Palytoxin:  History and Prehistory

Written Record:

David Malo, 1838, HAWAIIAN ANTIQUITIES, Translated from the Hawaiian by N.E.Emerson, 1898, Bishop Museum Press, Special Publication 2, Second Edition, 1971, Honolulu.

"In Muolea, in the district of Hana, grew a poisonous moss in a certain pool or pond close to the ocean.  It was used to smear on the spear points, to make them fatal.  The moss is said to be of a reddish color and is still to be found.  It grows nowhere else than at that one spot."

Ancient Legend:

Again nighttime wails of anguish pierced the air above a small Hawaiian fishing village on the island of Maui near the harbor of Hana.  That evening, when all the outrigger canoes had returned from the sea with the day's catch, yet another fishermen was missing.  Desparately seeking answers, the villiagers placed the blame on the hump-backed loner living in the cliff above.

Swarming up the ridge and ripping the tapa cloak from his back, they uncovered gaping rows of triangular teeth within a huge mouth.  They had caught a Shark God, one with an insatiable lust for human flesh.  Their suspicions were correct.  Each day after the canoes went out fishing, the hunchback had leasurely come past the villiage and gone swimming for his breakfast.

The enraged fishermen mercilessly ripped the hunchback to pieces and burned him completely.  His ashes were thrown into a nearby tide pool.   But, the continuing malevolence of the demon slowly transformed the pond into a pool of death.  Ugly little brown anemones began to cloak its walls.  Much  later, it was found that these "limu", when smeared on the tip of a daggar or spear, would perpetuate the evil of the Shark God by bringing sure death to the victim.  Thus, the stationary little animals in the tide pool came to be known as the "Limu Make O Hana" (Seaweed of Death from Hana).

Modern Legend:

By 1961, University of Hawaii researchers interested in local natural products had discovered Malo's writings about a Hawaiian spear poison, Limu Make O Hana.   Only a few Maui natives remained who knew where the Limu Make O Hana grew, but none would tell.  Finally, after drinking enough Okole Maluna (a local brew from the ti plant), one of them led the scientists to the sacred tide pool.   As the biologists prepared to take specimens, a group of natives interrupted them.  These announced that by an ancient cures the pond was "kapu", and warned that if anything was disturbed, the evil of the curse would be activated.  Smiling, the scientists said, "We don't believe in  superstition", and took their samples.  Coincidentally, on that same day a fire destroyed the main laboratory building of the Hawaiian Institute of Marine Biology on Coconut Island in Kaneohe Bay, Oahu.   The anenome samples taken, proved to be a new species, which was named Palythoa toxica* and contained the deadly poison, palytoxin.

*Walsh, G.E, & Bowers, R.L. (1971) A review of Hawaiian zoanthids with descriptions of three new species.  Zool. J. Linn. Soc., 50, 161-180.

Molecule of Death: