This Snake’s Venomous Powers Morph as It Grows Up

Snakes: Ian Macdonald / Art: Rebecca O'Connell
Snakes: Ian Macdonald / Art: Rebecca O'Connell

Our relationship to food changes as we age. Our metabolisms slow. We start carrying antacids when going out to dinner. Sometimes we’ll even intentionally eat vegetables. But our transformation has nothing on the brown snake, whose venom gradually morphs to accommodate its new eating habits. Researchers described the snake’s enviable aging process in the journal Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, Part C: Toxicology & Pharmacology.

Australian brown snakes (genus Pseudonaja) pack some of the most deadly venom in the world. As the authors of the new paper note, brown snakes are also “responsible for the majority of medically important human envenomations in Australia.” And that's saying something.

To better understand how that venom works, researchers collected samples from adult and juvenile snakes from nine known Pseudonaja species. Then they tested each venom’s effect on blood and other substances.

Eight out of the nine species showed a distinct change in venom action between the snake’s youth and adulthood. Brown snake venom is known for its anticoagulant, or blood clot–preventing, properties, which can lead to deadly strokes in small animals and internal bleeding in humans. But only the grown-ups’ venom contained anticoagulants. The babies’ toxic spit had its own power: attacking the nervous system, causing paralysis.


Juvenile (L) and adult (R) brown snakes.
Snakes: Stewart Macdonald / Art: Rebecca O'Connell

The venom’s transformation over time is not random, lead author Bryan Fry, of the University of Queensland, says, but a brilliant adaptation to the snake’s preferred diet at different stages in its life. Baby brown snakes eat tiny lizards, while adults prefer meatier—but scrappier—mammalian fare like rodents. They need a venom that knocks out their opponents fast.

"Young brown snakes may produce clinical symptoms like that of a death adder, as they seek out and paralyze sleeping lizards,” Fry said in a statement. "Once older, their venom contains toxins that cause devastating interference with blood clotting, causing rodent prey to become immobilized by stroke.”

Within the adult snakes’ venom lay another surprise. Scientists knew that brown snake venom worked by converting one blood protein into another, but other snakes do that, too, and their venom isn’t as fast-acting. Some other, hidden process, was going on, and Fry and his colleagues found it.

"Our team discovered brown snakes are potent in activating Factor VII, another blood-clotting enzyme, which is the missing (dark matter) element of brown snake envenomations,” he said. "The feedback loop created by this enzyme would become a venomous vortex and dramatically accelerate the effects upon the blood."

Reminder: It’s not that brown snakes want to be responsible for medically important human envenomations. Like sharks and bears, they’d much rather be left to go about their business. So the best thing for you, and them, is to leave them alone.

A Team of Cigarette Butt-Collecting Birds Are Keeping a French Theme Park Litter-Free

iStock
iStock

The six rooks pecking at litter within the Puy du Fou theme park in Les Epesses, France, aren't unwelcome pests: They're part of the staff. As AFP reports, the trained birds have been dispatched to clean up garbage and cigarettes butts from the park grounds.

Rooks are a member of the corvid family, a group of intelligent birds that also includes ravens and crows. At Puy du Fou, an educational amusement park with attractions inspired by various periods from French history, the rooks will flit around park, pick up any bits of litter that haven't been properly disposed of, and deliver them to a receptacle in exchange for a treat. At least that's how the system is set up to work: The full team of six rooks has only been on the job since August 13.

Employing birds as trash collectors may seem far-fetched, but the experiment has precedent. The Dutch startup Crowded Cities recently started training crows to gather cigarette butts using a vending machine-like device. Once the crows were taught to associate the rig with free peanuts, the machine was tweaked so that it only dispensed food when the crow nudged a cigarette butt resting on a ledge into the receptacle. The cigarette butts were eventually removed, and the birds figured out that they had to find the litter in the wild if they wanted to continue receiving their snacks.

Crowded Cities had planned to conduct more research on the method's effectiveness, as well as the potentially harmful effects of tobacco on crows, before bringing their vending machines to public spaces. Puy du Fou, meanwhile, has become one of the first—if not the first—businesses to fully implement the strategy on a major scale.

Even if it doesn't prove to be practical, Puy du Fou president Nicolas de Villiers told AFP that cleaning up the park is only part of the goal. He also hopes the birds will demonstrate that "nature itself can teach us to take care of the environment."

[h/t AFP]

Wasps Are Getting Drunk and Terrorizing People in England

iStock
iStock

Go home, wasps. You’re drunk.

Thousands of “boozy wasps” are terrorizing the UK after imbibing the nectar of fermented fruit and cider left behind at pub gardens, Travel + Leisure reports. Experts warn that there’s a greater risk of getting stung at this time of year, especially while boozing outdoors or eating sweet foods.

The sudden change in diet highlights an issue with the insects' food supply: Wasps typically drink a kind of sugar-spit produced by larvae, but the hive queens have already stopped laying larvae by this time of year, and wasps have been unable to get their fill. They also carry a genetic trait that makes them go crazy for sugary foods and alcohol, and other factors have escalated the problem. For one, last year's cold winter translated to an early wasp season, which allowed them to build larger-than-normal nests.

"Wasps have built absolutely massive nests and, now that all the larvae have grown up and the queen has stopped laying eggs, the colonies have a workforce with nothing to do—and nothing to eat," pest control expert Shane Jones told the Daily Mail. "So they go down to the pub, obviously."

What they really want is sugar, which can be found in fermented fruit, cider, and fruity beers. Because wasps are lightweights, just one sip will get them drunk—and you don’t want to see them when they’re tipsy. "Wasps can't handle their booze, so they get tanked-up and fighty—like lager louts,” Jones says. Alcohol can make the insects more irritable and more likely to sting people.

The best way to avoid the problem, according to Dee Ward-Thompson, technical manager at the British Pest Control Association, is to keep the sugary goodies they're craving out of sight. “Maybe the most influential factor on wasp numbers is when people do not dispose of their waste properly, especially food with a high sugar content, such as fruit," Ward-Thompson told the Nottingham Post. “We always advise waste to be securely bagged and held within a clean container, away from where young children might play.”

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios