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Frequently (and not so frequently) Asked Questions

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BRIEF: Can you help me identify the symptoms associated with toxic Echium species?


QUESTION:
I am an Italian palynologist of the University of Modena, and I am studing the problem of overrappresentation of Echium pollen in different sediments, expecially coprolites from goats. As I found several references about toxicity of Echium in herbivores, I'm searching for news on Echium species as toxic plants. I known that Echium, and many Boraginaceae, contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Can you give me some notices? expecially on poisoning symptoms?

ANSWER:

Echium plantagineum is the modern Echium species most often cited as toxic. It does contain pyrolizidine alkaloids that can cause all of the liver damage one associates with these kinds of toxins. The English name for this plant when it is killing animals is Patterson's Curse. On the other hand, there are certain years and seasons that this plant may be the only source of feed and in fact may save large flocks of sheep from starvation. The English name for the plant then becomes Salvation Jane. Goats are very resistant to pyrrolizidine alkaloids and sheep are almost as resistant (relative to cattle or pigs, for example). If you were to find Echium pollen with the feces of any livestock, it is not surprising that it would be with goat feces.