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Often associated together, venom and poison are in fact different. Poisonous animals or plants are dangerous when touched as a result of toxins that are spread out over the body while venomous animals are threatening as a result of toxins that tend to be stored in one part of the body and delivered through injection. With this distinction in mind, continue to learn more about some recent and amazing discoveries about venom. From the past (the world’s first venomous animals and dinosaurs) to the present (modern venomous animals like jellyfish and catfish) to the future (venom drugs for arthritis and cancer), the evolution, dangers, delivery systems and even benefits of venom continue to surprise.
Conodonts: The World’s First Venomous Animals
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Based on comparative analysis of fossilized teeth remains, a paleobiologist recently suggested that conodonts (top image) were the world’s first venomous animals. Resembling eels, these jawless vertebrates/marine animals lived as early as 500 million years ago before becoming extinct roughly 200 million years ago. When comparing conodont teeth (second image, top half) with those of other extinct and living venomous species, the paleobiologist observed similar grooves that were likely used to deliver venom, specifically a neurotoxin named tetrodotoxin that has no known antidote. Animals that currently carry tetrodotoxin include some arrow worms (bottom left), pufferfish (bottom right), mola (third image, top left), blue-ringed octopus (top right), rough-skinned newts (bottom left), porcupine fish (bottom middle) and trigger fish (bottom right).
Sinornithosaurus, the Venomous Dinosaur
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Did you know that modern rear-fanged snakes (bottom left) do not inject venom into their victims but rather contain pockets and grooves that allow the toxin to flow into bite wounds and shock prey? If not, you’re likely unaware that such features are linked back to 125 million years ago, when a turkey-sized, feathered dinosaur named Sinornithosaurus (top left, right) roamed the forests of northeastern China. As recently detailed in a new study, Sinornithosaurus fossil records indicate that this dinosaur shared similar characteristics with today’s rear-fanged snakes, particularly a pocket that was connected to the base of a fang by a long groove. According to researchers, a venom gland was stored in the Sinornithosaurus pocket, and this toxin traveled through a venom duct in the long groove to render bitten prey (most likely prehistoric birds) useless. Just as modern Komodo dragons can weaken victims with a venomous bite, the toxic delivery system of the Sinornithosaurus likely allowed this dinosaur to have calm and relaxing meals once the effects of the venom kicked in.
Venomous Box Jellyfish: Hardly Jelly Bellies
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For many people, jellyfish are weird-looking creatures that are nothing to worry about. However, this attitude is especially wrong when it comes to the 50 or so species of box jellyfish, which were recently examined in a three-year study. What may come as a surprise, box jellyfish have stinging capsules called nematocysts that can be highly toxic and even fatal. Consider the Australian box jellyfish (top right), which is considered to be the most venomous marine animal. Or the Chironex yamaguchii (right image), which has killed people in Japan and the Philippines. Or the smaller but still dangerous Carukia barnesi (bottom left), whose sting can cause a strange but usually not life-threatening condition called Irukandji Syndrome. Symptoms of this condition can include lower back pain, headache, nausea and an “impending feeling of doom” (that can’t be good). The next time you see a jellyfish in the water, especially of the box or cubed-shaped variety, be advised to stay away, as the above warning sign indicates.
Venomous Catfish: More Plentiful Than Thought
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According to a recent report, roughly half of the more than 3,000 known catfish species are venomous. Based on this research at the University of Michigan, this means that anywhere from 1,250 to 1,625 catfish species are venomous. The good news is that the venom is relatively mild and not dangerous to most people. Unlike other animals that use venom to hunt and kill prey, catfish venom is strictly defensive. When threatened by bigger fish or fishermen (like myself, who has been stung quite often when unhooking catfish), the catfish will pop out collapsible spines (bottom right) that can prick the skin and cause a mild and itchy sting. Especially interesting, catfish venom glands tend to get smaller as the fish get bigger, suggesting that these defense mechanisms are most often used by younger catfish.
Denim Jeans: An Effective Rattlesnake Venom Shield?
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Still have those old-school Jordache or Z-Cavarrichi denim jeans from the eighties? If so, you may want to dust them off, especially if you’ll be populating the habitats of poisonous snakes. According to a recent study, denim jeans provided greater protection from rattlesnake bites than shorts. In this interesting study, researchers used warm, saline-filled gloves to create model human limbs. As one glove was covered with denim (bottom middle) and the other left bare, small and large southern Pacific rattlesnakes were provoked to attack the gloves. While the snakes attacked both gloves equally, the denim-covered gloves significantly reduced the amount of venom that was injected by the small snakes by 60% and the large snakes by 66%.
Cobra and Parasitic Wasp Venom: Not All That Bad?
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According to new research, nonlethal cobra venom and parasitic wasp venom may eventually benefit human beings in the form of new drugs. In one study, cobra venom was found to be effective in easing arthritis symptoms in rats, specifically by inhibiting collagen breakdown and preventing cartilage breakdown. Of course, human studies are needed before cobra venom could be considered as an arthritis treatment. In the amazing case of parasitic wasp venom (which doesn’t kill but changes behavior, specifically transforming insects into child-watching slaves), this genome may hold the key to altering symptoms of allergies and cancer. While we shouldn’t hold our breaths just yet for such drugs coming on the market soon, they at least offer some hope in improving future treatments. Who knew venom could be beneficial?ï»¿