naturally resistant to the toxin, and as it accumulates in their bodies, it suffuses throughout their skin and feathers. Simple touch can transmit the possibly fatal poison.
Make no mistake, pitohuis aren't birds you want for pets. They may, however, have potential as cloak-and-dagger murder weapons in a television crime drama.