Tiny fish foils predators by injecting them with opioid venom

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The fang-blenny fish is a member of a family of fish called combtooth blennies, of which there are 400 known members. However while these plankton feeders and aquarium favorites might not look like they could hurt a fly, their venom can easily make a predator's blood pressure drop like one. While most fang-based venom causes extreme pain in the victim, the blenny fish's venom is different because it contains, among other things, an opioid peptide. Fang blennies bite their targets, and it's possibly the only example of a species evolving venom to defend against predators rather than attack.

Experiments using lab mice found the rodents showed no sign of pain once injected with the fish venom.

This has opened up new theories on how it might be used in medicine, specifically the development of painkillers - meaning we're likely to hear plenty more about this little drug-pusher in the future. Scientists reported observing blennies engulfed by the mouths of larger fish, which then experienced a "quivering of the head" and spat the blenny out unharmed, the study authors wrote.

These compounds have distinct pain-inhibiting properties and could one day be used to develop new types of painkillers.

The researchers went into the study with "no grand hypothesis, just basic wonderment" according to Fry, but they plan to follow up the study by comparing and contrasting the composition of venoms from different blenny species.

Another surprise from the study was the evidence suggesting that fang blenny fangs evolved before the venom. The venom includes phospholipases, a substance that damages animals' nerves and that is found in the venom of bees and scorpions, neuropeptide Y, which makes blood pressure drop, and enkephalins, opioids similar to the ones found in heroin and morphine. These attractive and territorial fish are found on Australia's Great Barrier Reef and other tropical locations.

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For the study, the researchers analyzed venoms extracted from fang blennies. He explained that the large teeth, much like the big spines of some other fish, could make it hard to be eaten. If a human is bitten, study co-author Bryan Fry states, the venom "can produce sensations of extremely unpleasant nausea and dizziness".

Researchers described the uniqueness of the venom residing in the little fangs.

In the biodiverse realm of coral reefs, other species also "mimic" the fang blenny - developing similar striped patterns and bright colours that may fool predators into thinking that they too are opioid-laced.

"Their secret weapons are two large grooved teeth on the lower jaw that are linked to venom glands". We spoke with Bryan Fry, a biologist at the University of Queensland, about his findings and the chances this newly discovered resource will survive the effects of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef.

"They're right in the epicentre of the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef", said Fry.