Slate’s animal blog.

Aug. 30 2014 9:15 AM

What Happens When You Raise Walking Fish Entirely on Land?

Native to freshwater African riverbanks, bichirs are famous for their strong fins and lungs, allowing them to “walk” and breathe out of water. But the serpentine fish prefer aquatic habitats, and tend only to travel on land when they must.

For a new study published in Nature, researchers from the University of Ottawa and McGill University decided to find out what would happen if they raised bichirs entirely in terrestrial environments for eight months. They hoped to learn more about the transition of sea animals to land some 400 million years ago, an evolutionary turning point that bichirs may be uniquely poised to help us understand.

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The team was surprised to find that the fish not only survived, but seemed to adapt and thrive in their new homes. As explored in the Nature-produced video above, the land-dwelling bichirs provided an exciting snapshot of a crucial moment in the evolutionary record.

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Aug. 29 2014 2:42 PM

A Normal Lion Cub, and Another Normal Lion Cub, and a White Lion Cub

I'm of the opinion that there is nothing cuter than a lion cub. Those little bundles of apex predator are the most adorable things on the planet, and if I were to raise one as my own at some point—with that relationship culminating in a Christian-esque reunion and lion hug, obviously—I would die a happy man.

Well, it turns out I was wrong. There is something cuter than a lion cub—a white lion cub.

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In the video above, you can watch the Johannesburg Zoo's three new lion clubs—Sabi, Jubba, and Letaba, born with a rare white coat—acclimate to their new home. The four month-old cubs are triplets, and had been in quarantine at the zoo since July.

The white furred Letaba is, as mentioned, freakishly adorable, but if you need more reason to fall in love with the little guy, here's the woman responsible for managing the zoo's lions (and other big cats), Agnes Maluleke: "The white one is a leader and he is very playful, but he plays very rough, because he is actually thinking that we are all lions and we have fur to protect our skin. So you need to be very careful around them."

Such a little rascal, that Letaba. As long as he's cool with lounging in a first-floor apartment in Brooklyn for the foreseeable future, he's welcome in my pride anytime.

Aug. 27 2014 1:22 PM

The Legend of the Loneliest Whale in the World

This article is excerpted from “52 Blue,” the newest single from the Atavist. You can purchase the full story from the Atavist’s website. It is also available on Amazon.

 

Dec. 7, 1992: Whidbey Island, Puget Sound. The World Wars were over. The other wars were over: Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf. The Cold War was finally over, too. The Whidbey Island Naval Air Station remained. So did the Pacific, its waters vast and fathomless beyond an airfield named for an airman whose body was never found: William Ault, who died in the Battle of the Coral Sea.

 

But at that naval air station, on that day in December, the infinite Pacific appeared as something finite: audio data gathered by a network of hydrophones spread along the ocean floor. These hydrophones had turned the formless it of the ocean and its noises into something measurable: pages of printed graphs rolling out of a spectrograph machine. These hydrophones had been used to monitor Soviet subs until the Cold War ended; after their declassification, the Navy started listening for other noises—other kinds of it—instead.

 

On Dec. 7, the it was a strange sound. The acoustic technicians thought they knew what it was, but then they realized they didn’t. Petty Officer 2nd Class Velma Ronquille stretched it out on a different spectrogram so she could see it better. She couldn’t quite believe it. It was coming in at 52 hertz.

 

She beckoned one of the technicians. He needed to come back, she said. He needed to take another look.

Aug. 25 2014 8:07 AM

Are Humans Any Good at Pheromones?

Excerpted from Wild Connection: What Animal Courtship and Mating Tell Us About Human Relationships by Jennifer L. Verdolin. Out now from Prometheus Books.

As if your face, your eyes, your symmetry, your hair, your waist, your teeth, and sometimes even your feet weren’t enough, there’s even more going on than meets the eye, and this other consideration may just be the ultimate deciding factor in initial mate attraction—it’s how you smell. When discussing mating systems with my students, I always tell them, “It wasn’t that you saw each other across the room; you smelled each other!” There is one man I know who I could probably smell a mile away. And I mean that in a good way. For me, his natural scent is so thoroughly intoxicating that I can barely think when I am around him. Worse still, I am like a basset hound when it comes to sensing his presence in my environment, and I am convinced it is because I smell him before I see him!

