- Other behaviours and adaptations
- Breeding behaviours
- Danger to humans
- Australia’s deadliest top 5
- 1. Box Jellyfish
- 2. Honey Bee
- 3. Sydney Funnel Web Spider
- 4. Eastern Brown Snake
- 5. European Wasp
- Bad rep of brethren still stings Aussie scorpions
- Scorpions useful to have around
- Australian scorpion stings painful but not lethal
- What should you do if you find one in your home?
- Why do scorpions get such a bad rap?
- Scorpion Envenomation: Background, Pathophysiology, Etiology
- What to Know About Scorpion Stings
- Scorpion Stings
- Symptoms of a scorpion sting
- Treatment of a scorpion sting:
- Medically Significant Scorpion Species
- What Pet Owners Need to Know About Scorpion Stings
- Why some animals have venoms so lethal, they cannot use them
Scorpions are common arachnids found in gardens and forests throughout Australia. They are found under logs, rocks and in shallow burrows in earth banks. There are also desert species that construct deep spiral burrows in desert sand.
Scorpions are mostly nocturnal but they can be active during the day, especially during prolonged wet weather. Scorpions tend to be larger and more venomous in the northern parts of Australia.
The largest Australian scorpions can grow to 12 cm long, but many forest dwellers are only small.
Scorpions are easily distinguished by their long sting-bearing tail and a pair of pincers on long arms, known as pedipalps, at the front of the body. Despite having six to twelve eyes – an obvious pair at the centre of the carapace and two to five smaller eyes on each side – scorpions do not have good eyesight.
However, they can readily distinguish light from dark and appear to have excellent low light sensitivity, which helps them to both avoid harsh sunlight and to navigate by starlight or moonlight.
They sense their way around using sensory hairs and slit organs on the legs, pedipalps and body that pick up vibrations and scents (mechanoreceptors and chemoreceptors). They also have special organs on the underside of the body called pectines, which pick up ground textures and scents.
Scorpions breathe through four pairs of book lungs on the underside of the abdomen. Female scorpions are more heavily built than males, with shorter tails. Colour ranges from dark grey to light brown or gold, with lighter coloured legs.
Scorpions also fluoresce under ultraviolet light, which is a good way for scientists to find them in the field. The fluorescence is thought to serve as an ultraviolet sensitivity mechanism, perhaps allowing the scorpion to avoid damaging light levels.
Four species of scorpion you may commonly come across include;
- Brown Scorpion, Urodacus manicatus:
- Desert Scorpion, Urodacus yaschenkoi:
- Marbled Scorpion, Lychas marmoreus:
- Wood or Forest Scorpion, Cercophonius squama:
Scorpions are common arachnids found in a variety habitats throughout Australia. They are found under logs, rocks and in shallow burrows in earth banks.
This large and fiesty scorpion (Urodacus spp.) from the Simpson Desert is rarely seen during the day, instead preferring to emerge from its burrow in the cool of night. Image: Elizabeth Tasker
© Australian Museum
Scorpions are nocturnal hunters, feeding mainly on arthropods such as beetles, cockroaches, spiders, slaters, centipedes and millipedes.
One Australian species, Isometroides vescus, is specialised to feed solely on burrowing spiders, especially trapdoor spiders, invading and often occupying their burrows.
Many scorpions are lie-in-wait ambushers that forage at or in the vicinity of the burrow entrance (eg Urodacus spp.), but some, notably bark and litter dwellers (eg Lychas spp.), are more active foragers.
Ground vibrations caused by moving prey are sensed both by slit- tarsal sensory organs on the scorpion's legs and vibration sensitive tarsal hairs. The clawed grasping pedipalps are used to hold the prey while the scorpion stings or crushes it.
The scorpion digests its prey by pouring digestive juices onto the prey and breaking it up with its jaws. The hard outer body casings are discarded.
The main predators of scorpions are carnivorous marsupials, rodents, lizards, nocturnal birds, centipedes and other scorpions.
Other behaviours and adaptations
Scorpions are arachnids, which means that they are related to animals such as spiders, ticks, mites and harvestmen.
