7 Surprising Ways Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You


It's no secret that a lot of things in nature want to kill you. You're surely familiar with some of Mother Nature's more aggressive weapons: the cobra, the black widow, the volcano, the bright red toadstools. But what about the more subtle, rarer methods of execution? Death disguised in pretty rocks, beans, and beautiful sea creatures? Here are seven lesser-known natural assassins that may be lurking in your life.

1. On your patio: the castor bean plant

These plants are popular patio decorations in warmer regions of America. It's a beautiful plant during all stages of its bloom, at the end of which the bean (actually a seed) becomes a vibrant prickly flower. The real name of the castor bean plant is Ricinus communis. And its seeds are where the deadly poison ricin comes from. A lethal dose for humans is four to six seeds, which, unless treated, brings on a very slow and painful death (burning sensation in mouth and throat, abdominal pain, purging, and bloody diarrhea).

2. In your rock collection: Hutchinsonite

If hell were made up of one particular rock, it would probably be Hutchinsonite. Discovered by Arthur Hutchinson in 1904, Hutchinsonite is a mixture of sulphur, thallium, lead, and arsenic. Three of those four minerals are lethal to humans, and the fourth one, sulphur, isn't terribly pleasant either. Mindat, the largest mineral database on the internet, warns emphatically, "Avoid inhaling dust when handling or breaking. Never lick or ingest."

3. While on a tropical vacation: blue-ringed octopus

The blue-ringed octopus is just the sort of hallucinogenic beauty a scuba diver would hope to discover while exploring coral reefs off the coast of Australia. The tiny octopus (5 to 8 inches) actually looks quite plain until it is agitated, at which point it will become bright yellow with brilliant blue rings. It then begins to bite, producing a neurotoxic venom for which there is no anti-venom. Each octopus carries enough venom to kill 26 humans. The bites are tiny, and sometimes a diver might not even know he was bitten... until his heart stops and his lungs are paralyzed.

4. In your organic foods: hemlock

The poison hemlock family of plants includes some clever little killers. Hemlock has mastered the art of disguise. It is one of many wild "carrot" plants, most of which are harmless and often edible. It looks a lot like the harmless Queen Anne's lace, but hemlock will paralyze your respiratory muscles and kill you from lack of oxygen. Would you bet your life on which is which?

5. In the dirt: Coccidioides

In certain parts of southwestern America, even the dirt is trying to kill you. Well, not actually the dirt, but a fungus, called Coccidioides immitus, that lives in the dirt. This fungus is easily kicked up and made airborne, from construction, farming, wind, and earthquakes. When inhaled, the fungus produces an illness called cocci, or "valley fever." The good news is only about 5 percent of people infected with cocci actually develop the disease. But it can get ugly when they do. Without treatment, cocci can spread throughout the body, devouring everything it touches. It can cause skin ulcers, abscesses, bone lesions, severely swollen joints, heart inflammation, urinary tract problems, and meningitis, which can lead to death.

6. In your fish tank: palytoxin

Zoanthids are tiny little marine animals that like to live on coral and rocks. They live comfortably in some home aquariums and occasionally accumulate in seafood as well. And they are absolutely teeming with palytoxin, one of the more deadly poisons known to man. Should a person eat seafood that has ingested too many zoanthids, scrape an open wound across a zoanthid, or, as in one peculiar case, inhale palytoxin while trying to clean their aquarium, horrible things can happen. He will experience rhabdomyolysis. This means his skeletal muscles break down and the content of his cells will leak into the blood. The body begins, quite quickly, to suffer nearly every imaginable effect of poisoning, from kidney failure to prickling, burning skin. The cause behind most palytoxin death is heart failure.

7. On your hot springs vacation: hydrogen sulfide

Some people call it sewer gas; some just call it stink damp. When organic material decomposes (in sewers, swamps, or natural fertilizers) under the right conditions, it can produce a lethal gas called hydrogen sulfide. It is also produced when some sulfide minerals (like those lining the walls of natural wells and springs) are mixed with water. When this gas is released into the air, it can kill a person before he draws in his second breath of it. Even the natural warning, the rotten egg smell of sulphur, can't be counted on as hydrogen sulfide deadens the sense of smell. Not to mention it is also corrosive, flammable, and highly explosive. The good news is low exposure does little harm. The bad news is high exposure can come with little warning.

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Joe Raedle, Getty Images
Why Scientists Are Hunting Down Iguanas in Florida
Joe Raedle, Getty Images
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

In South Florida, iguanas had better watch their backs. That's because scientists are on an unusual hunt to kill them, with the help of captive bolt guns and a $63,000 research grant, according to the Sun Sentinel.

It's not as cruel as it might seem at first glance. The green iguana, native to Central and South America, is an invasive species in Florida. The large lizards—which can grow up to 6 feet long—first made it to Florida in the 1960s, and as their population has exploded, they have expanded farther north. The reptiles damage roads, sidewalks, sea walls, and flood-control canals with their burrows; chomp their way through landscaping; spread Salmonella, largely by pooping in people's backyard pools; and compete with the endangered Miami blue butterfly for precious food resources.

The population boom has caused an uptick in complaints from residents, Florida Fish and Wildlife's Sarah Funck told the Sun Sentinel in 2017, pushing the state to find new strategies to deal with the reptiles. One approach? Hire scientists to hunt them down and kill them.

