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The spur-winged goose (Plectropterus gambensis) is a large waterfowl which is quite common in wetlands throughout sub-Saharan Africa.  Adults are 75–115 cm (30–45 in) long and weigh up to 7 kg (15 pounds).  The bird is a close relative of both true geese and shelducks (although they aren’t really geese or ducks but have their own genus).  They are intelligent gregarious birds which live in flocks of around 50.  They look somewhat plain—their feathers are dun, sable, and white, and their faces and beaks are red–like geese badly made up to look like vultures. Yet spur-winged geese are amazing animals in several respects (I mean beyond just being geese–which live for decades, have complicated social lives, and can fly across whole continents).


Spur-winged geese have a habit of eating blister beetles and storing the poisonous cantharidin from the insects within their bodies.  Cantharidin has a long strange history in human society which you can look up on your own (it was known as “Spanish Fly”), however it is principally notable for being poisonous: 10 mg of cantharidin is enough to kill an adult human!  Spur-winged geese–particularly those which live in and around the Gambiaare often poisonous–or at least they have flesh which is toxic to humans.


Additionally, males have dinosaur-like spurs on their wings which they use, dinosaur-like, to fight each other for females.  These wing-spurs are not trivial.  Poultry keepers who have tried to keep the spur-winged goose with other birds have suffered losses to the fearsome sharpened wrist-spurs (and the aggressive territoriality of the spur-winged males).

Probably the most remarkable thing about the spur-winged goose though is its speed.  These birds are blazing fast.   They appear on shortlists with crazy birds like peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, swifts, and frigatebirds.  Although they cannot dive at speeds approaching the raptors or maneuver like the swifts,  spur-winged geese can really move quickly.  When the goose gets up to speed, it can travel 142 kilometers per hour (88 miles per hour).  It is as fast as the Delorean in Back to the Future (though it apparently lacks time-traveling abilities).


So, to sum up the spur-winged goose: it is an omnivore which lives throughout the most competitive ecosystems of Africa. It has fighting spurs on its wings, can fly as fast as a World War I warplane, and is toxic. I guess I am saying that you need to respect the spur-winged goose!

Poison is very common in the animal kingdom (and throughout the other kingdoms of life) both as a means of defense and as a weapon for hunting, however only a tiny handful of mammals are poisonous.  A few shrews have mildly venomous bites.  The European mole has a toxin in its saliva which can send earthworms into a coma (allowing it to store them in the larder for later).  The Solenodon, a strange burrowing nocturnal insectivore is perhaps most toxic among the mammals–with one glaring exception. At the beginning of the month we wrote about the clever echidna–a monotreme with unusual brain physiology.  The echidna’s closest relative, and the world’s only other remaining monotreme, the duck-billed platypus is the planet’s most poisonous mammal by far.  Not only do platypuses have bills, lay eggs, and utilize electrical sensory apparatus to hunt, but the male has a moveable poisonous spur on his hind legs which is attached to a venom-producing crural gland.  Only the male platypus is capable of producing a toxic peptide cocktail and injecting it through his spurs. Female platypuses (and all echidnas) have rudimentary spurs which drop off and lack functioning crural glands. Platypus venom causes pain and hyperalgesia—which means an increased sensitivity to pain–so you shouldn’t cuddle male platypuses no matter how adorable their funny little bills may look to you.

The crural glands...and the spur!

The Stanford neuroblog (from whom I borrowed the attached image of a platypuses’ poisonous organs and appendages), notes the similarity of platypus venoms with reptile venoms, “One evolutionary curiosity: the defensin-like peptides found within the platypus venom are also found within reptile venom. However, genetic analysis in 2008 revealed that the platypus peptides evolved independently from the reptile peptides, although both were derived from the same gene family.”  Its curious to think of how our ties with reptile forbears are manifested in the curious and endearing (and poisonous!) platypus.

Eek! Get down...he's got a platypus!

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

October 2020