Arachnids are characterised by possessing four pairs of legs and a body divided into two parts – the cephalothorax (containing the mouthparts, eyes, pedipalps and legs) and the abdomen (containing the reproductive and digestive organs).
One particular group of arachnids that can closely resemble scorpions is known as Pseudoscorpions. These possess large grasping pedipalps, but lack the characteristic tail and sting of true scorpions.
Males and females find each other by vibration, scent and touch. During mating, the sensory pectines under the body are used to find a suitable place for the male to deposit his sperm parcel – the spermatophore.
The male and female then perform a mating dance above the spermatophore, with the female being wrestled into position over it in order to draw it up into her genital pore. The fertilised eggs develop inside her body, and she then gives birth to live young.
She carries the pale young scorpions on her back for the first few days or weeks, until they are strong enough to become independent. The young then disperse to find food and shelter.
Scorpions take a long time to reach maturity, moulting frequently (up to five or six times over two to six years) in order to grow, and may live for two to ten years. Some have been recorded as living up to 25 years.
Danger to humans
Australian scorpions can give a painful sting which can cause inflammation and pain for several hours. First aid for a sting is to apply a cold pack and to seek medical aid if pain persists. It is also a good idea to try to catch the scorpion and have it identified. The scorpion usually seen in houses is the small Marbled Scorpion.
To avoid being stung by a scorpion, wear good gloves and shoes in the garden and don't leave things lying around on the floor in the house or garage.
Reduce invertebrate habitat by covering compost and garbage, and cleaning up building materials around the house.
Scorpions are great pest controllers in the garden, so if one is found in the house, collect it carefully in a jar and remove it to a safe distance, rather than killing it.
- M. S. Harvey & Yen, A.L. 1989. Worms to Wasps: an illustrated guide to Australia's terrestrial invertebrates. Oxford University Press: Melbourne.
- Koch, L.E. 1977. The Taxonomy, Geographic Distribution and Evolutionary Radiation of Australo-Papuan Scorpions, Rec West Aust Mus: 5(2).
- Locket, A.1994. Night Stalkers. Australian Natural History 24(9): 54-9.
- Scorpions. WA Museum Leaflet.
- Scorpions, Centipedes and Millipedes. Queensland Museum Leaflet.
- Lawless, P. 1998. Lo what light…Wildlife Australia Magazine, Winter Edition. [article on scorpion fluorescence]
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Australia’s deadliest top 5
Australia is infamous for its dangerous animal population all over the globe, and in some cases this may be true, but are the chances of an encounter enough to warrant fear? It’s true, we are home to more deadly snakes than any other country worldwide! and two of the most venomous spiders globally as well. We have compiled a list of Australia’s top 5 dangerous stinging species the threat they pose, combined with the lihood of encountering one.
1. Box Jellyfish
Symptoms of a sting include excruciating pain, itching, rashes and welts
The most deadly and lethal varieties are found near the region of North Australia, this includes the largest and most deadly,
the Australian Box Jellyfish, scientificallyknown as the the Chironex Fleckeri. Since 1883 the C. Fleckeri has caused over 64 deaths, with most of the victims being children.
But why did they reach out top five deadly?A sting from one of these guys, can cause death in as little as five minutes. Their venom contains several toxins that attack the heart, nervous system and skin cells.
So powerful in fact, that the victim goes into shock from the pain and more often drowns or dies from a heart attack before they have the opportunity to reach shore.
2. Honey Bee
Bee stings kill almost as many people as snake bites and results in double the amount of hospital visits.
The humble Honey Bee, not exactly Australia’s most feared. Of all venomous bites and stings recorded over the past 13 years, a third of them
were bee stings.
The average adults would need an average 500 jabs to be killed by the common honeybee, but for a certain percentage of the population
that suffer from allergic reactions, the humble honey bee isn’t so harmless.
Bee’s reach our list due to the lack of awareness around allergies, complacency
about stings, and the lihood of an encounter.
3. Sydney Funnel Web Spider
Their fangs are larger than that of a Brown Snake
It is no surprise that the notorious Sydney Funnel web spider had to make the top 5 deadly list.
