Have you ever been bitten by an insect? How about a snake? Or a frog? Or a snail? I’ll take a fire ant bite over the bites of some of the animals in this article any day.
I would bet that most of you have endured the after effects of a mosquito bite – the itchiness, the redness, the swelling, but rarely does anyone die from it. There are nasty diseases that a mosquito can carry – i.e., Malaria and the Zika virus – but the everyday, backyard variety generally just delivers an annoying couple of days of discomfort. We can’t tell the difference by just looking at them as they dive at us, so we use insect repellent to ward them off. There are couple of great products that golfers use to keep pesky gnats, horse flies, and skeeters away, but, there is no magic spray that works to chase away the deadliest animals that co-exist with us on the planet. We have to rely on treatment after the fact, or the best idea of all: avoidance.
Here are ten of the worst:
Some animals have developed neurotoxins to dispatch their victims. The worst spider in the world is found in Australia – just in Sydney, to be exact. The Sydney Funnel Web Spider can kill a human or a monkey within 15 minutes. Apparently, no other animal is susceptible to the poison. There is an anti-venom, but you’d have to be really close to the hospital to get treated in time.
The South African Spitting Scorpion uses three neurotoxins to protect itself – one to stun, one to paralyze and one to kill. It spits the lightest dose when chasing the victim away, but it only needs a billionth of a gram of the deadly dose to kill a small animal. Death is not pleasant, with tremors and convulsions that go on even after death.
The Lonomia Caterpillar is responsible for over 500 deaths in the past twenty years and kills by causing hemorrhaging near the site of the bite. The victim’s blood no longer clots and this condition spreads as the body tries to cope. Scientists don’t yet know the composition of all the toxins involved.
Unlike other poisonous animals, the Poison Dart Frog creates its toxin from its diet. Scientists have discovered that in captivity, the frog is rendered harmless by changing its diet. That means that even if the frogs in my photo above had escaped, they would have hopped around, doing no damage to me at all if they had touched me. Good thing, because one little wild frog from Central or South America has enough toxin to kill about ten fully adult humans. Hop, hop, hopping about, enticing us to touch its pretty skin, doing its worst by causing heart attacks.
The famed Puffer Fish carries a neurotoxin that is 100 times deadlier than potassium cyanide. What may not as widely known is that same toxin can zap you if you touch certain varieties of sea snails as well as the blue ringed octopus, a small but nasty bit of sea life. Contact with one of these unfriendly sorts can cause blindness, paralysis, and/or death. And while the Marbled Cone Snail may be gorgeous to look at, there is no known antidote for a strong enough dose of its venom. I’ve never been a strong ocean swimmer, but when I stick my toe in a wave at the shore, I expect to be alive afterward, pretty sea snails or not. Maybe I’ll forgo the next snorkeling trip. 😉
The Inland Taipan is among the deadliest snakes on Earth. Anybody that gets bitten by one of these can die within 45 minutes. It’s an Australian snake and there is anti-venom for the bite, but I wouldn’t want to count on getting back to civilization in time to get the treatment. If I was a snake handler Down Under or if I lived in the Outback, I’d think seriously about keeping a vial of the remedy on hand.
The King Cobra can strike fear into the heart of anyone that gets within spitting distance. Just a 1/4 ounce of its venom (about 7 ml) can kill a full grown elephant within minutes. To put that into perspective – about twenty grown men could die from that same 1/4 ounce dose. The good news is that unless you’re traveling to India or China, or the local zoo lets one escape, you’re safe.
Several varieties of Jellyfish can deliver stings that cause a great deal of pain and sometimes death. They are physically brainless, but their make-up is all about survival. Tentacles can be anywhere from less than an inch (the translucent Irukandji) up to ten feet long (the Portuguese Man O War). They are found in oceans all over the world, can be almost invisible or quite colorful (the Sea Nettle found near the Chesapeake Bay in the USA). My advice? If you see one, swim away as fast as you can.
If you’re using the information in a book you’re writing, choose your poison source carefully. Somebody has to gather that poison before it can be injected or mixed with food. Will it be the villain or someone she/he hires? There are medical uses for some of the neurotoxins – those can be purchased legally with the proper credentials. On the other hand, snake venom is not easy to collect, and somebody might actually have to catch the snake first. Snake bags anyone?
Do you have a favorite villain in literature that has used a rare animal-based poison to do his/her evil work? Please share in the comments below. 🙂
Poison Dart Frog & Jellyfish – Patti Phillips
Puffer Fish – ListVerse
We love to garden and we work on ours whenever the weather and our work schedules will allow. Hammett, our family friendly Irish Setter, is still with us. He’s a bit slower in the field, but is healthy otherwise. We’d like to keep him that way, so our garden needs to be dog friendly as much as possible.
This year we went to the new garden center in town to pick up some flowering ground covers to fill in shady spots between the larger plants under the trees, along with a few new flowering trees for the backyard. The owner of the garden center knows Hammett snuffles at everything, so she steered us toward plants that are safe for both dogs and cats.
But, as we wandered through the aisles of glorious flowers and foliage, she mentioned a very popular groundcover that is a no-no for any gardener with pets that like to sample the new greenery in the yard.
