Poison dart frogs have evolved a resistance to their own toxins. These tiny animals defend themselves using hundreds of bitter-tasting compounds called alkaloids that they accumulate from consuming small arthropods like mites and ants. One of their most potent alkaloids is the chemical epibatidine, which binds to the same receptors in the brain as nicotine but is at least ten times stronger.
An amount barely heavier than a grain of sugar would kill you. So what prevents poison frogs from poisoning themselves? Think of the molecular target of a neurotoxic alkaloid as a lock, and the alkaloid itself as the key. When the toxic key slides into the lock, it sets off a cascade of chemical and electrical signals that can cause paralysis, unconsciousness, and eventually death. But if you change the shape of the lock, the key can’t fit. For poison dart frogs and many other animals with neurotoxic defenses, a few genetic changes alter the structure of the alkaloid-binding site just enough to keep the neurotoxin from exerting its adverse effects.
From the TED-Ed Lesson Why don’t poisonous animals poison themselves? – Rebecca D. Tarvin
Animation by Giulia Martinelli