October 18, 2016

Poisonous or Venomous?

Poisonous or Venomous?

Sorry it has been so long between posts, but I had the unfortunate luck to have experienced two heart attacks and two strokes last year, and all within a few weeks. And no, they weren’t the result of a poisonous or venomous snake. It kept me in the hospital for four months, and since that time I have been learning to do things with a mostly-paralyzed left side. I didn’t get to the point of being able to type again until earlier this year, so it’s been a long road. I don’t expect to get back to full swing, but posts should be more regular, like once a month or so.

As to this particular post. I didn’t know where to publish it, here or on my No Mistakes Publishing blog, but I ultimately decided here (obviously) as I often write about animals. Hope you enjoy.

Now, the Post

For all of you writers out there—if you are planning to have your hero or heroine fall prey to a poison or venom, make sure you use the right word. If not, someone will pick up on it. So, ask yourself before you write, is it poisonous or venomous?

There was a question on one of the quiz shows—how many poisonous snakes are native to North America?

The answers ranged from ‘0’ to ‘4’ and ‘5’.

The one who answered ‘4’, was probably thinking—copperhead, coral snake, cottonmouth (water moccasin), and rattlesnake. I don’t know what the one who answered ‘5’ was thinking. But the one who had the correct answer was the contestant who said, ‘0’. She was correct because there are no poisonous snakes—at least not in North America. The only one that I am familiar with is the Asian Tiger Snake, which secretes poison from the toads it eats. This snake also is venomous, so it is one of the few animals that is venomous and poisonous. (Now, there is a quiz-show question for you.)

There was another circumstance where an author used snakes as one of the key factors in their mystery. The author continually referred to them as poisonous snakes (though they weren’t). After the first or second mention, I became annoyed. Even worse, in the acknowledgments, the author even mentioned having consulted a herpetologist for advice. (The author should have found a better herpetologist.)

What’s the Difference?

Despite what you might have heard all of your life, snakes (most of them) are not poisonous—they are venomous.

The terms poison and venom are often used interchangeably, but they have different meanings. It is the delivery method that distinguishes one from the other.

I know. I know. This is getting picky. But if I’m reading a mystery and the author says someone was killed with a .45 caliber bullet when it was a .22, then I’m going to be upset. Confusing poison with venom is the same thing; there’s no difference. If it was venom that killed someone, I want to know. If it was poison, I want to know that.

Snakes, a few lizards, jellyfish, cephalopods, wasps, spiders, etc., inject venom, not poison. If you are bitten by a black widow spider, she injects venom into you. If you grab hold of an arrow tree frog, or eat belladonna, or happen to have had dinner with Cesare or Lucretia Borgia during their heyday, then you are/were poisoned.

Poisonous or Venomous?

To set the record straight—if a substance is injected into you, as in, bitten, stung, etc., then that is likely venom.

If you absorbed or ingested something, then you were likely poisoned. (You might absorb poison by touching a poisonous frog or you might ingest it by eating improperly prepared blowfish.)

poisonous or venomous?

Asian Tiger Snake, one of the only animals known to be poisonous and venomous.  

What Else is Poisonous, or Venomous?

To summarize the poison/venom comparisons, likely candidates are the following:

Poison Venom
arrow tree frog snake (like rattlesnake)
belladonna spider (black widow)
chemical substance lizard (gila monster)
Other plant jellyfish
Cane toad lionfish

This is by no means a comprehensive list; in fact, this is a pitifully short list, omitting hundreds of poisonous and venomous creatures and plants. For a much more comprehensive list see Wikipedia’s articles on poisonous plants and venomous animals, but don’t let it scare you.

poisonous or venomous?

poisonous or venomous?

black widow  

Have I Been Poisoned?

Have you recently had dinner with the Borgias? If not, you’ve probably been bitten or stung by something venomous.

If you’ve been poisoned, you have either absorbed or ingested a toxic substance. A poisonous animal can only deliver toxic substances if another animal touches it or eats it. (Think of a poison dart frog or a blowfish.)

Venomous animals always inject their venom, whether that be by fangs (snake or spider) or stinger (wasp, bee, jellyfish, etc.)

Exceptions to the Rule

As mentioned earlier, there is only one animal I know of that it poisonous and venomous—the Asian Tiger Snake. It earns this distinction because it is naturally venomous, and gets it’s poison from its diet—poisonous toads/frogs. The poison is then secreted through the snake’s pores and can be absorbed through touch.

poisonous or venomous?
one of only two species of ‘venomous frogs’ that I know of  

The Asian Tiger Snake is unique, however, the Greening’s frog is almost as rare. It is one of only a few species of venomous frogs known to exist. They live in South America (Where else?) and have ‘horns/spines’ on their heads that are filled with venom. The venom is so deadly it is said to be more potent than the venom produced by Brazilian pit vipers.According to Carlos Jared, in a BBC article another frog that lives in the rainforest of Brazil, known as Bruno’s casque-headed frog, has spines capable of producing venom 25 times more potent than the pitvipers. Calculations by Jared and his colleagues suggest that a single gram of the toxic secretion from a Bruno’s casque-headed frog would be enough to kill more than 300,000 mice or about 80 humans.

I don’t know about you, but I intend to stay away from frogs if I’m ever in South America.

Are All Snakes Dangerous?

There is one thing to keep in mind—whether we’re talking about a venom or a poison—with few exceptions, most of them are not lethal. And not all of the same kind are even venomous. Take the scorpion—of the more than 1,000 known species, only about half a dozen are harmful to humans. And of venomous bites by copperheads, rattlesnakes, water moccasins, and black widows, more than 90% are not fatal.

We have had 9 dogs bitten by copperheads, and not a single one died. One of the dogs (a stupid one) has been bitten 5 times now. A bite to him is barely more than a bee sting—a testament to immunity.

I hope you learned something from this post. Not all snakes and spiders, etc., should be killed.

As a writer, I hope you also learned the difference between venomous and poisonous, and that you’ll use that in your writing from now on.

If you enjoyed this post, please share.

Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of gritty crime dramas about murder, mystery, and family. And he also writes non-fiction books including the No Mistakes Careers series as well as books about grammar and publishing. See the complete list here

He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 45 loving “friends.”

PS. During the past 16 years, we have caught and relocated 34 copperheads, 4 water moccasins, and 15 black widows (female). They were taken to a secluded spot in the woods several miles from here.

If you want to learn about more words like this, check out the first of my grammar books, No Mistakes Grammar, Volume I, Misused Words.

Never use a word the wrong way again

photo credit: Snakes are cool!!! via photopin (license)

photo credit: Dendrobates tinctorius (7) via photopin (license)

Bruno’s casque-headed frog (A. brunoi) (Credit: Carlos Jared/Butantan Institute)

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