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Snakes Have Two Main Types of Venom: Neither is Nice

Updated on October 6, 2011

Deadly but beautiful are our snakes

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Eastern Diamondback RattlesnakeInland TaipanGaboon ViperKing CobraBlack Mamba
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
Inland Taipan
Inland Taipan
Gaboon Viper
Gaboon Viper
King Cobra
King Cobra
Black Mamba
Black Mamba

Snake Venom is a Complex Substance

As one does, I was lying in bed thinking about snakes this morning. Before you lot start reading something Freudian into that, my own snake (Willy) was in its normal comatose state these days.

No. I meant the world's venomous snakes and the thing that was going round and around my mind was a big Why? Why do some snakes have haematoxic venom and others, neurotoxic? What has caused some species to evolve one way while the others have taken a different evolutionary route? Hey! What do you think about in bed then?

I investigated all possible souces, and couldn’t answer this within - sorry, but it turns out, there are less differences than similarities in the modified saliva, the Zootoxin, that snakes use to paralyse and slow their prey.

Most snakes have a lot of one type of venom and less of the other.

All snake venom (not poison as it is virtually harmless if swallowed) is made of extremely complicated compounds of proteins and enzymes, etc.

In a very general sense, this venom has neurotoxic or haemotoxic effects on the mammalian body. As its name suggests, neurotoxin attacks the nervous system, eventually paralysing the victim and causing death. Haematoxin attacks the red blood cells with the end result not much different from neurotoxin.

We have trouble in diagnosing and understanding the effects on humans because the experiments to determine toxicity, etc., are normally done on laboratory mice. As mice are on most snake's diet in the wild, it may be true their venom is more toxic to mice that it is to, say, a horse or a human.

Some venom of both types is faster acting than another, although the end result of fatality may be the same. Sea snakes, for example, have very fast acting venom so their prey - fast moving fish - keel over before they can escape. But a king cobra, in the top five of dangerous snakes, preys mainly on other snakes which it easily follows after being struck. Snakes which consume many birds may have a fast acting venom, and so on.

But it is curious why all he most venomous Australian snakes have venom predominantly neurotoxic. These include the two Taipans, (on a lighter note, my spellcheck changed this to “tampons!”). The Tiger, Death Adder, Copperhead, King Brown, Red-Bellied Black Snake. (The so called “Fierce Snake” is actually the Inland Taipan, and the world’s most venomous snake. Luckily, it is rare and people are seldom bitten. as both Taipan bites are 100% fatal in most cases if the attack is not treated.)

But why are all these snakes equiped with neurotoxin, while the most dangerous snakes in Africa, including the mambas, several cobras, puff adder boomslang, gaboon viper and many more, have varying types of toxin?

The same applies in Asia, with both neurotoxin and haemotoxin found in many species.

Venom has been evolving in the organs and glands of snakes and other creatures for at least 100 million years. Many of the snakes themselves have come and gone as has their specialized prey. Their venom has two functions: predatory and defensive, the latter use the one that victimises man, usually after he has blundered onto the snake or is tormenting it in some way. Snakes are normally passive and slow moving creatures, but most can change in an instant into several feet of sinew and muscle, in a homicidal rage and bent on doing its tormentor severe harm.

Yet most are passive to the extreme. I have stroked wild rattlers in Baja with no reaction. Even one of the world’s most lethal snakes, the Gaboon Viper, with the most venom in volume and the longest fangs on the planet is so reluctant to employ its armory that experienced bushmen handle it with impunity, meanwhile marvelling at the beauty of this exquisite creature. (see pic).

On the other hand, nobody handles Black Mambas, Taipans, Eastern Diamonback Rattlesnakes and King Cobras, among several more highly exciteable reptiles. The Black Mamba is perhaps the world’s most dangerous snake as it is lightning fast, can reach head height and has an awful venom and character to go with it.

In North America, rattlesnakes reign supreme and no Hollywood shitkicker would be complete without Big John or some other bone- head jerking out his hawg’s leg and blowing the crap out of a rattlesnake. The two largest are the Western Diamondback and the Eastern Diamondback, there are several other species.

People rightly fear the copperhead and the cottonmouth, both with nasty venom and often irritable temperaments, usually after getting hit with empty beer cans, etc. Both neurotoxin and haemotoxin makes an appearance.

