With her Little Fireface Project Prof Anna Nekaris aims to reveal the nature and ecological context of venom in Javan slow lorises, and to assess their conservation status She hopes to bring together field & conservation biologists, toxicologists, and anthropologists to attempt the first comprehensive study of the structure, function and ecology of venom in a mammal in the wild, captivity and in the lab.
At Ciapus Primate Centre near Bogor, Java, the team is collecting saliva, urine, glandular secretions and tissue samples under different experimental conditions over 18 months and analyse their chemical components. Through behavioural experiments with captive slow lorises and their ectoparasites, we are investigating the function of their toxin in relation to (1) prey capturing, (2) predator avoidance and (3) ectoparasite reduction.
We are also intensively following wild lorises intensely in Garut, Java via radio-tracking focusing on these behaviours: feeding, predator-related, parent-offspring, chemical and anointing. We are also conducting abundance surveys of slow lorises throughout Indonesia. At the same time, we are interviewing local people about loris distribution and venom behaviour. We hopes to use ecological and ethnozoological data to develop strategies to curtail the pet trade.
The study of the venomous systems of animals, including invertebrates, snakes, lizards and frogs, has provided remarkable insight into their interactions with predators, prey and competitors, as well as yielding promising medical advances through development of pharmacological agents.
Offensive and defensive venom systems in mammals are more rare. Only six mammals are known to produce venom: platypus, Haitian solenodons, American short-tailed shrews, European water shrews, European hedgehog and of course the Asian slow loris, the only primate that harbours toxins. Folklore throughout Southeast Asia can be tracked back centuries, revealing tales of the loris’ bad taste and toxic bite delivered after a loris raises its arms above its head, combining fluid of its brachial gland (located on its upper arm) with saliva. A loris is a small primate, weighing between 300 g – 2 kg, but its bite is extremely painful, as Anna once found out! In humans, and other loris conspecifics, the wound will fester taking weeks to heal with deep scarring. In extreme cases people have died from anaphylactic shock.
In captivity, three researchers have already shown that the loris is truly venomous. The first revealed that the brachial fluid when combined with saliva not only killed mice but repelled larger predators including wild cats, sun bears and civets suggesting a primary anti-predator function for the toxin. The others suggested the toxins are a by-product with the primary use for communication with other lorises. What remains clear is more research is needed to elucidate the toxin’s actions and its ecological function.