Slow lorises (Nycticebus sp.) are several species of primate commonly found in the wilds of South and Southeast Asia. Looking at one, you’d swear it was dreamed up in a Hasbro toy workshop for toddlers.
Sadly, the primate’s adorable little Ewok faces have made them irresistible commodities for Asian pet markets, where their obnoxious bite is dealt with by having the teeth unceremoniously ripped out.
As tragically popular as they’ve been in the exotic animal trade, researchers haven’t been so quick to study the animals’ unique abilities, which makes these latest results all the more fascinating.
“Slow lorises are the only known primates with ᴠᴇɴᴏᴍ and they’ve been virtually unstudied,” says Fry. The animals the team studied had been brought into Indonesia’s Cikananga Wildlife Rescue Centre, thus making the most of a sad situation.
But don’t let the looks fool you. Inside the loris’s mouth are rows of tiny, razor-sharp teeth used to both ᴛᴇᴀʀ into small prey and keep predators and competitors at bay.
As if a bite isn’t enough, when ᴛʜʀᴇᴀᴛened, the fluff monsters put their hands up and lick the glands tucked away in their armpits, dosing their spit with a rich array of compounds fine-tuned to help transform a tiny cut into a ꜰᴇsᴛᴇʀing hole of ᴅᴇᴀᴅ flesh.
“Slow lorises are the only known primates with ᴠᴇɴᴏᴍ and they’ve been virtually unstudied,” Dr Fry said. “Despite being a mystery to science, they’re commonly smuggled from the wild and sold in the pet trade, so our rescue centre research was the perfect opportunity to do some good in a bad situation.
“Generally slow lorises use their ᴠᴇɴᴏᴍ to ꜰɪɢʜᴛ with other slow lorises, causing very slow-to-heal ᴡᴏᴜɴᴅs. But, when humans are bitten, the victim will display symptoms as if they’re going into ᴀʟʟᴇʀɢic shock.”
The secretions responsible for the ᴛᴏxɪᴄ effects of the animal’s bite are known to include more than two hundred aromatic compounds, many of which have already been characterised.
But among them are a bunch of proteins which still pose some mystery, and it’s these chemicals that Fry and his team sequenced to learn more about their origins and ᴛᴏxɪᴄity.
Surprisingly, the proteins weren’t entirely new to science. In fact, many of us are ᴘᴀɪɴfully familiar with them already.
“We analysed the DNA sequence of the protein in slow loris ᴠᴇɴᴏᴍ, discovering that it’s virtually identical to the ᴀʟʟᴇʀɢenic protein on cats,” says Fry. “Cats secrete and coat themselves with this protein, and that’s what you react to if you’re ᴀʟʟᴇʀɢic to them.”
Depending on where you live in the world, anywhere from one in ten to one in four people have to deal with the sniffles, itchy eyes, or potentially life-ᴛʜʀᴇᴀᴛening sᴡᴇʟʟing of the airways that comes with breathing in the ᴀʟʟᴇʀɢenic proteins in cat saliva.
Those statistics aren’t exactly trivial, suggesting there might be something less than random about the way these proteins evolved in cats and slow lorises to repel potential ᴛʜʀᴇᴀᴛs.
“The human ᴀʟʟᴇʀɢy to cats is so prevalent that it would be a remarkable coincidence if this wasn’t an evolved defensive ᴡᴇᴀᴘᴏɴ, like the same protein used by slow lorises,” says Fry.
“Your pet cat wouldn’t know it, but it may have evolved a ᴛᴏxɪᴄ defence to keep predators as far away from it as possible.”
The link is fairly speculative and demands further study. In any case, the discovery has important implications for mapping the immunological processes that prevent slow loris bites from healing, potentially leading to better ᴀʟʟᴇʀɢy treatments or even novel medications.