Although these particular funnel webs are only responsible
for 13 recorded deaths since the antivenom was developed in 1981, if you are bitten by one of these, you might want to head to the hospital.
Scary but true, the
Funnel-web’s fangs are very strong, with the ability to pierce through fingernails and shoe leather. Not only is their bite much more painful than that of other spiders, their aggressive too.
Often latching on and biting repeatedly until brushed away. Their toxin is HIGHLY toxic and fast acting…..luckily it seems only the males are dangerous, and just 1 in 6 bites will results in medically emergencies.
4. Eastern Brown Snake
Responsible for the most deaths caused by snakebite in Australia
The Eastern Brown is an extremely venomous snake of the family Elapidae, it has made the top list because it is responsible for the most deaths in Australia caused by snake bite.
Although with the advent of first aid response and antivenom, there are now around one or two deaths per year. It still holds the reins for death by snake.
The Eastern Brown snake inhabits most of eastern Australia from the coast to the desert and maintains a secure population due to its readily available diet, small mammals such as rats, and small birds.
5. European Wasp
Discovered in Tasmanian in 1959
European wasps are located along the East coast of Australia. They pack a serious sting when angered and have quite the temperament. When their nests
are disturbed they will attack their victim causing multiple stings, and will not die after the first one, un bees.
There have been 7 deaths
recorded over a twenty-year period, and this was mostly due to fatal allergic reactions. Although wasps are not deadly in most instances, they are a common
pest and aggressive species, this is why they made our top 5 dangerous.
There are many dangerous species that do habitat Australia, but the majority that we do commonly fear and perceive as deadly, actually cause the minority
of animal related fatalities.
Other notable stinging/toxic animals are the Blue-Ringed Octopus, cone shells and Coastal Taipan. For now, we base our findings
on the commonality of the species and their ability to cause medical emergencies.
Bad rep of brethren still stings Aussie scorpions
Posted April 14, 2018 07:00:18
snakes and spiders, scorpions have a bit of a fearsome reputation that can help make your skin crawl when you see them.
But if you find one in or around your home, there's no need to worry — Australian scorpions are relatively harmless.
“They can give you a nasty sting but they're not particularly dangerous; generally the consequences are very minor,” Professor David Rowell said.
“They're certainly not something that people should be worrying about.”
A recent post on the Canberra Notice Board Group page had many users surprised the capital was home to scorpions.
But it turns out scorpions are actually really common; it's just they prefer to live in holes and under bark in bushland and backyards.
“They are incredibly common but they rarely wander into people's homes,” Professor Rowell said.
“So people usually don't see them unless they're searching for them.”
The black rock scorpion is one species common in the Canberra region.
“You'll find them under rocks all over Black Mountain, Mt Ainslie and all over the place,” Professor Rowell said.
It is the smaller marbled scorpion that people are most ly to find inside their homes.
“Marbled scorpions climb and live on trees, so they can come into a house and live sideways on a wall or behind the wardrobe,” Professor Rowell said.
Scorpions useful to have around
Scorpions are environmentally beneficial and useful to have around your garden.
” spiders, we would be in a really bad position if we didn't have these carnivorous invertebrates that can eat grasshoppers, cockroaches and all of those things that can reach plague proportions.”
Scorpions are really quite fascinating nocturnal arachnids: they glow under ultra-violet light, the females bear live young and carry them around on their backs, and they can survive in extreme conditions.
“When they're not active they have the metabolic rate about the same as radish; that is, they're almost turned off,” Professor Rowell said.
“This means they can live for years and can go years without food.”
Australian scorpion stings painful but not lethal
While Australian scorpions can give you a nasty sting if you step on one or take it by surprise, their venom is not deadly.
“Typically, the sting is minor localised pain and a tiny bit of swelling — usually quite trivial effects,” Associate Professor Bryan Fry, from the University of Queensland's School of Biological Sciences, said.
“As far as the pain sensation, the sting would normally be similar to a bee and dramatically less than that of the bullet ants that we have in Australia.”
ABC Radio Canberra listener Sam recalled his recent experience of being stung by a scorpion while camping in Kosciuszko National Park.
