Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Deadliest Creatures of the World

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Real terror lurks in quiet darkness

The deadliest critters lurk in dark silence, ready to strike with either the barest of warnings or none at all - and with absolutely fatal venom.

(photo "Jungle River" by Frans Lanting)

Some you've heard about, and so sit there and scoff. Yeah, big deal: rattlesnake, cobra, black widow -- either you can hear them coming, avoid going to India, or simply not stick your hands into dark places. They are nothing but annoyances: fatal only to the truly stupid, or very sick... But there are others, nasty little things as vicious and deadly as they are quiet and unassuming.

1. The Cone Snail: can kill you in less than 4 minutes

Say, for instance, you are happily walking through the low surf merrily picking up and discarding shells, looking for just the right one to decorate your desk back at the office.

With no warning at all, however, you feel a sharp sting from one of those pretty shells -- a sting that quickly flares into a crawling agony. With that quick sting, the cone snail's barbed spear has insidiously injected you with one of the most potent neurotoxins in existence.

(image credit: Richard Ling)

(image credit: Kerry Matz)

"The bright colors and patterns of cone snails are attractive to the eye, and therefore people sometimes pick up the live animals and hold them in their hand for a while." Meanwhile the snail may fire its harpoon, loaded with venom (the harpoon can penetrate gloves and even wetsuits)

Nerves short-circuited by this infinitesimally small amount of juice, in seconds the agony of where the stinger struck has faded into a heavy numbness. A relief, perhaps, but then it spreads and moments later the paralysis has seized the entire limb. Then the breathing troubles start ... and then, simply, your heart stops beating.

Yes, there are antivenoms available, but, frankly, with something that can kill in less than four minutes you'd have to carry it in your back pocket to survive. It wasn't just for their fondness for these pretty shells that lead the CIA to develop a weapon using this venom to dispatch enemies.

We'll be back to the ocean in a few paragraphs, but for the next dangerous denizen we have to visit the steaming Amazon:

2. Poison Arrow Frog: Lethal Touch

(image credit: mofmann)

That frog over there, for instance: that tiny, brilliantly colored tree frog. Doesn't he look like some kind of Faberge ornament, there against that vermilion leaf? Wouldn't such a natural jewel look just gorgeous in a terrarium back home?

(image credit: Edward Noble)

Pick him and you'll be dead in a matter of minutes. One second frolicking in the undergrowth, the next spasming and foaming on the jungle floor. No stinger, no bite, no venom: just the shimmering slime covering his brilliant body.

The natives in these parts capture these poison arrow frogs (carefully) and coat their blowgun darts with that slime and knock full grown monkeys out of the trees with a single strike. (read about other poisonous frogs here).

(image credit: Adrian Pingstone)

"They are the only animal in the world known to be able to kill a human by touch alone." They can jump as far as 2 meters - "that's nearly 50 times their body length. That is like a 6-foot (1.8-meter) human jumping 300 feet (90 meters)" (source)

3. The lazy clown of the insect world.

Not a long distance from the deep green of the Amazon is southern Brazil. if you are a tired hiker after a good trek you'd want to rest a bit, to brace yourself against a tree for support. So what if you happen to touch a certain hairy caterpillar. It’s just a caterpillar, right? The lazy clown of the insect world. One problem, though: it happens to be a member of the lonomia family of moths.

(image credit: Anuska Nardelli)

(image credit: Diego Gonçalves)

The adult moth is just a moth, but the hairs of the caterpillar are juicy with nasty stuff, so nasty that dozens of people die every year from just touching them. By the way, it’s not a good way to go, either: their venom is a extremely powerful anticoagulant, death happening as the blood itself breaks down. Not fun. Very not fun.

(image credit: Ronai Rocha)

Many powerful predators are loud, almost comical: they parade their danger; sharks announce their presence with a steady da-dum, da-dum, da-dum of background music; rattlesnakes... well, they rattle; lions, and tigers, and bears roar and bellow...

But the real monsters are more devious than that; they lurk on the other side of invisibility, never make a sound, and kill you faster than the sounding of that first note in a shark's theme song.

