A sample of species traded on the dark web for their properties as drugs. (a) Sonoran Desert toad (Incilius alvarius), whose poison in the parotoid glands contains 5-MeO-DMT, a known psychedelic. (b) A preparation of Ayahuasca containing Psychotria viridis, a source of DMT, and Banisteriopsis caapi, a liana that contains monoamine oxidase inhibiting alkaliods (MAOIs). (c) Psilocybe cubensis contains the psychedelic compound psilocybin. (d) Mitragyna speciosa can have stimulant effects in low doses or opioid-like effects in higher doses. Photo credits: (a) Wildfeuer; (b) Awkipuma; (c) Alan Rockefeller; (d) Uomo vitruviano.

By Oliver Stringham, Jacob Maher, Charlotte Lassaline, Lisa Wood, Stephanie Moncayo, Adam Toomes, Sarah Heinrich, Freyja Watters, Charlotte Drake, Sebastian Chekunov, Katherine Hill, David Decary-Hetu, Lewis Mitchell, Joshua Ross, and Phill Cassey.

Read the full paper here.

We found on the dark web, a hidden corner of the internet, people are selling plants and animals in small amounts. What is interesting is that these plants and animals are mostly being sold because they have properties as drugs, rather than being used in traditional ways, such as for pets, medicine, or for personal decorations.

One of the most serious threats to plants and animals is harvesting them from their natural environment and selling them for human use. The internet currently plays an important role in this trade. Researchers are exploring the many places online where wildlife is traded, such as on social media and online pet stores or plant nurseries. However, there remains a section of the internet that is hidden and hard to access and which is known as the dark web.

Until now, researchers have had difficulty identifying what plants and animals are sold on the dark web. We were able to search through advertisements on the dark web by getting access to a very large database of advertised products. We searched almost two million advertisements and we found around 3,000 advertisements selling plants or animals. We found many more plant species being sold compared to animals or mushrooms. However, the most popular species traded came from the group of mushrooms called Psilocybe. These mushrooms have a psychedelic effect when eaten.

While our findings are interesting, we estimate that the risk to plants and animals driven by trade on the dark web is low based on the small number of advertisements. The selling of plants and animals on social media and online stores happens much more frequently than on the dark web and therefore poses a much higher risk. As such, we suggest laws and policing are focused on social media and online stores, but advise researchers to continue monitoring the dark web in case this trend changes over time.