“I got bed to deal with a possum that had taken a liking to our garbage, and when I hopped back in bed and rolled over I felt an intense stinging pain in my side,” he said.
“I turned the light on and there was a scorpion in the bed.
“It was about 1:00am and I lay there feeling a bit uneasy for a while, having never been bitten by a scorpion.
“I managed to get back to sleep and when I woke up the next day it was fine, but 24 hours later I actually had a red rash there that stayed for almost a week.”
What should you do if you find one in your home?
If you come across a scorpion in your home, Professor Rowell recommended using a pencil or stick to coax it into a jar or container and then release it outside.
“Once you know where the scorpion is it's not going to sting you,” he said.
“The only way that someone will get stung is if they didn't know one was there and they trod on it or something.
“They are slow and they don't jump so you're quite safe pushing them into a container with a pencil or something.”
Why do scorpions get such a bad rap?
Firstly, they aren't exactly cute and cuddly.
“They're a very creepy looking animal by most people's standards,” Associate Professor Fry said.
“They're not the cute and furries that people typically and such animals are usually quite maligned and persecuted against.”
Plus in other parts of the worldn the Middle East, North Africa and Central America, there are many species of scorpions that are lethal.
“Scorpions are of huge medical importance there and they do sting, severely injure and kill quite a number of people,” Associate Professor Fry said.
“In Australia they're not any sort of medical hazard but in other parts of the world they are, so that sort of fear does carry over to the Australian scorpions.”
Topics: invertebrates—insects-and-arachnids, human-interest, animals, canberra-2600, act
Scorpion Envenomation: Background, Pathophysiology, Etiology
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What to Know About Scorpion Stings
Many types of scorpions roam the the desert landscapes of the American Southwest. Scorpions don't bite (because they have no teeth), but they do sting. If you remain calm, it is not difficult to treat a scorpion sting.
Even if you are stung by the Arizona bark scorpion — found mainly in the Southwest and the only scorpion in the United States that can cause serious symptoms — it is not ly to be fatal or have long-lasting effects. Medical centers in . areas where scorpions are found are familiar with the treatment.
Deaths from scorpion stings mainly occur in areas without access to the necessary medical care, according to the Mayo Clinic.
People who are allergic to stings and bites or people who have other medical conditions or weakened immune systems, along with babies, small children, and the elderly, are most at risk for serious complications from a scorpion sting, but stings are rarely life-threatening.
It is not ly that a healthy adult or your pets would suffer serious effects from a sting.
Mayo Clinic advises that you should get medical care immediately if a child is stung since the same amount of venom could have more serious effects, regardless of the symptoms you can observe.
Many people think that every scorpion they come across is deadly. That's not the case, but it is prudent to err on the side of caution if you are stung. If you want to be able to recognize scorpions when you come across them, familiarize yourself with the identifying features of scorpions in your area.
It is important to recognize scorpion sting symptoms: immediate pain or burning, very little swelling, sensitivity to touch, and a numbness or tingling sensation.
More severe symptoms, which indicate the venom effects have spread through the body, include difficulty breathing; muscle twitching; drooling; sweating; nausea and vomiting; high blood pressure; fast heart rate or irregular heartbeat; or unusual head, neck, and eye movements.
These symptoms are most often seen in children who have been stung. If you notice any of these more serious and widespread symptoms in anyone who has been stung, you should get medical care immediately.
If you are stung by any scorpion, there are a few immediate actions you should take.
- Wash the area with soap and water.
- Apply a cool compress on the area of the scorpion sting for 10 minutes. Remove compress for 10 minutes and repeat as necessary.
- If stung on a limb (arm or leg) keep the affected limb in a comfortable position.
- Call the Poison Help Line. The staff will assess the symptoms of the person who has been stung to determine the course of action. If severe symptoms are present, they will direct you to the nearest emergency facility for treatment. If a decision is made to keep the person at home, the Poison Center staff can follow up to make sure that the person is not developing symptoms that might need medical intervention or antivenin.
- Make sure your tetanus shots and boosters are current.
It helps to know all you can about the habits of scorpions to better avoid them and protect your family and yourself.
