A Spicy Weapon

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Scientists recently made a series of discoveries about how Papua New Guinea’s toxic birds evolved a unique form of self-defense, Scientific American reported.

Locally known as “spicy birds,” these avian species independently developed resistance to the potent batrachotoxins, a neurotoxin commonly found in South American poison dart frogs. These toxins, if they bind to neurons’sodium-channel proteins, can lead to muscle paralysis and even death.

Although their existence in Papua New Guinea was first scientifically documented in 1992, a new study identified two new species recently.

The research team wrote that the birds store the potent toxins in their feathers and skin. They theorized that the species acquire batrachotoxins by consuming poisonous beetles of the genus Choresine.

They noted, however, that the animals have independently developed resistance through mutations in the sodium-channel proteins in their nerve cells. This parallel evolution in different species shows the remarkable diversity of adaptations that can occur in response to environmental pressures.

One theory behind this toxin storage in birds is that it might serve as a defense against parasites. However, for this strategy to work, the birds must avoid poisoning themselves, highlighting the complexity of this evolutionary adaptation.

While this research sheds light on toxin resistance and adaptation, there is still much to learn about the mechanisms involved.

“Understanding biodiversity and the diversity of adaptations … can give us really great ideas for medicine, for agriculture and for understanding how animals adapt to pollution,” said ecologist Rebecca Tarvin, who was not involved in the study.

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