Poison at the American Museum of Natural History
Back in my high school days, I had the thrill of playing one of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. “Tooth of wolf, tongue of dog,” I intoned, bending over a caldron, my pointy black hat dipping, as I stirred. This image recurred when I attended “The Power of Poison,” at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). Curator Mark Siddall, from the museum’s division of invertebrate zoology—and his talented team—brewed a great show, touching on every taxonomical category: Animal (including adorable looking orange frogs, each able to secrete enough venom to kill 10 humans); Vegetable (including a widely consumed plant Cassava — which in nature is laced with cyanide) and Mineral (including the gemstone “amethyst,” once worn to protect wearer from poison and Ammonite fossils and once thought to cure snake bites).
Wandering on, we learn about crabapple-like fruits that can cause severe swelling of the throat, making it almost impossible to breathe. We learn other amazing facts at a model of a South American plant, where its large leaves are cozy nests for ants of the genus Myrmelachista. The ants’ relationship to the plants is mutually beneficial: they protect their nests by spraying poisonous acids at nearby plants of competing species, killing them off, creating a uniform patch – colorfully called a “devil’s garden” in the forests of Peru and Ecuador.
Finally, the show turns to poisons that cure. A treacherous chemical may also become a powerful medication. For instance, a chemical found in the poisonous bark of the yew tree is effective against cancer (leading to the drug Taxol.) One component of Gila monster venom lowers the blood sugar of its victims and has been used to treat Type 2 diabetes. The venom of pit vipers has led to blood pressure drugs. Researchers are testing spider venom to treat breast cancer. It is clear the whether for good or bad, the power of poison is undeniable.#
For further information or to buy tickets visit www.amnh.org/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/the-power-of-poison.