Portulaca, a groundcover that has many colorful varieties,
can cause vomiting and diarrhea if ingested. Ferns and Burro’s Tail might be a better choice. No flowers, but safer if your dog chews everything in sight.
We knew that day lilies were not a good idea for cats, but thought that calla lilies might work for dogs, especially after we saw the beautiful pink one at the garden center. Nope. They can cause burning, irritation of the mouth, tongue and lips, and excessive drooling. Sheila sighed and put the pot back on the bench.
Unfortunately, we discovered that peonies are a bad idea for dogs because eating the flowers can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and depression. I was a little surprised at depression being listed as a symptom, but then if the poor dog gets sick…I guess that would be an issue while he mopes around recovering. We solved our problem by fencing the peony area. Hammett has been trained to avoid fences.
Everybody in the family knows that the garden is a work in progress, especially since the wet weather more or less drowned a few specimens. With that in mind, the cousins bring us small plants or clippings whenever they stop by. We’ve enjoyed expanding the flower beds, but one gift was a well-meaning near mistake. Hibiscus
also causes vomiting, diarrhea, and nausea. After we heard about the problems, we planted it next to the peonies, behind the fence.
We love mums in every color and variety. We know they cause vomiting, diarrhea, and even incoordination, but we have planted them in an area of the yard where Hammett never goes. A black snake lives a few feet from there and ever since Hammett first saw the snake and jumped about ten feet straight back, he stays far away from that part of the property. The snake is happy, Hammett is happy, and we get mums in the yard. Win-win-win.
A clematis can cause vomiting and diarrhea, but ours is growing on a porch post, well out of Hammett’s reach.
Our dog friendly flowers – coreopsis, petunias, snapdragons, and cornflowers – are lookin’ good and we have them in spots where Hammett might wander through or snuffle at a bug on the ground. They look pretty and his tummy stays happy.
To read “Don’t Poison the Dogs and Cats” (part 1) click here.
Check with your garden center for information about pet friendly plants.
Click on this link from the ASPCA:
*Photos by Patti Phillips
Sheila is a big mystery buff and last weekend had a chance to attend an event in honor of Agatha Christie. Dame Christie’s crime fiction has been more widely read than any literary work in history, except for the Bible and Shakespeare. Pretty good resume.
One of the facts that Sheila came home bubbling about was that lots of Christie’s books featured poison as the weapon of choice. So, she asked me to find out how common those poisons were during the time that Christie was writing in the mid 1900s.
The answer? Agatha Christie used both common and unusual poisons in her books, some readily available in the garden shed, some found under the kitchen sink and others found only in pharmacies. She had been a real-life nurse during WW1 and had lots of chances to learn about, as well as use, many drugs – some of which could have been poisonous if mixed incorrectly or administered in too high a dose. In Christie’s 66 novels, she killed off over thirty unsuspecting characters with poison, some of which are described below. Her choices were based on what she needed to happen in the plot; did the killer have time to get away or did the storyline require a slow, unsuspicious death?
Arsenic – arsenic is a tasteless, odorless powder that dissolves nicely in hot liquids like tea or coffee. The victim doesn’t die right away, so the ‘nice neighbor’ can serve tea with cookies or muffins, then get away with murder when the victim dies hours later at home with a high enough dose. I’ve been told that it’s not a pleasant way to go, involving painful tingling in the hands and feet, kidney failure, abdominal cramping, arrhythmia, etc. Arsenic was used in “4.50 from Paddington.”
Belladonna – belladonna is a nightshade plant, with both the berries and leaves being really toxic. It was used in “The Caribbean Mystery.” Victims might have rapid heartbeat, blurry vision, and hallucinations, but can be saved by using an antidote.
Cyanide – created most famously from the seeds of almonds or cherries, cyanide poisoning is a rapid way to get rid of a victim – dead in just minutes with the right concentrated dose. The person’s breath is reputed to smell like almonds and the skin is tinged with pink after death. Cyanide was the poison of choice in “And Then There Were None,” and several other Christie books.
Morphine – used as a painkiller in normal circumstances, morphine can be deadly if administered incorrectly – and Christie used that fact effectively in a pot of tea in “Sad Cypress.” A great twist in the storyline diverts attention away from the murderer while he ‘does the deed.’
Strychnine – it only takes two to three hours to die from strychnine poisoning and it’s not a nice way to croak. Muscle contractions start and spread, increasing in intensity, until the victim has respiratory failure. Christie chose this method for her first novel, “Affair at Styles.”
While poisons may be a fascinating way to kill somebody on the page, in fact, it’s not used that often in real life. And unlike blunt force trauma as a cause of death, the use of poison is not always obvious at the crime scene. Autopsies have to be performed to discover what happened, with special tox screens needed to pinpoint any poison used.
According to the FBI stats on murder victims in the USA as of 2011, over 8,000 people died because of firearms, and only 5 (five) because of a deadly dose of poison. If you include narcotics in that number, the victims increase to 34.
But, it certainly makes the poisoner that gets caught, unlikely to get a reduced sentence. I doubt that a lawyer could explain away arsenic in the tea.
*Photo by Patti Phillips
FBI data from: