Venomous: How the Earth's Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry

You can read this book review, or you can just go HERE and listen to our interview with author Christie Wilcox. I promise you in advance that you will want to read her book!

But, if you want to read the book review, here it is...

Did you ever do anything that hurt, then you had to do it again and you knew it would still hurt, and you didn't like that? Like getting your teeth cleaned, or licking a nine volt battery. OK, maybe you didn't have to lick the nine volt battery, but you get my point.

When I was working in the Ituri Forest, in the Congo, taking a walk in the forest was one of those things. All sorts of things hurt. Your feet hurt because of jungle rot combined with sandy gritty stuff permanently indurated in your shoes. The leaves and branches you would have to move through hurt because it was early in the morning and they were cold and wet. And so on.

But one of the things that was not inevitable, but nearly daily, was being stung by a venomous beast of some kind. The most serious threat, of course, was snakes but that never happened to me. Much more common, but more common a night, was to be bitten or stung by a venomous ant. But that only happened, maybe, once a week or so. But nearly every day, if I would walk far enough in the forest (hundreds of meters) especially early in the morning, would be the venomous caterpillars.

Cute little caterpillars with some extra long furry thingies sticking out of them. When you brush against them, there is instant local pain, a bit like a bee sting (but different) followed quickly by shooting pains from the site of contact to the nearest major lymph node (usually the arm pit), followed by pain in the lymph node. The pain would eventually go away, after minutes, sometimes a bit longer. Most gentile urbane suburban or urban dwelling Americans and Europeans can go for years between envenomations. But if you are a human, or some other creature, living in certain environments, the risk of envenomation is not only constant, but the actual smaller scale, not deadly, envenomation events are a regular occurrence, and the threat of The Big One (such as a Black Mamba bite or a Cobra strike) is always there.

In Venomous: How Earth's Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry, Chritie Wilcox explains why this is important. We tend to think of the interaction between animals, within or between species -- those interactions that have to do with sexual competition, feeding, or predator avoidance -- as involving tooth, nail, squiggly appendages, and all that. But these interactions also involve, very often, some sort of envenomation. Also, using venom isn't always about stinging, paralyzing, or killing. Mosquitos use venom to make blood sucking possible, as the chemicals used to stop their host from feeling the bite, and to make it easier to suck the blood, etc., are venoms. Indeed, the parasites we know to be so commonly associated with mosquitos get into the host by hanging out with the venom, free riding with the injected biochemicals.

So, the evolution and diversification of venom and strategies of attack or defense, and other things, associated with venom co-evolved with anti-strategies to avoid the pain, paralysis, to avoid the bite or sting or brush of the venomous hair of the caterpillar. Indeed, understanding the evolutionary history and patterns of adaptation associated with the use of venom is just as good as any syndrome of interaction or behavior for the study of how evolution itself works.

Christie Wilcox's book is one of the better science books I've read in some time. This is an area I should know something about, as a biological scientist, and as a person who has lived for years in the venom-rich rain forest. But I still found myself learning something new with every page turn. Wilcox has studied venom for years -- this is her area of specialty -- and her text is enriched with well placed and well told stories of her own sometimes harrowing experiences.

The book is very well written and very well documented with copious notes.

A fascinating subtext has to do with human evolution and experience. There is a theory that primates generally are tuned to venomous creatures, especially snakes, and some of the key primate evolutionary adaptations are shaped by the experience of living in trees where large venomous snakes hunt. In the present day, there is what looks to me almost like a cult of self envenomation, found among people who keep venomous snakes (mainly), who inject themselves with venom regularly in order to stay, maybe, immune in case of an accidental bite. But they seem to be doing something more than this, almost using the venom as a sort of drug or, fascinatingly, as an elixir to extend life. On top of this, there is even an expanding practice of using snake bites, or ingesting the powdered form of snake venom, as a recreational drug. This set of not too unrelated human stories sits intriguingly amid myriad stories of venom use among a wide range of animals, including several mammals, fish, cone snails, snakes and lizards, etc.

