Just when you finally give in to the idea that just about all of the horrific things in this world are human-made or human-caused, nature pokes its head out of the ground and says, “Hold my beer and watch this!” Sometimes twice. That’s the case this week with two stories of nature acting like it’s trying to just pile on to all of the bad things that have already happened in 2020. In Australia, scientists studying an unusual plant with unusual appendages found out they’re filled with a neurotoxin that delivers a “truly venomous” sting as powerful as a scorpion or spider with an excruciating pain that can last for weeks. Meanwhile, a man walking his dog on a New Zealand beach found a cannibal fish far from the water that was very alive and very hungry. What next? Hurricanes named for Greek letters?
“Australia notoriously harbors some of the world’s most venomous animals, but although less well known, its venomous flora is equally remarkable. The giant Australian stinging tree Dendrocnide excelsa reigns superlative in size, with some specimens growing to 35 m tall along the slopes and gullies of eastern Australian rainforests.”
Stinging nettles are found around the world and considered to be just a nuisance, but nothing is “just a nuisance” in Australia. (See ‘snakes’ and ‘spiders’, for starters.) in a study published in the journal Science Advances, researchers from the University of Queensland were studying the Australian version called the Dendrocnide excelsa or gympie-gympie tree to find out why its needle-like nettles delivered stings that cause pain which can last for weeks and feels like the hand that brushed against them was slammed in a car door. What they found was a new neurotoxin they’ve named "gympietides" which target the same pain receptors as spider and cone snail toxins but last longer because the change the sodium channels in a person's sensory neurons. Irina Vetter, co-author and Associate Professor at the UQ Institute for Molecular Bioscience, puts it bluntly:
"This arguably makes the Gympie-Gympie tree a truly 'venomous' plant."
Hopefully, by finally identifying the venom, researchers will come up with an anti-toxin for pain relief. In the meantime, don’t touch ANYTHING in Australia.
New Zealand isn’t much better. Con Fowler tells The Daily Star he was walking his dog on Baylys Beach on North Island when he came upon a fish out of water whose looks resembled a barracuda, but with much larger teeth. While a long way from the water, the fish appeared alive so he did what guys do – he took a picture and then poked it. The fish did what fish with big teeth do – it attempted to take a bite out of Con.
What Fowler had found, after posting picture on the Internet, was a lancetfish – a large (up to 2 meters or 6.6 feet long) predatory fish found in all of the oceans but usually at a depth of 2 km (1.25 miles). This one (see a picture here) looks like an Alepisaurus ferox or long-nosed lancetfish. They’re often called ‘scaleless lizards’ because of their lack of scales, and ‘cannibal fish’ because they use their three large fangs and many smaller ones on each jaw to eat other lancetfish. Lancetfish are rarely seen onshore but occasionally picked up as bycatch by longline tuna boats.
The story of this poor beached lancetfish – it may have been following a tuna boat and been washed ashore by heavy surf – has a happy ending despite thinking Fowler’s hand looked like a tasty friend and tried to turn it into a cannibal lunch. Fowler carefully picked it up and took it back to the water, where this happened.
“As soon as I put it back in the water, its large back dorsal fin, which was a bright iridescent bluish color, unfurled and stood up, and it swam away. It didn't re-strand, so I think it survived.”
Will nature reward Fowler’s good deed and give him a “Get out of a disaster free” card? Not a chance … nature doesn’t roll that way. So, when in New Zealand, don’t poke ANYTHING!