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The idea that one can become inebriated by the natural smell of another is not as strange as it may sound. Both males and females of many species succumb to the scent of desire. Just look at the delightful, pudgy, brown lemming male: He has a keen sense of smell when it comes to the ladies. It’s a rough life for lemmings. They are pretty much on the bottom of the food chain, and they only live for about a year and a half. Not one for dillydallying, this little rodent packs a lot into that short life span.

Despite living in the arctic, lemmings are active all year round. With the clock ticking down, there is no time to hibernate for these guys. Females can have several litters a year, raising anywhere from four to nine babies at a time. Females have the uncanny ability to sniff out better mates, and their noses lead them right to the dominant male. Have you ever walked into a room and said, “Boy, you can just smell the testosterone in the air?” Apparently this is what female brown lemmings are discussing as well.

Male lemmings not only have a knack for smelling females that are ready to mate but also for smelling those that haven’t already mated with another male.

When females mate with multiple males, it is harder for males to be sure of their paternity.

Male lemmings try to get around this by detecting whether a female has already mated. This, of course, implies that males leave a chemical calling card that other males can detect. From beetles to bees and lizards, females do give off a different scent if they have already mated or if they are ready to mate.

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What does all this chemical calling card stuff have to do with us? Lo and behold, we are just as sensitive to the scent of the opposite sex as the humble lemming. Humans can discriminate odors in just a single whiff, which at a minimum takes approximately 400 milliseconds. Like male beetles, bees, lizards, lemmings, and a whole suite of other species, men can discern the scent of a woman ready to become pregnant.

They find the smell of sweat from women who are close to ovulation more pleasing and even sexier.

And not just their body odor, men also prefer the voice, the complexion, and basically everything about a woman near ovulation. The thing is, men know women are ovulating because they can smell it, but they don’t know that they know!

One of my friends swears by this phenomenon. She claims that she gets a lot more attention from men right before she begins ovulation. Whether it is holding the door open for her, buying her a cup of coffee or a drink, or being asked out, like bees to honey the men flock to her, only to disappear again once she passes that magical time. Women, the same holds true for us. When we are ovulating we strongly prefer the scent of a male, but not just any male, a more symmetrical male.

Beyond the simple fact of whether one prefers certain scents, there is increasing evidence that how an individual smells, the person’s pheromone signature, if you will, may be linked to that person’s genetic health—specifically, his or her immune or disease-fighting genes. These are known as major- histocompatibility-complex, or MHC, genes. By distinguishing at a cellular level between self and other, they are involved in identifying and fighting off invading pathogens.

Mothers, fathers, and close relatives like grandparents and aunts and uncles have been shown to be able to identify the odor of a related infant compared with an unrelated one. In the case of fathers and other relatives, they can do this even if they have had no prior exposure to the baby! When we look to animals, we find similar results. Individuals seem to be able to tell the difference between relatives and nonrelatives based on smell alone. And it is largely thought that this is due to the scent one gives off based on the particular set of MHC genes you have.

While this is fascinating—and potentially a topic for another book—what does this have to do with finding and choosing a mate? Studies with lab mice reveal that, all other things being equal, individuals will choose a mouse mate that is most dissimilar in the MHC genes.

This phenomenon extends far beyond the lab. One of the cutest species I have had the pleasure of studying is the gray mouse lemur. This nocturnal primate, native to Madagascar, is small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, reminding me of a miniature Topo Gigio, an Italian television puppet character popular when I was growing up.

Looking at gray mouse lemurs in the wild reveals that their mate choices are also MHC-dependent.

The benefits of this are twofold. First, they avoid mating with relatives, and second, by combining different genes from two parents, offspring have the maximum diversity in their disease-fighting genes. This second benefit may help offspring survive better when fighting off infections and disease.

I mentioned that mothers and other close relatives can distinguish the smell of a related versus nonrelated infant, but does this extend to detecting the best genetic match based on MHC composition? Yes, indeed. Just like paper wasps, the house mouse, seabirds, primates, and countless other animals, human females have a stronger sexual interest in the odor of males who differ from them on the MHC-gene level. Even more interesting is that in already-paired couples, women were less sexually responsive to and had fewer orgasms with partners who had similar MHC compositions.

