Saturday, October 1, 2016

Meet the creatures who look into the face of venomous death and say: Not today

In n 1976, a student at the Texas A&M University-Kingsville was tasked with feeding the snakes in what is now the university’s National Natural Toxins Research Center. Thinking it didn’t make much difference what kind of rodent the serpents ate, the student offered one of the Center’s western diamondback rattlesnakes a plump, fuzzy woodrat. The snake attacked by sinking its fangs into the rat’s fur—a maneuver that’s usually followed by near-instant hemorrhaging, clotting in the liver, and cardiac arrest. But instead of keeling over, the rodent stared back at the God of Death and whispered: “Not today.”
 Now, the woodrat is no honey badger, the snake-defying creature crowned by the internet as the namesake of casual badassery. Woodrats weigh less than a pound, have neither large claws nor crazy fangs, and certainly don’t look capable of tangoing with a full-grown rattlesnake. And yet, when the scientists repeated the trial, they found that the woodrats not only held their own against the rattlers, the rodents sometimes scratched and bit the snakes... to death. Woodrats, as it turns out, are immune to rattlesnake venom. Makes sense, right?
 If you’re a cute little ball of fur that lives in rattlesnake country, then it’d sure be swell to be able to take a bite or two and still make it to hot yoga on time. For woodrats, venom immunity is like having a can of Fix-A-Flat in the car: You hope you never need it, but it’s handy in a pinch.
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