Killer Centipede Murders Mice in 30 Seconds With Spasm-Inducing 'Spooky Toxin' Also Fatal to Humans

A golden head centipede biting a mouse. PNAS
A golden head centipede biting a mouse. PNAS

Updated | If many-legged critters make you squeamish, buckle up, because you probably haven't seen the most terrifying stuff centipedes have on offer, like deadly venom that can kill a mouse in just 30 seconds. Now scientists have started to unravel the golden head centipede's deadly secrets in a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

There are plenty of new venoms being discovered all the time thanks to ever-developing technology that can analyze ever-smaller doses of venom, Mandë Holford, a chemist who studies snail venoms at Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center who wasn't involved in the study, told Newsweek. But this team didn't just point the finger—"then they also figured out how to stop it from happening," she added.

That's particularly impressive given that the insect's venom might make it the most efficient venomous predator out there, study co-author Shilong Yang, who studies venoms at Kunming Institute of Zoology in China, wrote to Newsweek. The mice Yang watched centipedes kill were a whopping 15 times larger than the terrifying bugs.

But even if you aren't a big fan of mice either, don't cheer just yet: The centipedes, which live in China and Hawaii, have been known to bite humans as well, sometimes fatally. So the researchers behind the new paper wanted to figure out what precisely in their venom is so deadly. They identified a new toxin, which they dubbed Ssm Spooky Toxin and which they say doesn't look like any known venom scientists have identified.

Next the team figured out Ssm Spooky Toxin was blocking what scientists call a set of cellular machinery called KCNQ channels, which cells use to pass salts in and out of themselves. That in turn is what makes blood vessels in the centipede's target spasm, sometimes strongly enough to cause death. In small animals that centipedes can bite in the head, the toxin in the brain can also cause seizures.

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Pinning down precisely what the centipedes' toxin does meant scientists could guess how to stop it: They think an epilepsy drug called retigabine, which opens those KCNQ channels back up, could do the trick and early tests looked promising.

That's different from the usual approach, which involves trying to synthesize an antivenom tailored to a particular critter's toxic cocktail. By looking at the damage, they found an existing solution instead. "Sometimes the treatment doesn't have to be as convoluted," Holford said. "No need to go and try to reinvent the wheel."

Next, the team wants to test the drug on unlucky victims of the centipede's bite—perhaps making these critters just a tiny bit less terrifying.

This story has been updated to include comment from Mandë Holford.