THE POWER OF POISON Opens 11/16 at American Museum of Natural History
For as long as people have created myths, they've told stories about the mysterious powers of poison. But in the natural world, poisons are simply part of the daily struggle to survive. The astonishing variety of evolutionary adaptations among toxic plants and animals is at the heart of this intriguing exhibition, which also examines humans' attempts to understand poisons' potency, how the science of detecting poison developed, and how researchers today use venoms and other natural toxins to develop new medical treatments. Visitors will encounter some of history's most puzzling poisoning cases, use clues to solve poisoning mysteries, and take part in a live theater presentation to help unravel a real-world case of poisoning.
"Every day, the Museum explores all that is extraordinary and fascinating in the natural world, and the relationship of these myriad phenomenon to humanity," said Ellen V. Futter, President of the American Museum of Natural History. "Nowhere is this more dramatic, perhaps, than in the story of poison. What evolved in animals and plants as a defense against predators or a means of preying has been used by humans throughout history for magic, murder, villainy, intoxication, and, increasingly, groundbreaking medicine. This exhibition reveals the strange and even intriguing things that happen when humans and toxic substances collide."
As scientists probe the secrets of poison, they're finding that these substances-endlessly shaped by natural selection-can also be powerful forces for healing.
"Millions of years of evolutionary history have produced a rich diversity of poisons across all groups of plants and animals, an arsenal of biochemical weapons that organisms use for offense and defense. In many cases humans have learned to harness those potent tools as well," said Mark Siddall, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology who oversaw The Power of Poison. "In this exhibition, we illuminate how poison is used in the natural world-and the evolutionary history behind it-as well as the ways in which people have used it and tried to understand its power throughout the centuries."
Rooted in the ground and besieged by insects and other plant-eaters, land plants have had plenty of time-about 450 million years-to evolve an amazing array of chemical defenses, some which are only now being discovered. Others have been known for ages. In fact, many familiar foods that we encounter daily-cinnamon, chili peppers, coffee, or tea-owe their taste, smell, or stimulant effect to defensive chemicals that can be toxic in large doses.
While plants produce toxins primarily to protect against being eaten, animals make poison mostly to deter predators and capture prey. But there is an extraordinary variety of evolutionary strategies among organisms who use poison in their struggle to survive, as visitors will discover while walking through a remote Colombian forest re-created in the exhibition's Poison in Nature section. Home to many dangerous inhabitants, Colombia's Chocó forest is the perfect place to look for adaptations that range from mimicry of deadlier species' coloring to lethal partnerships forged between poisonous insects and the plants that provide them with food and shelter-and to encounter several live species, including golden poison frogs and poisonous caterpillars, which will be on view.
There was a time when magic-not science-was widely used to explain poisonings or sicknesses, a time when the lines between poison, magic, and disease were often blurred. Specialized knowledge of botany-specifically, plants that could heal or harm-was considered a source of power and magic for centuries. Diseases were often attributed to witchcraft, poison, or both; before the discovery of germs in the 1800s, illnesses such as cholera and malaria were thought to be caused by poisonous air. Not surprisingly, poisonous plants and other toxins can be found at the core of countless fairy tales and legends from around the world. And some of the most unlikely often contain kernels of truth.
A famous scene in William Shakespeare's Macbeth, which features a trio of witches dropping gruesome ingredients into a boiling cauldron, is just one of several tales and legends re-created in life-size dioramas in the exhibition's Poison in Myth and Legend section. Shakespeare's witches, who are summoning spirits to reveal the future, are drawing on the magical powers of a few highly poisonous plants: toxic wolfsbane, hemlock, and yew, among others. Other scenes from familiar stories include the Mad Hatter's tea party from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The Mad Hatter's odd behavior, as the exhibition explains, was likely inspired by real-life symptoms of mercury poisoning suffered by workers exposed to the substance in the hat-making industry in the 18thand 19th centuries.