I get the impression that bad scientific knowledge (generally older), folk stories, and meemish yammering about venom is among the most widespread form of falsehood in our parascientific discourse. As I read this book, I remembered may instances of hearing or reading this or that thing about this or that venomous animal, or category of animal, that turned out wrong as more recent science exposed what was really happening. For many years, scientists were not sure if the platypus was venomous (it is) or why (it is all about sex for them). How does the Komodo Dragon kill large prey such as the Water Buffalo? If you look it up, you may find out that the Komodo Dragon maintains a bacterial flora in its mouth that causes necrosis in a bite victim. That is not true. Read Christie Wilcox's book to find out the real story! And so on.

Venomous: How Earth's Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry is out in August, but available for pre order.

Mike Haubrich and I interviewed Christie on the Ikonokast podcast, and it turns out to have been a fantastic interview. Listen to it here!

Christie Wilcox blogs at Science Sushi.


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Way cool! And thank you. I have added the book to my "wish list," since it costs a day's wages and I am more likely to die before I can afford a copy.

One of my friends (Doug P.) explored what appears to be La Ciudad Blanca in Honduras with Steve Elkins and one of the people with him battled a Fer-de-lance in the vain hope the cameras were running. The crew had a US$5,000 dose of anti-venom, which fortunately was not needed because the human won the fight. Many of the humans contracted leishmaniasis which sounds worse than death.

By Desertphile (not verified) on 15 Jul 2016 #permalink

Check out the podcast! We talk about antivenom and many other things.

Okay then. Another book for my wish list. I really hope authors don't mind if I borrow the book from the library rather than buying it.

By Dan Andrews (not verified) on 17 Jul 2016 #permalink

I started to listen to your podcast about this book, only to hear the author declare that there are numerous venomous mammals and then that any haemophagus animal is, by definition, venomous. In my opinion the majority, probably overwhelming majority of scientists working in the field of toxinology would disagree with this new, all-encompassing definition of venom/venomousness. It is my understanding that this new approach to venom/venomousness is promoted by a scientist currently based in Australia, but prominent on the internet, as "venomdoc". This person has promoted the hypothesis that all venomous snakes have a single origin that also encompasses a number of lizard families that, according to this hypothesis, are also venomous; the "toxicofera" hypothesis. Because it is controversial, but topical, the International Society on Toxinology, arguably the premier organisation of toxinologists world-wide, decided to have a debate on this hypothesis at its last World Congress at Oxford University, UK, in 2015. The result of this debate, where both sides were able to present facts and argument in support of, or in refutation of, a central plank of the toxicofera hypothesis, was an overwhelming rejection of the hypothesis. I was in the audience at this debate. There is a growing body of published research which refutes the interpretation of the data, and in some cases the data itself, used to promote the toxicofera hypothesis. It is therefore very disappointing to see an international science blog promoting an author and a book which, it would seem, has ignored that decision by the part of the scientific community most qualified to make such a decision, in addition to promoting definitions of venomousness that would similarly be rejected by this same global community of experts. The author should, in my opinion, have read widely about such areas of controversy and at the very least pointed out to readers that there was disagreement about what constitutes venomousness, providing definitions from both sides, rather than presenting a single and contested view as apparent accepted fact, which it is clearly not. Science thrives on new ideas, but those ideas must be tested, retested and where there is ambiguity about results or their interpretation, that should be recognised and acknowledged in the interest of honesty, accuracy, and good scientific method. Promotion of speculative and controversial science, without the above caveat, diminishes all science. Toxinology encompasses many fascinating organisms and evolutionary developments that can certainly be made interesting and correct information provided, including divergent views on some topics, which illustrates that our knowledge is incomplete and ever developing as our understanding evolves.

By Julian White (not verified) on 22 Aug 2016 #permalink