4. Beaked Sea Snake

Another creature of nightmares that doesn’t come with a theme song is a strange import to the aquatic world. When you think snake you usually think of dry land. But if you go paddling around the Persian Gulf (or coastal islands of India) keep a wary eye out for the gently undulating wave of Enhydrina Schistosa.

(image credit: insatiable dreams)

It might not look dangerous, if anything it just looks odd to see a snake swimming in the sea, but don’t let your fascination for a "creature of the dry that lives in the wet" hypnotize you into getting too close.

The Hook-nose (or beaked) sea snake, to use its less scientific name, has one of the most potent venoms known. How potent? Well, visualize 1.5 milligrams. Not easy, is it? Such a small amount. But that’s all the venom enhydrina needs to, well, leave you "swimming with the fishes", as the mob likes to say.

(image credit: Kozy & Dan Kitchens)

"The snake is also eaten as meat by Hong Kong and Singapore fishermen and locals alike"

5. Stone Fish waits for you to step on it

But it’s not time to leave the sea quite yet. There are two nasty things in the blue depths you should spend many a sleepless night frightened of. For the big one you’ll have to wait a bit, for the one right below it in terrifying lethality you just have to watch your step when you’re walking along the bottom of the ocean.

(photo by Jake Adams)

As you can see it's very hard to notice on the ocean floor:

(image credit: Alan Slater)

Like all monsters it hides, camouflaging itself among the rocks on the bottom. It’s what’s called an ambush predator: a critter that waits until something juicy walks, or swims, by. But what it could do to you requires no motion at all.

All the stone fish has to do is just sit there on the bottom and wait for you to innocently step on it.

That’s all it takes: the spines on the fish’s back are like a parade of loaded hypodermic needles, each one carrying enough bad stuff to kill even a buff diver in a matter of minutes. But death is not really the worst.

The pain from a stone fish’s sting is said to be so horrible that sufferers have begged to have the pricked limb amputate rather than live with it for another moment.
In a word: Ouch!.

(image credit: Letho)

6. Box Jellyfish should really be called the "coffin" jellyfish

Cone shells, snakes, and caterpillars can be avoided, brilliant frogs warn of their fatality, and I’ve already warned you about the stone fish, but this last terror does not roar or display its danger at all. Let's take one final swim, shall we, this time off the coast of Australia?

Paddling in the crystal sea, enjoying the cool waters, the warm sun, it's easy to miss this monster, especially as it's almost as clear as the ocean. Chironex fleckeri doesn't sound terrifying, does it?

(image credit: Ernst Haeckel)

Chironex fleckeri is a tiny jellyfish, only about sixteen inches long. It has four eye-clusters with twenty-four eyes; its tentacles carry thousands of nematocysts, microscopic stingers activated not by ill-will but by a simple brush against shell, or skin. Do this and they fire, injecting anyone and anything with the most powerful neurotoxin known.

(image credit: Zoltan Takacs)

(image credit: Michael Reeve)

- Broken tentacles remain active until broken down by time and even dried tentacles can be reactivated if wet;
- Box jellyfish are not actually jellyfish at all; they are the Cubozoans;
- Grows to about the size of a human head, and has tentacles up to three meters long;

As you can see on the top left of the image below, it's pretty hard to notice Chironex Fleckeri in the wild:

(image credit: reefed)

The sting of a chironex fleckeri, also called the sea wasp, has been described by experts as horrifying torment:

Stories abound of swimmers leaping from the cool Australian seas, skin blistered and torn from thousands of these tiny stingers, the venom scalding their bodies and plunging them into agonizing shock.

Luckily it doesn't last long... In fact, the burning pain is over in just about the time it will take you to read this last paragraph (and you don't have to be a phenomenally slow reader), not even enough time to reach shore and call for help.

And as the venom works itself into your system, causing your nervous system to collapse, you'll realize that there really are dangerous things out there that'll kill you by pure reflex, by just crossing their paths - things that are perhaps the easiest to miss.

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