A to Z Challenge: O (poisons & stories of their use)


Blue-ringed octopus | after I rudely flipped its rock over A… | Flickr
From: Flickr

Fast Facts:
– 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).

Fugu restaurant, Kyoto | Tokyo japan, Japanese architecture, Kyoto
Fugu Restaurant in Kyoto, Japan
From: Pinterest

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.


17 comments on “A to Z Challenge: O (poisons & stories of their use)

  1. I love octopuses, but certainly hope I never come too near a blue-ringed octopus. Eating fugu is just dumb, in my opinion.
    Black and White: O for Oz

    • I completely agree with you regarding eating fugu. I can’t imagine it even tastes that nice, and if it just tastes like fish than why not eat fish that doesn’t have the potential to kill you?

  2. It’s the little things, the itsy-bitsy things that almost prove that Australia is endemic to humans, maybe even more so than where I live. We have more shark bites.

    • It’s interesting about the shark bites. Your sharks must be a lot less dangerous because I believe you get a lot more bites but less fatalities (last year I think we had 6 fatalities from 18 attacks – pretty much all great whites). But we have a lot more surf beaches I would think (?) and surfers in wet suits and seals look pretty similar to a shark apparently.

      • Many of our shark bites are from Bull Sharks. They like to hunt and spawn in shallow water. We also have a huge amount of smaller sharks; blacktips, nurse and lemon. Step into some of those during a feeding frenzy and…

        I know this because I was fly-fishing in the salt once and a school of blacktips chased a couple of mullet under my kayak, where they caught them. At the time I was fishing from a surfski, it was osum.

  3. That was quite interesting…I have seen articles and seen videos of the Japanese chefs making the puffer fish dish …. Seriously why eat something knowing that it could be poisonous and that we are trusting someones culinary skill in shielding us from the poison !!!


    • I have no idea! I can’t imagine sitting down to a meal knowing it might kill me (I wonder if they make you pay beforehand?)

  4. Suddenly my very picky eating habits don’t seem like such a bad idea…

  5. Okay, this is awesome! I’m really glad I stopped by! So many interesting facts about the humble blue-ringed octopus and similar deadly creatures!

  6. I tend to stay away from things that can kill me…

  7. People who deliberately eat puffer fish get limited sympathy from me. They were asking for trouble the minute they ordered it. Eat sushi – stay alive! 🙂

    In one of the Indiana Jones movies the intro scene was about a “fake death” by puffer fish. The person has later risen from the grave as you put it.

    • You know, one of the worst cases of food poisoning I’ve ever had was from sushi. Took me years before I’d eat it again (love it again now).

  8. Okay, a painless lethal bite is just not fair!

    Captain Cook’s account is fascinating. Not being able to tell light from heavy seems like such a strange symptom to me!

    • Imagine being bitten and not even knowing it? Captain Cook’s account of all his travels are really fascinating. I have just been to an exhibition (which I’ll post about after A to Z so won’t say much now) and I loved reading the excerpts from his and Joseph Bank’s diaries.

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