Now we know what makes this centipede's toxin so deadly

January 23, 2018, 1:30 p.m.
A Chinese red-headed centipede (Scolopendra subspinipes mutilans) against a white background.
Photo: Yasunori Koide/Wikimedia Commons

When animals attack other animals, they often go for small prey. They're easier to subdue, after all. Centipedes, however, are willing to take on mice 15 times their size with the aid of a deadly venom that we finally understand thanks to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The golden head centipede, also known as the Chinese red-headed centipede, uses a venom containing "spooky toxin," which can block the flow of potassium in and out of a mammal's cells. Potassium is key for keeping a number of critical functions in the body working, including maintaining a heartbeat, muscle contractions for breathing and more. The "spooky toxin" basically stops that from happening, resulting in a failure of the body's major systems.

The "centipedes' venom has evolved to simultaneously disrupt cardiovascular, respiratory, muscular and nervous systems," Shilong Yang, an expert in venom and toxins at China's Kunming Institute of Zoology and a researcher involved in the venom study, told the Washington Post. "This molecular strategy has not been found in other venomous animals."

The venom kills mice in about 30 seconds.

Yang and his fellow researchers demonstrated that a drug called retigabine, an anticonvulsant, can reopen the block potassium channels. While the bite won't kill a human, administering the drug in time could save a small animal, according to the study.

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