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Press release

Nature's Deadliest: Poisonous, Venomous and Toxic

Explore the deadly world of nature in a new exhibition

24 July - 3 December 2006

How long does it take for a sea-wasp sting to kill you and why does the duck-billed platypus have venom? A new exhibition, opening at the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum on 24 July, lets visitors find out and brings them face to face with some of deadliest plants, minerals and animals on Earth.

'Powerful toxins are vital for the survival of many animals and plants in the wild, whether they use them to catch prey or defend themselves from predators,' said Alice Dowswell, exhibition curator at the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum. 'Finding out about nature's poisons is not only fascinating, it helps us understand how to protect ourselves from them and even use some to treat human illnesses.' 

By examining preserved animal specimens, minerals, pressed plants and models, the exhibition explores how natural poisons, toxins and venoms are made and used by some of the deadliest creatures in nature. There will also be the chance to spot some scary species that might be encountered at the seaside, lurking in a replica rock-pool.

Visitors will see a preserved specimen of the infamous Australian box jellyfish (also known as the sea-wasp), one of the most deadly animals in the world. Its sting can kill an adult human in three minutes. A model stonefish also lies in wait. It usually sits camouflaged on the seabed and protects itself with sharp, venomous spines. If trodden on, the spines can cause excruciating pain and swelling and sometimes even death.

The exhibition also explores why animals produce poison: for defence, to catch prey or to protect their territory. Poison dart frogs, for example, have so many predators they produce very powerful and complicated toxins to affect a wide range of animals, including humans. Toads also produce toxins, which are produced in their skin using large glands that sit behind the eyes. Marine toads (known as Cane toads in Australia) produce a dangerous toxin that can kill a dog in 15 minutes. 

The male duck-billed platypus is thought to use its venomous ankle spurs for a different purpose, to deter territorial competitors. Visitors can also find out how the Sydney funnel-web and black widow spiders use their venom, as well as the mole and gaboon vipers.

Plants can be dangerous, too. Strychnine, cyanides, pyrethums and tannins are just a few of the 30,000 chemicals they use to avoid being eaten. The deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna, on display has a very poisonous root, but eating the leaves or berries can also affect your heart and your breathing. Fungi can also be fatal; the death cap mushroom is responsible for more than 50 per cent of all cases of mushroom poisoning. Several other lethal plant species, including ragwort and hemlock, will be on display.

Rocks and minerals can also kill - and not by falling on your head. Eating a piece of arsenic the size of a grape would kill an adult. Even inhaling or touching it is dangerous. Just small amounts of a mineral, built up over a long period of time can be deadly. Asbestos minerals are made up of microscopic fibres that, if inhaled, can stick in the lungs and eventually cause scarring and cancers.

It's not all bad news. Poisons can also save lives. Some snake venom is used to produce anti-venoms, while some has helped create other useful drugs. For example, a drug used to treat high blood pressure is based on a chemical in the venom of a South American pit viper. This exciting exhibition shows us that the more we know about nature's poisons, the more fascinating they become.

Notes for editors
Definitions:

  • poisonous: something that contains a poison, a substance that can kill or harm a living animal
  • venomous: something that can inject a poison by a bite or sting
  • toxic: something that is poisonous

The Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum is the Natural History Museum's sister museum in Tring, Hertfordshire. It opened in the late 1800s to house the collections of Lionel Walter, second Baron Rothschild. The Museum offers outstanding examples of nineteenth-century taxidermy at its very best and was bequeathed to the nation in 1938. It is now part of the Natural History Museum. The public galleries were modernised, but the fascinating character of the Museum has been retained.

A series of fun events for children will be taking place throughout the duration of the exhibition.

Visitor information:
Dates:    24 July - 3 December 2006
Admission:   Free
Opening hours:  Monday to Saturday 10.00-17.00, Sunday 14.00-17.00, closed 24, 25 and 26 December.
Access:  Step-free access is limited to Gallery 1, the temporary exhibition gallery, the shop and Zebra Café. A virtual tour of the upper galleries of the Museum is available in the temporary exhibition gallery.
Visitor enquiries:  020 7942 6171
Website: www.nhm.ac.uk/tring

For more information, please contact:
Tel: + 44 (0) 20 7942 5654 email: press@nhm.ac.uk