- Be careful when you're camping or during other outdoor activities to make sure that a scorpion has not made a home in your clothes, shoes, or sleeping bags.
- Scorpions glow brightly under UV light (black light).
- Scorpions are hard to kill off. If you suspect your house has scorpions, call a professional exterminator. Eliminating their food source (other insects) can help.
Disclaimer: If you are stung by a scorpion and are concerned about your symptoms, call a poison hotline, contact a medical professional, or go to an emergency room or urgent care center.
Thanks for letting us know!
Scorpions:Overview | Scorpion Stings | Prevention
Symptoms of a scorpion sting
Most scorpions are not dangerous to humans. There are, however, a few species, in the family Buthidae, that can be dangerous to humans. The most venomous scorpion in the United States is the bark scorpion.
Common symptoms of a scorpion sting include:
- pain, tingling or burning sensation at the sting site
- malaise, sweating, nausea and vomiting
- muscle twitching
- abnormal neck, eye and head movements/twitching
- heart palpitations
- breathing difficulties may occur
More severe reactions include:
- blurring of consciousness
- fall in blood pressure
- the threat of death
Treatment of a scorpion sting:
- clean the sting area
- apply an ice pack wrapped in a washcloth or other covering for 10 minutes an repeat as necessary
- Call a poison control center. Poison Control Centers are usually open 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help you. The Poison Help hotline 1-800-222-1222 serves as a key medical information resource.
If you are stung by a bark scorpion, seek medical attention immediately.
Bark Scorpion, 2008, Photo by Musides. Wikimedia.
Bark Scorpion – Centruroides exilicauda (formerly C. sculpturatus)
Medically Significant Scorpion Species
Only one species of scorpion in North America, and about 20 others worldwide, have venom potent enough to be dangerous to human beings. The North American species, Centruroides exilicauda (formerly called C.
sculpturatus), is found over much of Arizona and Mexico. It is also known as the bark scorpion.
A small population occurs in extreme southeastern California, and a few records exist for southern Utah and small parts of Texas, New Mexico and Nevada.
The venom of the Arizona bark scorpion can cause
- severe pain and swelling at the site of the sting
- frothing at the mouth
- respiratory difficulties
- muscle twitching
The sting is more dangerous to infants, small children and the elderly. Death is rare, especially in more recent years. In the past 20 years there haven't been any reported fatalities due to scorpion stings.
Scorpion Keychains and more.
Medically significant species of scorpion occur worldwide:
- In the Mediterranean and North Africa – Buthus, Leiurus, Androdoctonus and Leiurus
- In Western and Southern Africa – Parabuthus
- Across Southern Africa to Southeast Asia – Buthotus (also known as Hottentotta)
- In Asia – Mesobuthus and the Buthotus (also known as Hottentotta)
- South America – Tityus
Lean more about scorpion control and prevention!
The more venomous scorpions have lighter, more delicate pedipalps and larger, stronger tails. The Buthidae family contains most of the scorpions dangerous to man. They can generally be distinguished by the triangular sternal plate on their ventral side. Other species' sternal plates are more square or pentagonal.
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What Pet Owners Need to Know About Scorpion Stings
Pet owners in the Southwestern United States need to be concerned about scorpion stings. It's not uncommon for a curious dog or cat to have a run-in with one of these venomous arthropods.
The good news is that a sting is typically not fatal but more of a painful irritation that goes away within eight hours. Nonetheless, if your pet has been stung by a scorpion, it is best to contact your veterinarian right away. Some animals can have severe reactions.
The Arizona bark scorpion (Centruroides sculpturatus) is a venomous scorpion that lives in the Southwestern U.S. It is found throughout Arizona, in western New Mexico, southern Utah and Nevada, and parts of southern California. It is the scorpion of concern in the country and the venom is relatively harmless to domestic animals.
If you travel with your pet to other areas of the world where scorpions are prevalent, you will need to be more cautious. Educate yourself about scorpion species in tropical jungles and similar destinations before you leave for your trip. It may even be a good idea to leave your dog at home.
Scorpions are nocturnal and only come out at night, preferring to hide in dark areas (including shoes). If you live in an area with scorpions, be sure to watch your pets carefully at night. During the day, scorpion encounters often occur when curious dogs and cats dig up and disturb a scorpion nest.