Perhaps this is why some men are constantly obsessed with whether or not a woman has an orgasm? As if that weren’t bad enough, closely MHC-matched couples also engaged in a higher number of extrapair copulations. Translation: more cheating.

Similarity of MHC composition may also explain why some couples have difficulty getting pregnant, and it may even explain the frequency of spontaneous abortions.

With nature guiding the way and with such severe consequences, how do we ever end up mismatched?

One argument for how we end up mismatched is that we don’t have the capacity to detect MHC composition using our olfactory ability, especially since we lack the Jacobson’s organ, which is found in the nasal cavity of many animals. This organ is first in line when it comes to olfactory sense and processing. Next time you see your cat smell something and hold its mouth open with upper lips curled and teeth exposed in what is called the flehmen response, you can bet something tweaked its Jacobson’s organ.

Although you may never have heard of it, scientists have been hotly debating whether you have a Jacobson’s organ, or vomeronasal organ. This mysterious and contentious organ is the secondary sensory organ of the accessory olfactory system with specialized neurons that process chemical cues, separate from those associated with primary olfactory processing center. Interestingly, fish lack this accessory organ, suggesting that perhaps, life on land may have been the impetus for the evolution of the Jacobson’s organ. Where, if you have one, would you find this special structure? Depending on the species, it can be located at the base of the septum or in the roof of the mouth.

So who has it and who doesn’t? As usual, except for fish, there is no simple answer to this. Since we are primates, let’s just investigate what’s going on with this group. For the families that include bush babies and lemurs, also known as the strepsirrhine primates, we find a fully functional, anatomically complete vomeronasal organ. In the catarrhine primates, like macaques, it is generally absent, or reduced, with some indeterminate function.

When we start looking at the group that includes tarsiers, monkeys, apes, and us, things get a little messier. Perhaps ironically, this group, the haplorhine primates, literally translates in Greek to mean “simple-nosed” primates. Some species have it, some species don’t, some have it but it doesn’t work, and more importantly, throughout the order, its size is greatly reduced. For instance, both night monkeys and spider monkeys have a Jacobson’s organ, but it is not functional in the spider monkey.

When it comes to humans, it is clear that developing embryos have a Jacobsen’s organ which then seems to disappear. In adults a depression, or pit, consistent with the Jacobson’s organ is present at least on one side of the nasal cavity about 2 centimeters up into the nostrils, but it looks more like a remnant structure. So is this pit, or pits if you are one of a few that have it bilaterally, a functional Jacobson’s organ, or is it just a leftover of our evolutionary past?

There are a few things to consider. First, the epithelium tissue lining these depressions in humans is not well-developed. Second, there is a lack of sensory neurons that even if the tissue were functional could connect it to the brain, sending along whatever chemical information was being perceived. Third, and perhaps more importantly, almost all of the genes involved in protein expression of a functional vomeronasal organ are pseudogenes in humans dating back as far as 23 million years ago— around the time we went our separate ways from Old World monkeys. What are pseudogenes? They are dysfunctional copies or relatives of functional genes. Put simply, they don’t work.

But why all the fuss? What does this little organ actually do? Some have suggested that its purpose is solely for the detection of pheromones, or hormones involved in a variety of social functions, from recognizing individuals to mate selection. The implication then being that we, and other species that lack a functional Jacobson’s organ, cannot detect, process, or even respond to pheromones. That is quite a leap. Indeed, we have other genes, separate from those linked to this touchy organ that are involved in detecting pheromones. Not surprisingly, they are linked to the main olfactory system. MRI studies have shown that molecules involved in discriminating between “self” and “other” odors, called peptide ligands, activate not just the vomeronasal organ in animals but also parts of the brain. Though humans lack the organ in our noses, we certainly have brains, and these same molecules, when we smell them, light up the same area in our brains, too. This then means that regardless of which camp you fall into, the “we do” or the “we don’t,” the scales are tipped in favor of our ability to detect and respond to pheromones. So sniff away because even if we don’t have a functional Jacobson’s organ, we have noses with lots of neural connections to our marvelous brains with which to process information in the very functional main olfactory system we do have.

However, this brings us back to the question then—why do we end up mismatched?

