Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Plants Accustomed To Make Tranquilizer Darts

While nicotine can be used to make tranquilizer darts, the plant substance most famously used for this purpose is curare. Curare is actually a generic term encompassing several South American plant species. Traditionally, bark from any one of these species was mixed with venom from snakes, frogs or ants to make a poison for tipping arrows.


Nicotine and curare are alkaloids. They act on the neuromuscular system. Curare is not toxic -- it causes muscle relaxation and temporary paralysis. It can be fatal because muscle paralysis prevents lung function. In lower doses, and so long as the patient is given oxygen, curare has a medical or veterinarian application. The patient remains fully conscious, but is unable to move. The effects wear off in about 90 minutes.

Plant Species

Nicotine from tobacco plants has been used in tranquilizer guns.

In Eastern Amazonia -- especially Guyana -- curare came from the poisonous bark of trees of the genus Strychnos, the source of strychnine. In the Western Amazon, Chondrodendron and Sciadotenia were used. All of these sources of curare are tropical lianas or woody vines. Distinguished by the ways in which they were stored, Eastern -- Strychnos curare is termed "pot curare," while Western curare is "tube curare." Nicotine, however, is extracted from tobacco plants -- including the flowering tobacco, Nicotiana sylvestris, a common garden flower.

Traditional Use

South American natives scraped bark from lianas. Boiled in water, this produced a bitter paste. Darts dipped in this paste were silently fired at prey using blowguns. Using a muscle relaxant as an arrow poison was ideal because it enabled tribesmen to hunt animals high in the rainforest canopy. Hit by almost instant paralysis, animals would lose their grip on vines and branches and fall to the ground.


New Zealand veterinarian, Colin Murdoch developed the tranquilizer dart in the 1950's. A fast-acting paralyzing effect was essential, so Murdoch's early guns used curare and nicotine. Both proved unpredictable and many animals died. Murdoch worked to develop less dangerous chemical tranquilizers. These have superceded the use of plant substances.

Though once used in Australasia, nicotine has never been licensed as a tranquilizer in the U.S. In 1989, Arizona animal control officers were caught diluting nicotine-based insecticide and using it in tranquilizer guns to shoot dogs. This is illegal. One Rabies Control employee reported being temporarily blinded when one of these illegal darts went off in his truck.

Medical and Veterinary Applications

While nicotine is not approved in the U.S. for any anesthetic purpose, curare has been used as an anesthetic since 1942. Synthetic versions of curare's active ingredient, d-tubocurarine, are marketed as Tubadil, Tubarine, Metubine Iodine or Mecostrin. These are used as anticonvulsants, anesthetics and as muscle relaxants in polio, tetanus, acute arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, and during the insertion of tracheal tubes. Scientists are investigating synthetic curare's potential as a treatment for anxiety, vomiting and drug-withdrawal.

Curare root is considered "safe" as a herbal medicine for urinary and testicular problems -- its muscle-relaxing properties are not absorbed when swallowed. However, the wide availability of synthetic curare means herbal curare has not been subjected to clinical trials. Herbal curare is mainly used in South America.

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