The internet is full of enquiries about which is the world’s most venomous and/or deadly snake, spider, scorpion et al. This is really like the old tiger/lion argument (which would win in a fight). In the case of snakes there are so many variables, that a definitive answer will change according to the chronicler and his sources. What I will say is there are several contenders:

1) Black Mamba

2) Taipan

3) King Cobra

4) Eastern Diamondback

5) Bushmaster

6)Tiger Snake

7) Brown Snake

8) Beaked Sea Snake

Some; like the Gaboon Viper, doesn't make this list; -if it was aggressive, it would be number one. Lots of variables like this and one expert's advice confounds another...


Well to paraphrase Hemingway, “There were a few important things to be said,” but I am afraid my nocturnal musing of exactly why some areas have snakes with one type of venom, yet another, a separate type, could not be answered for your - or my - satisfaction. I will follow up on this because there must be a reason why Oz's snakes have one kind of venom only and most are on the most deadly list, and that is the oldest, most stable continent...

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    • profile image

      diogenes 

      4 years ago

      Interesting, Terence...thanks for comment

      bob

    • profile image

      Terence 

      4 years ago

      The Mojave Green Rattlesnake does not have the "mojave toxin" that is found in the real "Mojave Rattlesnake" and therefore should be called the green rattlesnake instead of the Mojave Green Rattlesnake. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crotalus_scutulatus#V...

    • diogenes profile imageAUTHOR

      diogenes 

      4 years ago from UK and Mexico

      Thanks, mate

      Bob

    • profile image

      RiffRaff 

      4 years ago

      First picture is of a Cottonmouth not a EDB

    • profile image

      diogenes 

      6 years ago

      I love Oz, Hanna, please don't deny me the Antipodes!

      Yes, 10 of the worlds most lethal snakes live in Aussie, but I got into more trouble with the sheilas! bob

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      6 years ago from London, UK

      It was very intgeresting to read especially with you knowledge. One thing crossed my mind was that most/many things in Australia are deadly not only the snakes. So stay away from there, Bob, because we want some more of your interesting hubs from you.

    • profile image

      diogenes 

      6 years ago

      Hi GB: I remember reading and commenting on your article; snakes make good press don't they! Bob

    • profile image

      diogenes 

      6 years ago

      Yes, Dusty, I knew about dry or even partial injections. The subject of their venom is so darned complex; I nearly gave up on this article when i realized that to do any justice to it was out of the realm of these simple hub articles. Wiki has good sites on it. Well, Dusty, i just saw Billy Connoly exploring the canyons end of route 66 and i got heartsick for the US, snakes and all. Take care ol timer...Bob

    • profile image

      Garnetbird 

      6 years ago

      Interesting--I wrote a Hub about our So. pacific Rattlers as their venom has "morphed" into something like a neurotoxin, perhaps by mating with the Mojave Greens...another reason to avoid them!

    • 50 Caliber profile image

      50 Caliber 

      6 years ago from Arizona

      Bob, an interesting article to be sure. I play with snakes every chance I get here as I sell heads and hides as well as the rattles of a variety of the Western Diamondback and other rattlers like the sidewinder. They go in a sack then the freezer until safe to handle.

      Of note they are capable of dry bites as well as putting the venom to you. 2 od 3 bites I have received were "dry bites". Painful warnings to back away. The major difference was the death of skin and meat tissue around the punctures, or in 2 cases the lack of. Seems the control just how much they release.

      At any rate the literature I have read did not go into venom specifics as you provided making a quite informing read, thanks for that.

      No worries, I wake up thinking about much these days but seems the bait of single eyed trouser trout is not on the list any more, Lol,

      Peace Dust

    • profile image

      diogenes 

      6 years ago

      Hi WOL: I'm sure your performance with the said OETS is more than adequate and you need no instruction from moi....Bob.

    • profile image

      diogenes 

      6 years ago

      Hi Austinstar. Mmmm. If the other thing popped up in the morning, maybe I would spend less time on this damn computer...Bob

    • profile image

      writeronline 

      6 years ago

      Austinstar, less encouragement please! Just a few articles ago, diogenes raised the topic of Viagra, and things that pop up, and not just in the morning. (As I'm sure you're alluding to :-) I was terrified when I saw the title of this latest that we were going to be given a step by step lesson in how to handle the one-eyed trouser snake.

      Thankfully we were spared.

      Oh BTW, nice work again, Bob.

      Cheers.

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 

      6 years ago from Somewhere near the center of Texas

      There isn't a lot that you don't know about. I enjoy reading about your curiosity of things that pop up in the morning. Keep it up :-)

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