Meet the most venomous fish (and some other cool critters)

September 21, 2011

The Reef Stonefish has a face for radio (WBEZ/Gabriel Spitzer)

In last week’s episode, we talked to Leo Smith about his work with venomous fish and the promise they may hold for medical science. It turns out that there are more venomous fish than any other kind of animal, far more than snakes and scorpions combined. One particularly nasty one is the Reef Stonefish. He is an ugly and supposedly delicious species that holds the distinction of being the world’s most venomous fish.

Smith introduced us to the Stonefish during our visit to the “wet lab” at the Field Museum. Listen below:

 

To see what a Reef Stonefish looks like alive, check out these photos and videos.

The Reef Stonefish's venomous spine (Courtesy of Leo Smith)

Smith has led a comprehensive study that is greatly expanding the number of known venomous fish. In the extended version of our interview, he explains that venom traits evolved in fish not just once but possibly as many as 14 times. He expects that when they are done, fish will represent two-thirds of all venomous creatures. Listen below:

 

Leo Smith holding a Pelican Eel in the way it would likely be seen in the wild (

In addition to the venomous specimens in the lab, Smith also showed off some of the other interesting sea life in the collection. Above, he holds up a Pelican Eel. These guys live more than a half mile deep in the oceans where it is extremely cold and dark. They have two very neat features: the large pelican-like mouth you can see pretty clearly above and a bioluminescent organ in the tail that glows in the dark to attract prey.  

Smith displays the Coelacanth, a living fossil (WBEZ/Gabriel Spitzer)

The specimen in that big vat is a Coelacanth. It was thought to have gone extinct 80 million years ago, until a researcher discovered one in 1938. The Coelacanth is considered a “missing link” between fish and amphibians. Smith says that they are more closely related to amphibians and to us than they are to other fishes. They are interesting from an evolutionary standpoint because they have lobed fins. This means that they basically have a shoulder and are “on their way” to having arms and legs.

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