Quite often, scorpions will sting animals on the nose, tail, or paw. It is a self-defense mechanism because the only other time a scorpion strikes is when it's trying to catch prey.
For many animals, the sting of a scorpion is similar to an insect sting, with pain and swelling at the site. From human reports, the pain can be intense and varies with the location of the sting. Some people also experience numbness.
In some cases, pet owners see their dog or cat “playing” with a scorpion when the sting occurs. It's also possible that you may not witness it. If your pet is showing any of the following signs, it may be due to a scorpion bite and you should call your vet:
- Localized pain, signaled by yelping, licking, limping, head shaking, rubbing, etc.
- Trouble swallowing
- Breathing difficulties
- Trouble urinating or defecating
- Drooling or vomiting
- Abnormal behavior
Hypertension (high blood pressure) is possible in some animals and can lead to serious complications. Most animals recover without a problem. Some, however, will have a more severe reaction, showing signs of neurologic, cardiovascular, and pulmonary collapse.
According to a small study by the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, small dogs tended to have a more severe reaction than larger breeds. In most cases, the dogs recovered within four hours of the sting. Some effects were noticed as long as eight hours after the encounter.
Though they only had seven cats in the survey, it seems that cats may experience severe reactions as well. Owners reported “tremors, agitation, roving eye movements, and changes in breathing.”
This report alone seems to counteract the myth that cats are immune to scorpion stings. The Arizona agency also points out that it's possible that fewer cat cases were reported because cats have a higher tendency to hide when injured.
If you see or suspect that your pet has been stung by a scorpion, call your veterinarian immediately. If the scorpion is still around and you can safely catch it, bring it along for proper identification.
The vet will ly try to remove the stinger, clean the wound and apply a cold compress. Pain or allergy medications (specifically Benadryl) may also be prescribed or recommended.
If the sting occurs on a hike or in a similar situation where immediate veterinary care is not available, there are things you can do. The goal is to make your dog as comfortable as possible until you can get to a vet.
You can carefully rinse the sting site with cold water and apply a cold compress for 10 minutes. It may be difficult, but try to keep the stung body part above the dog's heart. Only if you can do so safely (without being nipped as well), it is possible to remove the stinger with a pair of tweezers.
Do not give your pet any medication—human or veterinary—without talking to your vet first. Only they know your pet's medical history and can tell you what is safe or if any medications are needed.
Cheng D. Scorpion Envenomation. Medscape. 2017.
Holzman D. When Scorpion Meets Cats & Dogs. Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center. 2014.
If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.
Why some animals have venoms so lethal, they cannot use them
This story is part of BBC Earth's “Best of 2016” list, our greatest hits of the year. Browse the full list.
My reverie as I walk through Costa Rica's beautiful Corcovado National Park is brought to a sudden halt when the guide's arm slams into my chest. “Stop!” he shouts, pointing at something thrashing around in the sand. “Sea snake.”
As I watch the yellow-bellied sea snake, its element and seemingly distressed, a piece of trivia from my childhood surfaces in my brain.
“Sea snakes,” my younger self reminds me, “are the most dangerous snakes of them all. You should be careful.”
This “fact” is actually an exaggeration, but it is true that some sea snakes are incredibly venomous.
So are certain land snakes: a single bite from an inland taipan contains enough venom to kill 250,000 mice, for instance. And it is not just snakes that hold this sort of power.
One drop of marbled cone shell venom can kill 20 humans. A box jellyfish sting can cause cardiac arrest and death in a matter of minutes.
This begs the question: why possess a weapon powerful enough to kill dozens if you are only ever going to use it in a one-on-one situation, and specifically if you have no intention of hunting anything the size of a human?
It is reminiscent of the commonly held myth (and it is a myth) about daddy longlegs; namely, that they possess the most powerful venom known to man, but evolved it for nothing because they lack the means to administer it. The most powerful venoms just seem to make no evolutionary sense.
The reason for an animal possessing toxic weaponry is simple enough. Venom is a means by which to subdue prey without risking your own neck in the struggle. Secondarily, it is also a useful defensive strategy.
