We’ve seen psychedelic reptiles on this blog before. Surely, you may be thinking, the pool of psychedelic species is relatively limited. Not so fast! Poisons are incredibly important for amphibian defense, so there tend to be lots of poisonous amphibians around. And, for whatever reason, humans like to ingest these intended toxins to try and experience their milder mind-altering side effects. Since amphibians live both in water and on land and can breathe and absorb water through their skin, they need skin that is relatively soft, supple, and porous, leaving them vulnerable to predators. Poisonous toxins solve this problem by transforming an amphibian from an apparently juicy meat-balloon into a sure night of food poisoning for predators. Over evolutionary time, predators that coexist with these amphibians develop hard-wired aversions to the amphibian prey. This defensive role has often been cited as the main, if not only, reason for poison production in amphibians (1).
However, recent work shows that amphibian toxins provide defense not only from larger animals, but also against microbial disease (2). Because amphibian skin needs to be soft and moist for gas and water exchange, it provides an ideal environment for growing microbes like bacteria and fungi. In fact, these microbial threats can be so dire for amphibians that some, like the chytrid fungus, have been implicated in global declines of amphibian species and have pushed many to the brink of extinction (3). For many species, secreting a version of “hand sanitizer” might be just as important for survival as secreting toxins that fend off large, vertebrate predators. Often the chemicals used to defend against predators and microbes are not the same and even differ in their secretion patterns. This is not true for all species, however, and the fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra), a European native, is one exception.
The fire salamander, named for its flaming color contrasts of yellow on black (which likely act as warnings to predators), is a poisonous amphibian that resides in the wet and wooded areas of central Europe. This fact alone makes the fire salamander special, as most salamanders live in warmer climates such as the American South. Like many other amphibians, these salamanders are poisonous. However, their toxins serve both an anti-predator role and an anti-microbial one, allowing the fire salamanders to kill two birds taxa with one stone! The main ingredient in the fire salamanders’ toxic cocktail is samandarin, which belongs to a class of chemicals called steroidal alkaloids. In its role as a poison, samandarin is extremely toxic. Less than one-hundredth of a milliliter was enough to kill the adult mice that were exposed to this dose, giving it a lethal dose 50 value of (LD50) 70 ug/kg ( 4). Samandarin acts as a neurotoxin, specifically one that overstimulates neurons. Animals exposed to samandarin will go into convulsions and seizures as their muscles begin to twitch uncontrollably and then have trouble breathing as they lose control of their diaphragm. Pet cats and dogs that make the mistake of trying to hunt these salamanders will likely die (5).
These same gnarly compounds, however, also serve to protect the salamander from infections. In an experiment where researchers “detoxified” fire salamanders by destroying their ability to produce samandarin, the detoxified individuals became much more susceptible to lethal skin infections that left them dead. Researchers then tested the compound against specific microbes and found that it has both anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, though samandarin was more effective when applied with a mix of other compounds found on the salamander’s skin than it was in isolation (5). The two-for-one nature of these chemicals has some evolutionary logic to it: why constantly secrete something to protect you from predators if you rarely actually get bitten or ingested by one? If you’re going to spend the energy to secrete a chemical, you might as well make sure it serves a purpose when on the skin, and not only when ingested.
By this point you may be thinking, “Wasn’t the lede about psychedelic amphibians? Where are the hallucinations and trips I was looking forward to reading about?” Well, it turns out there may be a third, and unintended, function for samandarin beyond its anti-predator and anti-microbial properties: hallucinogenic and (possibly) aphrodisiac powers in humans.
Thanks to the claims of a Slovenian magazine, Mdlania, in the 1990s, interest in a traditional Slovenian drink made using fire salamanders has recently been reinvigorated: salamander brandy. According to the article, salamander brandy is an “indigenous hallucinogenic drug of Slovenia” and harkens back to the days of old Eastern-European witchcraft (6). The journalist found a maker of this “traditional” brandy; in the recipe, skins of the fire salamander were mixed with fruit and then barrel-aged to create a brandy. When the journalist tried it, he reported the wavering of vision associated with any psychedelic hallucinogen and apparently also experienced a strong aphrodisiac effect. However, when some researchers tried to recreate this reported experience, results were mixed (6). I personally am willing to wager that the psychedelic and aphrodisiac effects may have been the unfortunate result of mixing of too much moonshine with a tinge of Salmonella, a bacteria commonly found in amphibians and undercooked chicken. To date, there remains a dearth of information on the hallucinogenic effects of salamanders.
Since the early 2000s, more journalists have ventured to Slovenia attempting to solve the mystery of the supposedly psychedelic salamander brandy, to no avail. Even if science was to get on board and test this hypothesis, researchers would find that, as is the case for many psychedelic drugs, rodent models can’t tell us when the sky turns into a kaleidoscope and when reality starts to dissolve. I suppose the only way for the world to find out if the brandy really is hallucinogenic is for some daring human to whip up a batch and try it. Or, for a more controlled experiment, just lick a fire salamander (as is practice with aficionados of the Sonoran desert toad).
*Editor’s Note: The Ethogram does not recommend ingesting food or drinks made from wild animals that may transmit disease, nor do we recommend licking any live animal — both for the animal’s sake and the human’s!
Victoria Farrar is a graduate student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis.
1. J. W. Daly, The chemistry of poisons in amphibian skin. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 92, 9–13 (1995).
2. Y. Xiao, C. Liu, R. Lai, Antimicrobial peptides from amphibians. Biomol. Concepts. 2 (2011), doi:10.1515/bmc.2011.006.
3. M. Warren, Skin-eating fungus is mighty species slayer. Nature, d41586-019-01002–2 (2019).
4. J. W. Daly, T. F. Spande, H. M. Garraffo, Alkaloids from Amphibian Skin: A Tabulation of Over Eight-Hundred Compounds. J. Nat. Prod. 68, 1556–1575 (2005).
5. T. Lüddecke, S. Schulz, S. Steinfartz, M. Vences, A salamander’s toxic arsenal: review of skin poison diversity and function in true salamanders, genus Salamandra. Sci. Nat. 105, 56 (2018).
6. M. Kozorog, Salamander Brandy: “A Psychedelic Drink” between Media Myth and Practice of Home Alcohol Distillation in Slovenia. 21, 1–9 (2003).