When you think of venomous animals, you generally think of snakes, lizards or perhaps spiders. But there are actually some poisonous mammals in the world.
The slow loris Nycticebus coucan is a small primate found in tropical south-east Asia, weighing up to 2 kg. They are tree-dwelling animal that is active at night, resting during the day in the forks of trees. As an adaption to life in the forest canopy, they have more vertebrate in their backs than other primates, allowing them to twist around above and below branches with a wide range of movement.
The slow loris also has a defense mechanism that is unique among primates – a venomous bite.
The poison initially oozes from glands located on the insides of the arms near the elbows, and is then transferred to the mouth by licking. When threatened, a loris pushes its hands over its head in what looks like a brace position, exposing the glands to the attacker. This endearing posture with his hands on top of his head and large eyes peeking out is actually his first warning to keep away.
The loris can deliver a nasty bite using a collection of specialized teeth known as a grooming comb, which is located at the front of its jaw. The teeth point up and out, and are so closely packed together that the venom can rise up and along them by capillary action and enter the inflicted wound.
To protect them from predators, adults also comb their saliva-venom mixture through the hair of their young when they go off foraging. The venom is not used in food collection, although the teeth are effective at removing bark, allowing the animal to access its staple foods of sap and gum.
The effect of the poison depends on the victim’s sensitivity. At best, the affected area will go numb; at worst, anaphylactic shock will set in, which has been known to kill.
As well as the slow loris, other venomous mammals include the male platypus, which has venomous spurs, and the Eurasian water shrew, which has toxic saliva. More on them in future posts!