As part of the Florida Fish and Wildlife research project, 15 University of Florida biologists have been tasked with executing as many iguanas as possible in Broward County (home to Fort Lauderdale and parts of the Miami metropolitan area), setting out in teams of two at night. Armed with flashlights and captive bolt guns—which are often used on animals in slaughterhouses and are considered a humane way of killing an animal instantly and painlessly—the researchers attempt to sneak up on sleeping lizards and shoot them before they can scurry away. They also sometimes dispatch the iguanas by smashing their heads against a hard surface, including the side of a truck or a boat.

They've exterminated 249 lizards so far. They take the dead animals back to the lab to be weighed and measured for their dataset, then deposit the carcasses in a landfill. The iguana killing spree is expected to last into May.

While they have tried trapping the iguanas in county parks, they haven't succeeded in capturing any with that method.

As part of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's iguana-eradicating efforts, the agency has also been hosting public workshops on how to deter and trap iguanas and has hired a dedicated trapper to control populations on public lands in the Florida Keys. 

[h/t Sun Sentinel]

©AMNH/R. Mickens
7 Technologies That Are Revolutionizing Ocean Exploration
©AMNH/R. Mickens
©AMNH/R. Mickens

The Earth is an ocean planet—more than 70 percent of the surface is covered by seawater. But despite being such an essential part of life, the deepest parts of the world's oceans are still largely unexplored. According to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, merely 10 to 15 percent of the seafloor has been mapped with accuracy, which means we know less about the seafloor than the surface of Mars.

But the state of sea exploration is changing fast. The dark, high-pressure conditions of the ocean depths that once made research there impossible are now being explored with cutting-edge technology. That new tech and the discoveries to come from it are the focus of a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History called Unseen Oceans. As museum curator John Sparks said at a press preview, the goal of the exhibition is to show visitors "how little we know, and to tell them how much we're learning so rapidly with technology."

Here are some of the technologies featured in the exhibition, which opens March 12.


One of the biggest recent discoveries made in the field of deep ocean exploration is the proliferation of biofluorescence in the darkest parts of the sea. Realms that look pitch black to human eyes are actually filled with more than 250 species of fish glowing in red, orange, and green hues. One of these species is the catshark, which fluoresces green in the dim blue light that reaches the sea floor. To detect this effect, researchers built a camera that filters out certain wavelengths of light like the shark's eye does. (This is how the sharks see each other in the darkness.) Combined with artificial blue light to enhance the fluorescent color, this equipment allows scientists to record the light show.


Listening to whales vocalize tells us a lot about the way they live and interact, but this is difficult to do when a species spends most of its time in the deep ocean. In order to eavesdrop on beaked whales, scientists needed to fit sophisticated acoustic equipment into a submersible built to explore high-pressure environments. Enter the Deep Ocean REMUS Echosounder, or DOR-E. (REMUS stands for "Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS.") Developed by marine scientist Kelly Benoit-Bird and her team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, the autonomous underwater vehicle can reach depths up to 1970 feet and has enough battery life to record a day's worth of deep-sea audio. The device was named for Finding Nemo's Dory because it "speaks whale," according to Unseen Oceans.


Family looking at museum exhibit
©AMNH/D. Finnin

Collecting specimens at the bottom of the ocean isn't as simple as collecting them on land; researchers can't just step out of their submersible to pick up a mollusk from the seabed. The only way to retrieve a sample at such depths is with a machine. When these machines are designed to be bulky and rigid to withstand the intense water pressure around them, they can end up crushing the specimen before scientists have the chance to study it. So-called soft grippers are a clever alternative. Memory foam evenly distributes the force around the creature being handled, and Kevlar lace keeps the fingers from spreading when they inflate with water. Even with its squishy construction, the mechanism is sturdy enough to work at depths reaching 1000 feet.


A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) can explore the tight, crushing pockets of the ocean that human divers can't reach. This technology is often costly and limited to research teams with big budgets. A new company called OpenROV aims to make underwater drones more accessible to everyday explorers. Their signature ROV, Trident, starts at just $1500.


Topography exhibit in museum.
©AMNH/D. Finnin

Sometimes the easiest way for scientists to get a view of the bottom of the ocean is by sending equipment to space. Satellites in orbit can estimate measurements of the peaks and valleys shaping the seabed by beaming radar pulses towards Earth and calculating the time it takes for them to bounce back. While this method doesn't provide a terribly accurate map of the ocean floor, it can be used to gauge depths in even the most remote areas.


Autonomous undersea robots come in all shapes and sizes. Mini-autonomous underwater explorers, or m-AUEs, developed by Scripps oceanographer Jules Jaffe are meant to be deployed in large groups or "swarms." The grapefruit-sized devices act like plankton, bobbing at a constant depth in the ocean and measuring factors like water temperature. By studying the underwater explorers, scientists hope to better understand how plankton, major contributors of the Earth's oxygen, thrive and travel through the sea.


Kids looking at museum exhibit.
©AMNH/R. Mickens

This technology is so new, it hasn't hit the water yet. Once it's ocean-ready, researchers plan to attach the miniature suction cups to the bells of jellies. The device automatically measures a jelly's movements and ocean chemistry as the animal swims around. Eventually the jelly regenerates the top layer of its bell, shedding the tag and moving on unharmed. Once detached, the tag floats to the water's surface where it alerts scientists to its location via a VHF antenna and green reflective tape.


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