What is strange, however, is the level of venomous excess found in nature. Why does a snake possess the capability to kill hundreds of thousands of mice with each bite? This is especially odd when you consider what an expensive weapon venom is.
A single bite from a taipan snake contains enough venom to kill 250,000 mice
Venom tends to contain mixtures of protein-based toxins, often acting synergistically to wreak havoc on internal organs. A snake haemotoxic venom might contain one component that prevents blood from clotting, and another that breaks down the walls of blood vessels. The results are predictably messy.
Protein synthesis requires a substantial energy investment, but this has not stopped the evolution of venoms containing thousands of peptides and proteins, at considerable cost to the animals in question.
And to some extent, venomous animals actually account for these costs. It is difficult to test such things directly, but it appears that snakes adjust the amount of venom they inject depending on the size of their prey, so as not to waste it.
Furthermore, one experiment conducted with pit vipers demonstrated an 11% increase in metabolic activity following venom extraction, indicating a link between physical exertion and venom production.
Even so, the classical view of natural selection would see such costly traits stripped away unless they are absolutely necessary. This has indeed happened in some species: the marbled sea snake, which has reverted to eating eggs, consequently lost its ability to produce venom.
The fact remains, however, that there are plenty of animals going around with costly cocktails of chemicals in their fangs, barbs and spines that appear to be vastly more potent than they need to be. Why?
Venom has to be 100% efficient and cause death very rapidly
One traditional view holds that heightened toxicity is the result of evolution compensating for shortcomings in other areas.
As any desert dweller will tell you, when it comes to scorpions, it is not the big and scary-looking ones you need to watch out for, but smaller species such as the evocatively named deathstalker – generally considered the most dangerous scorpion in the world.
“Box jellyfish are another good example,” says Yehu Moran, a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who together with his colleague Kartik Sunagar has recently undertaken an analysis of how natural selection acts on toxins in venomous animal lineages.
“They are very fragile, and something as muscular as a fish could cause them to rupture from the inside when they try to eat it. So venom has to be 100% efficient and cause death very rapidly.”
If a predator is small, weak or slow, it is vital that its venom is capable of incapacitating almost instantly to avoid prey escaping or struggling. In such cases, it is easy to see how high toxicity might be selected for.
Economics play a part too. The inland taipan inhabits the arid heart of Australia, where it is crucial that venom brings about certain and immediate death. In the desert, every meal counts, so the snake cannot afford to let one escape.
Even so, being able to kill 250,000 mice with a single bite seems a bit unnecessary. Asked to account for the number of mouse fatalities that can result from a single taipan bite, Wolfgang Wuster – a snake venom expert from Bangor University, UK – has a simple answer.
Most venomous animals target a specific and narrow array of prey species, and it is these species that shape the evolution of their venom
“It's because they don't eat lab mice,” he says. “Looking at the lethality of venom to those mice is completely irrelevant to what the snake does in the wild.”
While the LD50 test (lethal dose 50% – the amount required to kill half of a test group) using mice is the primary means by which to assess venom toxicity, it is flawed.
“The mouse model enables standard data to be acquired,” says Robert Harrison, head of the Alistair Reid Venom Research Unit at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, UK. “But mammals are not always the diet of preference, so toxicity in mammals is simply a standardised metric that probably has no bearing on toxicity to an amphibian, arthropod or bird.”
Most venomous animals target a specific and narrow array of prey species, and it is these species that shape the evolution of their venom.
What results is a co-evolutionary arms race. The prey species evolves resistance to venom, only to then be faced with a more potent venom further down the line.
I would put a fair bit of money on there being one tough mother of a rat in Australia that can survive taipan venom
Marvelling at how many mice could be killed by a single snakebite makes about as much sense as being surprised that a cheetah can easily outpace a tortoise. The cheetah simply did not evolve to hunt tortoises, and consequently the tortoise did not evolve to escape cheetahs.
“There's no such thing as absolute toxicity,” says Wuster. “If you want to know how toxic something is, the first thing I'm going to ask is: 'what do you want to kill?'”
