– Blue-ringed octopus venom is tetrodotoxin
– Tetrodotoxin causes paralysis
– Tetrodotoxin is also the poison in many tiny frog species in Brazil, the rough-skinned newt in America and puffer fish
– Puffer fish (Japanese delicacy fugu) poisons around 50 and kills up to five people every year
– Captain James Cook was poisoned by tetrodotoxin (but survived)
– Cause of death of actor Bandō Mitsugorō VIII
– Source of zombie stories
The blue-ringed octopus is a tiny, docile octopus found in the Pacific and Indian oceans, in tidal pools and reefs. It attacks when threatened or to feed, injecting its venom into its victim. The venom is tetrodotoxin which only requires a fraction of a milligram to be lethal to humans. One small octopus has enough venom to kill about 26 people, and death occurs within minutes. The bites are often painless so often people don’t realise they’ve been bitten until paralysis sets in. There are three known deaths from these timid octopus.
Tetrodotoxin works by affecting the membrane of nerve cells. Symptoms start with tingling, followed by numbness and incontinence, then paralysis which results in an inability to breathe (while the victim remains conscious).
Unlike the octopus, the puffer fish is only deadly if you eat it – which people do. Fugu is a Japanese delicacy which has to be prepared by specially trained chefs. The tetrodotoxin is in the fish organs (especially the liver) and it isn’t affected by cooking. If eaten it takes approximately six hours until death. There are about 50 people poisoned each year from fugu, with approximately five deaths annually.
One of Japan’s most revered 1930’s kabuki actors, Bandō Mitsugorō VIII, went to dinner with friends and ordered four portions of fugu kimo, which is the liver of puffer fish – the sale was prohibited at the time. Bandō claimed he could survive the poison so he ate the livers and died after eight hours of gradual paralysis and breathing difficulties.
One of the first known victims was explorer Captain James cook. In 1774 near Polynesia, he and his crew had a puffer fish meal and fed the remains to a pig they had onboard the ship. Cook was very sick, but the pig wasn’t so lucky and died. From Cook’s diary:
About three to four o’clock in the morning, we were seized with most extraordinary weakness in all our limbs attended with numbness of sensation like to that caused by exposing one’s hands and feet to a fire after having been pinched much by frost. I had almost lost the sense of feeling nor could I distinguish between light and heavy objects, a quart pot full of water and a feather was the same in my hand. We each took a vomit and after that a sweat which gave great relief. In the morning one of the pigs which had eaten the entrails was found dead.Captain James Cook
Another tetrodotoxin protected animal is the rough-skinned newt found in parts of America. In 1979, an Oregon man was dared to eat one of the newts, so he did and died.
People who are poisoned by tetrodotoxin but don’t die may spend a number of days in conscious paralysis before they recover. At one time people thought those suffering from this form of paralysis might be buried alive and “rise from the grave”, which is the basis for many stories of zombies, particularly in Haiti.