It might have something to do with birth control pills. The irony, or perhaps tragedy, of hormonal birth control is that it interferes with how a woman’s nose knows. When women take birth control pills, some studies suggest that this natural ability to discriminate between similarity and differences in MHC composition may be disrupted. The research isn’t entirely clear, but this could cause women to be more sexually attracted to the odor of males with MHC genes more similar to themselves. Not the best match.

I was discussing this with my friend Stacey, who exclaimed, “That must be why I couldn’t stand the smell of my ex-husband!” She went on to explain that when she met her first husband she had been taking birth control pills. Several years into their marriage, after she discontinued the pill, not only was she unable to get pregnant, but she no longer cared for the smell of her husband.

My advice: sniff a potential mate. I personally like the neck. Good for smelling babies and good for smelling men. If you are not on birth control and he (the man, not the baby) passes the sniff test, then that is just one more step toward finding a potentially good mate.

Excerpted from Wild Connection: What Animal Courtship and Mating Tell Us About Human Relationships by Jennifer L. Verdolin Out now from Prometheus Books. 

Wild Connection: What Animal Courtship and Mating Tell Us about Human Relationships

Aug. 22 2014 7:52 AM

Big, Bad Botany: Calabar Bean (Physostigma venenosum), the Lie Detector

All week on Wild Things we’ll be presenting our favorite dangerous, horrifying, and monstrous plants, excerpted from The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora by Michael Largo. Out now from William Morrow.

Prehistoric judicial systems would often determine guilt or innocence in a trial by subjecting the accused to a dangerous experience, traditionally known as “trial by ordeal.” Whether one survived such an ordeal was left to divine control, and escape or survival was taken to indicate innocence on behalf of the defendant. The roots of this custom lie in the Code of Hammurabi and the Code of Ur-Nammu, the oldest known systems of law. Numerous West African tribes depended on the Calaber bean, also renowned as ordeal bean or lie detector bean, for rulings in their early courts. These tribes used the power of the beans (really highly poisonous seeds) to detect witches and people possessed by evil spirits. Judicators would feed numerous seeds, what they called “ordeal poison,” to the accused; if he or she was innocent, God would perform a miracle and allow the accused to live—and the court would have its ruling. If the reverse was true, of course, guilt would be “proven” the moment its sentence was successfully carried out.

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Calabar bean is the seed of a climbing leguminous plant, scientifically known as Physostigma venenosum, and is poisonous to humans when chewed. However, if one swallowed the whole bean intact, it might prevent the release of its toxins. The plant, indigenous to the coastal area of southeastern Nigeria known as Calabar, was first noticed in 1846, though it took until 1861 for botanists to describe it. Its scientific name, Physostigma venenosum, came from the appearance of “a snooping beak-like solid appendage at the end of the stigma.”

The plant is a large, herbaceous perennial vine, with a woody stem at the base. It produces a large, purplish flower with intricate visible veins. Once pollinated, the flowers yield a thick brown pod of a fruit, which contains two or three large kidney-shaped seeds. The seeds ripen throughout the year; however, it’s not until rainy season (June through September) that the plant is able to produce its best, most toxic beans.

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The alkaloid content in a Calaber bean is only a little more than 1 percent, the most potent of which are calabarine (with atropine-like effects), and physostigmine. The poisonous properties of the Calabar bean are almost exclusively due to the presence of physostigmine alkaloid, which acts on the nervous system. This compound disrupts communication between the nerves and organs. In this regard, it acts similarly to nerve gas, which results in contraction of the pupils, profuse salivation, convulsions, seizures, spontaneous urination and defecation, loss of control over the respiratory system, and ultimately death by asphyxiation.

Since physostigmine affects neurotransmitters in the brain, scientists have begun conducting studies to see if the alkaloid might aid in reversing Alzheimer’s disease, or perhaps anticholinergic syndrome, a process by which these neurotransmitters dangerously “freeze up” during or after anesthesia. Though itself toxic, this alkaloid proves an effective antidote for poisoning from another deadly plant, Atropa belladonna.

Excerpted from The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora by Michael Largo. Out now from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

Aug. 21 2014 7:24 AM

Big, Bad Botany: Hemlock (Conium maculatum), the Philosopher’s Choice

All week on Wild Things we’ll be presenting our favorite dangerous, horrifying, and monstrous plants, excerpted from The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora by Michael Largo. Out now from William Morrow.  

