I love venomous plants!

I want to start this article by saying, I understand the majority of people may not know the same amount of information about venoms and toxins as me, let alone animals in general, so this is not a rant nor am I having a go at any one (well…kinda) but this is an attempt to educate.

As a biologist with a keen interest in toxinology (that being, the science behind what makes bites and stings hurt), I need to understand the difference between poison and venom. Many articles and shows mention a “poisonous sting” or “the world’s most poisonous snake”, even Sir David Attenborough has talked about poisonous lizards (the issue I know of is in relation to the Gila Monster in “The Living Planet”). When spreading knowledge about these venomous creatures I feel it is unacceptable to mislabel them.


In the last 48 hours, I have read 2 online articles (news that is, not academia) both describing vemonous animals as poisonous. The first being about protein synthesis to create an inoculation for Loxosceles spiders, brown recluse spiders and relatives. Talking about “poisonous spider venom” and “spider poison” is one thing, but in this article they cite the author of the study and mentioned venom later in the story which begs the question of how much research these journalists do.

The second story is a common story in my world. Woman goes to walk her dog, doesn’t look where she sits down and is bitten “by the only poisonous snake in the country”. The woman claims to have sat down and her hand hit a snake and got bitten. I do not feel any anger or rage towards this woman, it is a simple mistake to happen to you. I’m sure the majority of people have gone outside in the summer to do whatever quickly without putting shoes on and accidently stepped on a bee or a wasp and have had a sting on the foot (I have, it’s not fun). The woman talked about how she spent so much time in fancy places that I only dream of going to, so should be familiar with snakes. However she again talks about “being bitten by a poisonous snake so close to home” but talks about the antivenom. If it she is getting treated with antiVENOM, why think it is poisonous?

I believe the problem is simply a lack of knowledge. As a herpetologist (well, I like to think I count as one) I know about snake bites, not only that I love them. The biology behind it is fascinating even if it is pretty gross and slightly strange. But I know fully grown adults talk about poisonous snakes, and depending on the situation I will correct them as I feel it’s an important distinction. Venom is injected into the tissue of prey/attacker with a means of delivery, such as fangs or a stinger. Poison is ingested from eating or drinking. So eating a snake or a spider, you’ll be fine, same goes for if you are bitten by a poison tree frog or a rhubarb leaf you will not be need a trip to A+E. When children find out I study venom, the first questions is usually ‘how many poisonous snakes there are in the world’, or ‘what is the most poisonous snake’ to which I often drop a science bomb and let them know the difference.

Saying this however, the term poisonous snake is not wrong. To my knowledge there are a few species of poisonous snake in the world. Snakes of the Genus Rhabdophis are poisonous. The second is the Garter snake (not sure which species, but I remember Qi talking about them), so people are not wrong talking about poisonous snakes, but they are using it in the wrong context.

Saying this however, reading journals about venom saying ‘poisonous snakes’ only makes me feel like I’m fighting a losing battle. How can journalists be expected to use proper nomenclature when even the scientists studying the topic do not.

And remember what Natalie Portman said, “I’d rather be smart than a movie star”


Posted on May 13, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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