Scientists now know what it is that gives giant centipedes, which typically live in Asia and Hawaii, the deathly ability to kill prey 15 times their own size in approximately 30 seconds.
According to new research published Monday in the journal, “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,” one particular toxin is to blame.
To test the wrath of giant centipedes, scientists examined a single golden head centipede (Scolopendra subspinipes mutilans) weighing less than three grams as it attacked a mouse (about 45 grams) and rapidly subdued it within 30 seconds. They shared video of the deadly encounter, but note that the footage may be disturbing to some viewers.
They found that the centipedes’ venom “evolved to disrupt multiple essential physiological systems,” and created SsTx, a small peptide nicknamed “spooky toxin.”
The centipede’s toxic venom blocked the mouse’s molecular channel responsible for pumping potassium in and out of cells. And those channels are critical for healthy brain activity, maintaining a regular heartbeat and much more.
When the giant centipede attacked the mouse with its toxic venom, the mouse visibly suffered dysfunctional nerves, high blood pressure and had trouble catching its breath.
The SsTx toxin, according to researchers, causes cardiovascular toxic symptoms, such as hypertension, myocardial ischemia, vasospasm, and twitching; neurotoxic symptoms such as seizure and respiratory disorders such as lowered respiratory rate.
But by administering the epilepsy drug retigabine, the researchers were able to open up the potassium channels and counteract the toxin's effects.
“Severe clinical cardiovascular symptoms, even death, have been reported following centipede bites, yet no effective therapeutic interventions are available,” the authors wrote. The new research, however, “shows that an equally simple strategy could be effective in neutralizing the venom’s toxicity.”