If we can’t even trust the Smithsonian not to lie to us, what hope is there?
The February issue of the Smithsonian magazine arrived, full of articles about origins and evolution. I immediately gravitated to the essay about komodo dragons, whose bite, as those of you who have been bitten by one, is poisonous. In a colorful sidebar to the main article was a smaller note about the wide range of other animals that poison their victims, titled “Pick Your Poison.”
“The komodo dragon may be the newest addition to the elite corps of predators that kill with chemistry, but the venomous world is already more diverse than people realize,” it began. The note was illustrated by photos of a duck-billed platypus (owner of a leg spur with a poison gland that gives the thing quite a kick); the Pacific cone snail, which can kill a human; the black mamba, the snake that had a co-starring role as an assassin in “Kill Bill, Part 2,” and…a slow loris???
The little, big-eyed, furry, cute Asian primate is poisonous? That was surprise. The article included no details, just noting that the slow loris was the only “venomous primate.” I managed to pass along this information as fact to my wife and two friends before bedtime (it takes so little to excite me these days!), and this morning dived into the web to learn the details of the slow loris’s poison. What I discovered was even more shocking than the original note. “Smithsonian” was hyping, and badly at that.
To begin with, there is a difference between venomous animals and poisonous ones. “Poisonous” means that the creature injects toxin into its prey, through a sting, a bite, or other means. “Venomous” means that the animal carries some kind of toxin that the prey ingests, absorbs or inhales, occasionally fatally. The Smithsonian article ignores this distinction for sensational purposes, as the title “Pick Your Poison” suggests. It did correctly use “venomous” to describe the slow loris, which is definitely not poisonous. As it turns out, it isn’t really venomous either.
According to multiple sources, from Wikipedia to technical articles, the slow loris has a brachial gland by its elbow that secretes a sweat-like substance, and secretes more of it when the loris is agitated or disturbed. The slow loris frequently licks its brachial glands ( as do we all) and uses the sweat to groom its young. The animal also licks it for no good reason. If a slow loris bites a human—it has sharp teeth—the saliva often contains the brachial sweat, and some human are allergic to it. Indeed, some have gone into anaphylactic shock from being exposed to it. That is an allergic reaction, however, not a toxic reaction. Papers compare the slow loris allergen to the allergen found in the saliva of domestic cats, which also have a bite that can send humans into shock. (A good friend of mine recently had to go to the emergency room after her kitty nipped her). If slow lorises are “venomous,” so are tabby cats. (Human bites are no picnic, either.) But they aren’t. Unlike the other deadly or dangerous animals the “Smithsonian” compares to komodo dragons, the slow loris doesn’t carry a toxin for the purpose of paralyzing prey or intimidating predators. It happens to have sweat that humans are allergic to, and humans are neither meals or common threats to the Asian jungle dweller.
All of this is interesting, especially to someone like me, who has always been painfully aware of the deficit in his slow loris knowledge, carrying the shameful secret that I have never quite figured out the difference between a loris and a potto. I’m grateful for the enlightenment, but I would have expected it to come from the writers of the national museum’s magazine, not in the process of unraveling their misinformation. The reputation of the slow loris for having a poisonous bite is properly attributed to folklore in the sources not trying to hype the facts, and folklore isn’t science, no matter how good a story it makes.
Now I know I can’t trust the Smithsonian, either.
Scratch one more institution off the list.
(Oh…here’s a potto. See what I mean?)