From The Ethics Alarms Archives: “Slow Loris Ethics: Great, Now Even The Smithsonian is Hyping!”

[The latest entry in the periodic series of old Ethics Alarms posts I had completely forgotten about was dredged from my memory by a Geico commeicial featuring a sloth that a woman in the ad calls a badger. Naturally, this prompted me to think about the distinction between slow lorises and pottos, and from there to this 2013 post, which, I was surprised to discover, wasn’t really about that. My mind is a strange and terrible thing.]

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 know, 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 tiny 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 venomous? That was a 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. The Smithsonian magazine was hyping, and badly at that.

To begin with, there is a difference between venomous animals and poisonous ones. “Venomous” means that the creature injects toxin into its prey, through a sting, a bite, or other means. “Poisonous” 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. But the slow loris, which is definitely not venomous,. and  it isn’t really poisonous 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 humans 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 Smithsonia “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 nor 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 venomous 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 of places I can trust.

(Oh…here’s a potto. See what I mean?)

15 thoughts on “From The Ethics Alarms Archives: “Slow Loris Ethics: Great, Now Even The Smithsonian is Hyping!”

  1. It all starts with seemingly innocent misappropriations of the truth regarding what appears to be innocuous loris or pottos. Then, bit by bit, everything we know is wrong because they’ve established a foundation of mistrust that’s so subtle, so sublime, and so devious that we can’t trust anything.

    After reading this, I’ve put an ankle monitor on my one cat (who’ve I’ve never trusted fully) and hired the dog to watch his movements. I’m not going to be the first casualty in this house when the uprising starts. Thanks for the heads-up!

  2. Come for the ethics, leave with the loris knowledge.
    It is a wonder that the Smithsonian writers didn’t do a great job at fact checking. You’d think they would be extra certain before throwing a claim like only venomous primate out like that. I wouldn’t say it makes the Smithsonian as a whole untrustworthy, though. Everyone makes mistakes now and then. If it is part of a pattern of not verifying information to allow for more sensational articles, then that would be grounds for saying that the Smithsonian is untrustworthy.

  3. For the same reasons, it is my understanding, that Komodo dragons are not venomous. Their saliva is so laden with human pathogens that once bitten the bateria overwhelm the immune system. Anything that feeds on carrion will inflict a baterial infection, or so it will be until the dragons start using industrial strength listeri

    On a separate note I hope David Ortiz has a speedy recovery from the gun shot wound.

    • I thought that too until about one minute ago, when I looked it up to confirm and found that Komodo dragons do secrete venomous proteins in their mouths. Apparently this wasn’t confirmed until 2009. It goes into a long list of ‘well actually’ statements I had to endure in school which have turned up false. One wonders how they made a mistake like that.

      • Yeah I recall watching on TV (probably National Geographic) that the bites weren’t venomous, just septic, and then reading later that this was mistaken. I wouldn’t want to be within 100 miles of one of those things either way. (I also recollect hearing that they only procreate by rape, and can only be warded off by the words of an old Gaelic spell. I my mine of those statements is false.)

  4. As a wise Vet student once told me:

    If IT bites YOU and you die, it’s Venomous.

    If YOU bite IT and you die, it’s Poisonous.

    If IT bites YOU and IT dies, then YOU are poisonous.

    • Then there are zombies, who die first, then they bite you. I’ve never heard of someone biting a zombie. Now that’s NEWS! “MAN BITES ZOMBIE”

      I think zombies qualify as poisonous as well as venomous.

      • I’d say you’re correct for the most common pop-culture zombies. The 28 Days Later rage zombies were basically just rabid so presumably you’d be OK if you bit one, but those aren’t really “zombies” either. Then again, Zombies might not technically be “venomous,” since they’re generally considered to be a product of a virus. The Zombie’s bite is the vector that allows the virus to infect you but isn’t a toxin produced by the zombie (any more than a mosquito becomes “venomous” if it’s carrying West Nile).

        As for “Man Bites Zombie”, you do have Albatross Comics’ “The Buzzard:” An old west sheriff interrupted a zombie ritual and was struck by the priest’s curse. While the corpses became flesh-eating zombies, he became a living man who can only feed on the flesh of the undead. Pretty good book.

        • …Zombies might not technically be “venomous…

          Here we once again have to define our terms.

          If we are talking about fast moving Zombies ala’ Zombieland or World War Z (the movie), this is not so cut and dried. The lore on those stories is that the infection is like rabies, and only spread by the bite. In theory you could cook the virus/bacteria out of the meat and dine on roast Zombie. This makes them fit the definition of ‘venomous.’

          If we are talking about the Romero movie slow shuffling type of Zombie, like The Walking Dead TV series or World War Z book, their bite is infectious, and (in some lore) any scratch or bodily fluid in an open wound serves to infect. This means injesting the ‘virus’ by biting the Zombie would also infect the diner. These serve the spirit of both ‘poisonous’ and ‘venomous’ definitions.

          In some versions, Zombies only reanimate after death, as the virus has ‘infected’ everyone already and is waiting for the body immune system to stop repressing it, sitting in the central nervous system waiting for death. Dying from a gunshot wound results in a Zombie, sans a head shot, or being eaten by Zombies allows for the reanimation of the remains, if there is enough left to do so. In some of those stories, human meat can be harvested as long as the body never dies in the process, thus making the Zombies ‘poisonous’ but not ‘venomous.’

          All bets are off if the infection can be airborne, or carried in the water, etc. (like the Resident Evil franchise) AND the Zombies move fast. This is simple cheating by the writers, and is only suitable for the realm of fiction. Good thing we know it never happened*

          *one sequence indicated that the entire series was a dream like sequence. Of course, that killed off the ability to further milk that cow, so the last (latest?) movie re re envisioned that ending to be another dream in itself. Milla Jovovich was worth watching in every case, as she might have allowed a topless shot as she had in The Fifth Element. Alas, it was never to be.**

          **the author’s reference to watching movies with the anticipation of seeing topless leading ladies has been noted by management and referred to HR for possible disciplinary action. Management will review The Fifth Element in case HR needs support with evidentiary proceedings.***

          ***HR has opened evidentiary proceedings into Management’s review of topless females in movies. HR will not review the movies to determine if such nudity exists: Management will simply be anonymously outed on social media and summarily fired ‘due to the outcry from the public.’

  5. Fake news. All of it. Even Wikipedia, that most trustworthy of sources, has slipped into the world of Mesozoic conjecture with the astounding discovery that the “Sinornithosaurus, a dinosaur related to birds, may have had a venomous bite”. Did they get this information from the Smithsonian? Is it just Barney Rubble gossip? I’m inclined to believe there was a good deal of inter-relating between the two species however, perhaps second cousins or even closer, which would explain why Godzilla is dumb enough to keep coming back to get harassed by wee mammals in the same town every few years. . . .

    About lorises, pottoes or pottoses (you say potTAH-to and I say potTOH-to), zombies, and undraped gazangas, I know only what I read in Ethics Alarms. I think it just might be worth a dinosaurial tweet.

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