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  • Poisonous creatures are fascinating – from a distance. New Zealand is often touted as a good place for people to live because it’s free from seriously poisonous plants and animals – or so we thought…

    A new discovery

    We explore why dogs died on Auckland beaches in 2009. We meet and follow scientists from Cawthron Institute in Nelson – Dr Paul McNabb, Dr Shaun Ogilvie, Dr Dave Taylor and Dr Susie Wood – as they discover the cause of these deaths. In doing so, we discover the most poisonous creature in New Zealand – the grey side-gilled sea slug! We also find out how the scientists collaborate with others – particularly iwi – to help keep people safe from toxins found in kaimoana.

    Nature of science

    Finding dogs dead on Auckland beaches spurred scientists into action to discover the cause. Science exploration occurs for many different reasons and in many different ways. In this case, the scientists were like detectives working on a murder mystery.

    Poisons and toxins

    Discover the relationship between poisons and toxins. We look at poisons produced by living organisms and their effects on other living organisms. We explore chemicals – and the chemical make-up of some toxins. We learn that a poison is defined by its dose and look at how toxicity is measured. We also explore how toxins enter the food web – particularly the marine food web.

    We find out about the National Poisons Centre in New Zealand and how they can help us in an emergency. We learn about poisonous plants and animals in New Zealand, take a look at how shellfish are monitored for toxins and identify some of the bacteria that cause food poisoning.

    Classroom opportunities

    Activities include investigating the ethical issues involved in using mice when researching or testing for toxins.

    Students can explore what chemicals are and experiment with chromatography to give them an understanding of the liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry process that scientists use to identify known toxins. They explore small doses – how tiny amounts of chemical can be very toxic. In What’s poisonous?, students learn about toxins and poisons and research what’s poisonous in New Zealand.

    In Investigating toxins and bioaccumulation in marine food webs students learn about feeding connections (food webs and food chains) within a marine ecosystem. Students are also able to track marine toxins in a food web game involving the whole class.

    In detecting toxins students explore the processes scientists used to analyse and identify the toxic substance responsible for the dog deaths.

    Question bank

    The Investigating toxins – question bank provides an initial list of questions about toxins and places where their answers can be found. The questions support an inquiry approach.

    Key terms

    For explanations of key concepts, see Investigating toxins – key terms.


    Explore the timeline to look at some historical aspects of poisons in New Zealand.

    Useful link

    Explore a range of resources under our Poison and poisonous Pinterest board.

      Published 4 September 2012, Updated 7 December 2021 Referencing Hub articles
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