National Geographic News
A southern grasshopper mouse approaches and prepares to attack an Arizona bark scorpion.

A southern grasshopper mouse prepares to attack an Arizona bark scorpion.

Photograph courtesy Matthew and Ashlee Rowe

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published October 24, 2013

Feeling no pain? Freedom from hurting comes at the cost of getting stung for a desert-dwelling rodent called the southern grasshopper mouse.

It turns out that grasshopper mice (Onychomys torridus) are resistant to the painful, and potentially lethal, stings of one of their menu items—the Arizona bark scorpion (Centruroides sculpturatus).

These rodents may be small—ranging from 1.5 to 2 ounces (40 to 60 grams) in weight—but they're carnivorous, "howl" before they kill, and take care of scorpion stings with just a swipe of the tongue to soothe the injured area before eating their prey.

A new study published this week in the journal Science describes just how these curious mice neutralize the pain-producing toxins contained in bark scorpion venom. And it's unlike anything yet discovered in mammals.

The ability to sense pain is important, said study author Ashlee Rowe, an evolutionary neurobiologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Pain tells you about injuries you've sustained and teaches you to steer clear of potentially dangerous or damaging situations.

So although venoms do everything from inducing intense pain to dissolving tissues to paralyzing victims, evolving a resistance to all pain isn't a good idea. That makes grasshopper mice even more surprising. (Read about the medical potential of venom in National Geographic magazine.)

A Painful Pathway

Grasshopper mice do feel pain normally. Experiments with low doses of a compound called formalin, which produces a burning sensation in human patients involved in medical studies, elicited a reaction from the rodents.

Yet the grasshopper mouse has managed to turn off the pain pathways in their nervous system in response to a specific scorpion venom.

There are three channels, or gates, on the outside of pain-related nerve cells in mammals, explained Rowe. Those need to open for an animal to feel pain. They are part of a larger group of gates, known as ion channels, which are crucial to mammalian sensory systems.

"If you have a malfunctioning ion channel, you're either sick or you're dead," she said.

Normally, scorpion venom trips two of the nerve-firing gates: first a "gatekeeper" channel, followed by one that broadcasts pain to the brain.

These two gates appear to "play the biggest role in scorpion venom in the mouse," Rowe said, while the third one appears to be a bystander in this particular story.

A Lethal Cocktail

In particular, the broadcaster gate is different in grasshopper mouse nerves than in those of house mice, or even humans. It's a difference in one amino acid—a building block of the proteins that make up this gate—that results in the pain resistance seen in grasshopper mice.

The toxins in the scorpion venom specifically target the gatekeeper channel in order to start the pain pathway, said Rowe. But when the toxins hit the broadcaster gate, they end up shutting the whole thing down.

Rowe and colleagues are still trying to pinpoint which toxin is responsible for this effect, and how exactly it works. "If we could isolate that toxin and study exactly how it interacts with that channel, that could serve as a basis for an analgesic that would target [the broadcaster gate] in humans," she said.

These feisty mice are also resistant to all the other toxins contained in bark scorpion venom. The venom contains about six toxins in all, Rowe said.

If given in large enough doses, this lethal cocktail will shut down the diaphragm. "[Victims] stop breathing and die of asphyxiation," she explained.

"We don't know how [the mice are] resistant," Rowe said, but the researcher is closing in on an answer.

Rowe would also like to see if any other ion channels are involved in the body's response to bark scorpion venom. Just finding one target gate, she says, "doesn't mean it's the only target."

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

britney robinson
britney robinson

its stupid to put a scorpion with a  rodent pet thing you people risk thing animal and even people to prove the most stupid thing so stop risking thing animals and people you are mental retard do something besides risking thing and people get an education to do something different its not cool you scar more people then prove to people so think about that one

El Gabilon
El Gabilon

The Scorpion is the natural prey to the Grasshopper Mouse. Every effort should be made to protect them simply because without them Scorpions would flourish like the killer bees are doing.  Did the Grasshopper Mouse get its name becase it also consumes grasshoppers?  We are not going to tell how the mouse turns off the pain simply because its not about the pain, its about the journey of discovery.

Gerardo García Magaña
Gerardo García Magaña

You are truly an analphabet, people like you are the kind of close minded persons who speaks without any fundament... They doing research with those mices because their natural prey is the Bark scorpion... SO THAT MEANS THEY ARE UNAFFECTED BY THE VENOM! They're not risking any animal but the scorpion, and for your information research is made to help you have a selective and effective analgesic therapy tomorrow when you're dying of something painfull! Go get yourself informed people!

Trending News

Celebrating 125 Years

  • Paul-Salopek-Ethiopia-Walk3-990x659.jpg

    Out of Eden Walk

    Where will Paul Salopek walk on his seven-year adventure? Find out as he updates us from the field.

  • hub_tease2.jpg

    Feed the World

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »