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Francesco Tomasinelli/Science Source

Giant centipedes can kill prey 15 times bigger than they are, thanks to this critical toxin

Centipede venoms pack a serious punch—causing rapid paralysis in lizards, cockroaches, and other animals unlucky enough to be on the invertebrate’s dinner menu. They’ve even been known to kill people, but until recently, we had no idea why. Now, scientists have identified a nasty toxin in centipede venom that wreaks havoc on the cardiovascular, respiratory, and nervous systems of other animals—allowing centipedes to kill mice 15 times their size in 30 seconds flat. The team first purified multiple toxins from the venom of the 20-centimeter-long golden head centipede (above), which lives in forests, farmlands, and cities across eastern Asia. Then, they experimented with the toxins, one by one. They found that something called Ssm Spooky Toxin shut off the channels that pump potassium in and out of cells—channels that are critical for sending brainwaves, maintaining a regular heartbeat, and controlling a whole host of other bodily functions, the team reports today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Without this one critical toxin, the venom isn’t nearly as deadly—giving scientists hope that an antivenom treatment could be made using drugs that open potassium channels.

(A video of one deadly centipede-mouse encounter has been posted by the scientists here, but it may disturb some viewers.)