Hemlock is yet another highly toxic plant that can cause serious health problems, even death. Conium maculatum is a genus of two poisonous species of herbaceous, perennial, flowering herbs in the Apiaceae family. The hemlock species is native to the Mediterranean region, and the other, called Conium chaerophylloides, comes from Southern Africa. Some theorize the name of “hemlock” comes from the Old English “humlice,” which was the name of the tree. The plant has other names, such as woomlick, beaver poison, poison parsley, bunk, hever, caise, devil’s flower, and gypsy flower. It even has more regional nicknames: break-your-mother’s-heart (wow!), lady’s lace, scabby hands, and others. A very inspiring plant, obviously. The conium name derives from the Greek konas, meaning “vertigo” or “whirl”—both symptoms of the plant’s intoxicating poison.

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Hemlock is a biennial, herbaceous plant that can grow from 3 to 5 feet tall. It has a smooth green stem, often streaked or spotted on the lower half with purple or red—a warning from nature of the plant’s toxicity. Its leaves have an overall triangular shape, divided and lacy, growing about 1½ feet long and nearly as wide. Its small white flowers, clustered in umbels, are a ½ inch in diameter. When you crush a hemlock leaf or root, it emits an unpleasant, rank odor, similar to that of parsnips.

Hemlock is native to the tempered regions of West Asia, Europe, and North Africa, but has since spread to North America, Australia, and New Zealand. It often grows near surface waters, such as streams and ditches, as well as on waste areas, on roadsides, and on the edges of cultivated fields. In some countries, it is treated as an invasive plant. Conium maculatum prefers damp areas with poorly drained soils; it flourishes in early spring, before other foliage appears. Hemlock is not actually related to the hemlock tree, which is in the pine family, and not at all poisonous. The tree gets its name from its needles, which, when crushed, give off a similar smell to the toxic hemlock shrub.

Hemlock contains conhydrine, N-methylconine, but its most poisonous alkaloid is coniine, which has a chemical structure similar to nicotine. This poison disrupts the central nervous system—a small dose can cause respiratory collapse. Death can result from blockage of the neuromuscular junction caused by coniine. In practice, it eventually stops your ability to breathe, causing you to suffocate. This won’t happen right off, and drinking its tea only makes you feel drunk at first. It may take from 48 to 72  hours for the full toxic effects to manifest. If you find yourself so poisoned, only artificial or mechanical ventilation can save you.

According to Christian mythology, the hemlock plant became poisonous after growing on the hillside of Jesus’ crucifixion. When his blood touched the plant, it turned forever toxic. However, the most infamous poisoning by hemlock is attributed to the Greek philosopher Socrates, who chose a hemlock drink as his preferred means of death—most sources say that he drank it mixed with water or as a tea. In the Phaedo, Plato claims that Socrates first felt a numbing in his limbs, after which the sensation overtook his entire body. Socrates maintained full awareness throughout his poisoning and even continued to speak to those around who witnessed his death. His last words reportedly were: “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.” Socrates willingly drank the poison after being sentenced to death for his speeches and for his belief in humanistic and democratic principles. When he was ordered to publicly deny his ideas or die, he chose death. However, as a respected gentleman, the court gave him the right to pick the manner in which he wished to have his death sentence carried out. Hemlock tea was his first choice.

In Socrates’ last moment of lucidity he mentions the god Asclepius, a mythological deity noted for healing. Scholars surmise that Socrates conceived of his death as a freedom of his soul from the unreasonableness of humanity and the confines of his body. However, Plato’s dignified description of Socrates’ death might be a bit romanticized, since hemlock poisoning would be a lot more painful, accompanied by a convulsive gasping to breathe.

Excerpted from The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora by Michael Largo. Out now from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

Aug. 20 2014 8:48 AM

Big, Bad Botany: Cyanide Grass (Sorghum Halepense), the Poisonous Felon

All week on Wild Things we’ll be presenting our favorite dangerous, horrifying, and monstrous plants, excerpted from The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora by Michael Largo. Out now from William Morrow.