Of course it is not for nothing that venoms are tested on mice. “The assay was primarily designed to establish toxicity in mammals – i.e. to us – in order to inform antivenom design,” explains Harrison.
But not all mammals are so susceptible to venom. Mongooses, ground squirrels and even hedgehogs are all capable of surviving the bites of certain snakes; bites that could easily kill humans.
“There's a species of mouse in Israel that weighs 20g and can survive a bite from a saw-scaled viper that would have you or me bleeding from every orifice and in intensive care,” Wuster continues. “I would put a fair bit of money on there being one tough mother of a rat in Australia that can survive taipan venom.”
If you want to know how toxic something is, the first thing I'm going to ask is: 'what do you want to kill?'
This super-mouse has probably evolved its resistance to the viper bite because it is a key component of the snake's diet. Paradoxically, some animals are particularly vulnerable to toxins precisely because they are specifically targeted by venomous animals.
Saw-scaled vipers that feed primarily on scorpions, for example, possess special venoms with a heightened toxicity for scorpions. A similar phenomenon has been observed in coral snakes, which possess targeted venoms that are more toxic for their preferred prey species – be that fish, rodents or other snakes.
In these instances, it is ly that the prey species in question are not under pressure to evolve ways to survive the venom, because in their habitat venomous snakes are relatively uncommon.
If they are facing attacks from a variety of predators, of which snakes only constitute a small proportion, there will be less pressure on them to evolve such predator-specific defences – potentially at high energetic cost.
No venomous species have evolved specifically to hunt humans
The production of multiple toxins ties into the evolution of venom too – at least, to begin with. The more different components incorporated into the venom, the less ly a prey species will acquire immunity to each one. Therefore, complex venoms might be favoured by natural selection.
In their recent paper, Sunager and Moran found this is, indeed, the case in animal groups – the snakes and cone snails – that have become venomous relatively recently in the evolutionary past.
Some venomous animals, such as jellyfish, spiders and centipedes, with a much more ancient history of being venomous produce fewer different types of toxin though. It seems they have passed through a second stage of evolution, where negative or “purifying” selection removes most of the elements in the venomous toxin and focuses on preserving a small handful of highly potent toxins.
Fortunately, no venomous species have evolved specifically to hunt humans, and yet there are thousands of documented cases of human deaths following unfortunate encounters with snakes, jellyfish, scorpions and other venomous critters.
There's a species of mouse in Israel that weighs 20g and can survive a bite from a saw-scaled viper
“Primates just don't seem to be prone to developing venom resistance,” explains Wuster. So chances are something that has evolved potent venom to take down highly resistant targets will possess more than enough firepower to kill a human.
Bad luck comes into it as well. A bite from a Sydney funnel-web spider is extremely dangerous for humans, whereas rodents are relatively unaffected by their venom. Since these spiders evolved to eat neither rodents nor humans, this can be seen as nothing more than an unfortunate alignment of the spider's neurotoxin with a receptor on some of our cells.
It is of course important to study how venoms affect human physiology. Such studies have allowed us to develop antivenoms, as well as other drugs such as the blood pressure medication captopril, which is pit viper toxins.
To really understand them, however, we need to expand our horizons beyond humans and investigate how venoms are used in nature.
What should be clear is that toxins, a lot of useful traits in the animal kingdom, come with a price.
Its small jaws and insufficient fangs mean it rarely bites anything much larger than a fish
Snakes, jellyfish and cone snails did not evolve powerfully potent venoms just for the sake of it. Their venoms are specialised, and capable of doing exactly the job they are meant for – even if that job is not immediately obvious to us.
Back in Costa Rica, our guide manoeuvres the sea snake back into the water, gripped between two sticks, so as to prevent any less wary passers-by treading on it. I am satisfied that I have just avoided a grisly death as we continue with our walk.
Later I find out that I need not have worried. It turns out that our sea snake does not rank high on the list of venomous animals. What's more, even though its venom is certainly powerful enough to kill a human, its small jaws and insufficient fangs mean it rarely bites anything much larger than a fish.
And that is just fine as far as the sea snake is concerned. Fish are a natural part of its diet, and humans are not.