Of all the world’s unusual birds, one of the most fascinating is the beautifully coloured Hooded Pitohui, a songbird endemic to Papua New Guinea. As the world’s only scientifically confirmed poisonous bird, its vibrant plumage sends a warning to other animals to stay away – including humans.
A Dangerous Beauty
A member of the Oriolidae family of avians, the Hooded Pitohui (Pitohui dichrous) has striking orange and black feathers, a solid black head with a crest (which raises when on alert) and deep red eyes. It is medium in stature (growing to about 23cm) but has a powerful beak in relation to its size.
However, while undeniably attractive, the bird’s feathers (and skin) are coated with an alkaloid called batrachotoxin, which is one of the most potent poisons on the planet.
Batrachotoxin is the same neurotoxin found in the poison dart frogs, which secrete the poison from their skin and are, like the Hooded Pitohui, aposematic (endowed with a vivid colouration as a warning to potential predators).
A Deadly Diet
Batrachotoxin is also found in the Choresine Beetle (from the family Melyridae), which forms part of the staple food source of the Hooded Pitohui. Scientists believe these unusual birds eat the beetles as a chemical defence against lice and other ectoparasties. When the females lay their eggs the poison is transferred from their feathers to the outside of the eggs, which serves as a protection from snakes.
For keen wildlife watchers, well-organised professional bird tours provide the opportunity to travel to a host of exotic destinations around the world to experience sightings of rare and endemic avian species in their natural habitat. Anyone planning on joining one of the bird tours to Africa may be interested to learn of three newly documented species recently discovered in Ghana and the Republic of Congo.
Three New Species
An American research team working in Africa, headed by Dr Gary Voelker, confirmed the discovery in 2016 of three very similar birds that, while living in close proximity to each other, do not actually share any genetic similarities. Dr Voelker said the findings were particularly important and exciting because it was previously considered that Afrotropical forests were “static places where little evolutionary diversification has occurred.” The thinking that in this kind of environment birds that looked similar and existed in the same habitat were likely to be the same species is now under question, leaving the door open for potentially more new species to be discovered in the future.
Dr Voelker went even further, to say that the lack of documented diversity of avian species in the lowland forests of Africa is likely due more to a dearth of specimens than an actual absence of variation.
A dedicated flower holiday affords amateur botanists, or those who simply appreciate the aesthetics of nature, the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of wild flora in its native habitat. A professional flower holiday will include the company of an experienced naturalist, and understanding a few of the more common terms used by wildflower experts can be very helpful when out in the field. While there are some terms you might never need to know (lignify, mycorrhiza, rhizome, for example), others are more commonplace and may indeed crop up during the course of a flower holiday.
A Glossary of Wildflower Terms
Adventitious: Where buds and/or roots appear in unusual and abnormal places on a stem. (Note: This is not just a botanical term, however, and can refer to any fortuitous or unintentional occurrence.)
Allogamy: Aka cross pollination, when the female of a species is fertilised by the pollen of a male of the same species – including on a different plant. Conversely, autogamy is the process of self-pollination.
Anthocynanins: Pigments contained in the plants that produce rich red and purple hued flowers. Anthoxanthins are the yellow pigments.
Carpel: The overarching term for the female reproductive organ of a flower, which includes the stigma, ovary and style.
Calyx: The collective of sepals (outer part of the flower), which are usually green and leafy and enclose the petals.
Flowers are a magnificent feature of our natural world that we inevitably associate with beauty, romance and, more often than not, a delicate aroma. But amongst all that dazzling colour and fragrance, some of the planet’s myriad species of flowering plants are not always what they seem…
Water Hemlock (Cicuta)
One of the highly toxic members of the Apiaceae family, Cicuta is an herbaceous plant usually found growing in marshy areas or along riverbanks. They can grow up to 2.5m and have stripy purple leaves and produce a very pretty head of small green and white flowers. The roots of the plant are saturated with cicutoxin, which spreads throughout the stem and leaves as it grows. If ingested by humans or animals, the toxin acts on the central nervous system, causing tremors, convulsions, cramps, nausea, vomiting and, in extreme cases, seizures, asphyxia and death.
The Poison Queen (Aconitum)
Species of Aconitum (there are around 350) go under a host of names including Wolf’s Bane, Leopard’s Bane, Devil’s Helmet, Queen of Poisons and Monkshood. Whatever name is used, there’s no denying its reputation as one of the most dangerous flowering plants in the world. It produces a delicate purple/blue bloom, somewhat like the shape of a monk’s cowl – hence its most common nickname. This perennial plant grows up to four feet tall and is found growing wild in high altitudes of the northern hemisphere. Its roots contain a highly potent alkaloid toxin that spreads throughout the entire plant and is toxic if ingested or absorbed through the skin by handling.
Our holidays to Sicily allow you to follow in the footsteps of the ancient Greeks and Romans and uncover the remarkable history that would shape much of Europe cultural and political landscape. If you fear that this is unlikely to appeal to the younger members of your tribe, we have the perfect compromise with a visit to the city of Siracusa on the Ionian coast of Sicily – here you can enjoy fascinating ancient ruins and indulge in a luxury lifestyle at our carefully selected properties while your brood enjoys many of the local attractions and facilities.
This family-friendly hotel is just a few miles down the road from the fascinating archaeological sites of Noto and the Greek Theatre. It is also near the beautiful Vendicari coastal nature reserve, which is a great place to take children as they can burn up some energy exploring the area or trying out the various activities available to them, including hiking, snorkelling and birdwatching. You can spend this time chilling out on the beach!
The hotel is also well suited to both little ones and adults. They can tear around the enormous surrounding grounds and enjoy swimming in the impressive figure-of-eight pool, whilst mum and dad can luxuriate in the wellness centre, pool bar and restaurant. It also features satellite TV, Wi-Fi and a free shuttle to the city centre (a 15-minute drive).