Johnson Grass, also called cyanide grass due to its unique chemical makeup, belongs to the family Poeceae. The common name stems from one Col. William Johnson, who grew this plant on his Alabama plantation in 1840. Johnson had heard the grass was fast-growing and could stop erosion and make hay, but he couldn’t have imagined how thoroughly it would eventually overrun the whole of the southern United States. It took us a while to learn that, if grown in certain soils, or as soon as its wilted by frost, the plant turns deadly, such that a mouthful of it could kill a full-grown cow in an hour. The plant is native to the Mediterranean area, coming to the U.S. by way of the Caribbean, where this rapid-growing “weed” was named in honor of the unsuspecting colonel who cultivated it.

Aug. 19 2014 11:43 AM

Big, Bad Botany: Oleander (Thevetia Peruviana), the Beautiful “Exit Plan”

All week on Wild Things, we’ll be presenting our favorite dangerous, horrifying, and monstrous plants, excerpted from The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora by Michael Largo. Out now from William Morrow.

Oleanders are beautiful bushes with lance-shaped, dark green leaves with a waxy finish that bloom large whorled pink, white, red, and yellow flowers that smell similar to apricots. The plant originated in the Mediterranean region and, because it grows quickly in a burst of color, early settlers transported it around the world to beautify and give “hostile” lands what they considered a civilized look. Oleanders thrive primarily in warmer climates; often found growing in the vacant lots of warmer California and Florida, some varieties of oleander can survive the summers of slightly cooler regions, and are used frequently by gardeners and landscapers to add a quick-growing burst of color.

Aug. 19 2014 9:36 AM

Why Do We Eat Wilbur But Not Fido?

I live around the corner from a gourmet grocery store that has, for the past several weeks, displayed three-foot-long sides of cured beef in the display window. The meat looks like what hangs from those big metal hooks in a slaughterhouse after people saw the cow in half. Though I walk by every day, I always feel jarred by the sight. The meat recalls the animal it came from in a way that I’ve grown unaccustomed to seeing in American grocery stores. Does this grisly display appeal to anyone? Other passersby go about their business unfazed, lugging their grocery bags and talking on their smart phones. Revulsion, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.

Last month, John D. Sutter wrote a piece for CNN in favor of eating dogs. It forced readers to look more closely at what we consider repulsive. We already kill 1.2 million dogs per year in America’s animal shelters, Sutter pointed out. Dogs’ intelligence and sociability are not enough to distinguish the species from pigs, which are also highly social and intelligent. Sutter makes it clear that if you think that Fido should be under the table rather than on it, then Wilbur's spot next to the potatoes is arbitrary at best. But the piece wasn’t so much a serious suggestion as a modern A Modest Proposal, meant to spur our reexamination of a contentious topic.

The Week ran a response to Sutter’s piece that relied on this circular argument:  "Western society has invested different energies in dogs for other purposes, ones that give them honored places in our homes as guardians, assistants, or companions." Sutter had already preempted this argument, quoting Slate’s William Saletan: “There's an inherent danger in thinking that ‘the value of an animal depends on how you treat it.’”

Despite being a dog lover, I welcomed Sutter’s proposal as a much needed thought experiment. We should have to think twice about something that involves not just our health and environment but also the 3.7 billion land animals in the United States raised and slaughtered for food—not to mention the wellbeing and safety of the people who do the unseemly work for us. There is something automatic about the unthinking way we approach our food—something reminiscent of Descartes’ description of animals as living machines.

Aug. 18 2014 7:06 PM

Big, Bad Botany: Deadly Nightshade (Atropa Belladonna), the Poisonous A-Lister

All week on Wild Things, we’ll be presenting our favorite dangerous, horrifying, and monstrous plants, excerpted from The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora by Michael Largo. Out now from William Morrow.

Atropa belladonna is a Eurasian perennial with reddish, bell-shaped flowers that bear glossy-coated, black berries. Other names for the plant include belladonna, deadly nightshade, devil’s berries, naughty man’s cherries, death cherries, beautiful death, and devil’s herb. The plant earns its sinister nicknames, as its foliage and berries are extremely toxic, containing potent dosages of tropane alkaloids. Its most common name, belladonna, derives from Italian, meaning “beautiful woman.” Historically, women have used the herb’s oil to dilate and enlarge the pupils for seductive effect. But it’s best known as the plant of choice for assassins through history.

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