One of the most-asked questions about snakes is what is the most poisonous. Most snakes are of course not poisonous but venomous. Some plants, like certain mushrooms, are poisonous if eaten but snake venom, on the other hand is not really poisonous but rather venomous. You have to be envenomated for the venom to take effect. So generally speaking, provided that you do not have major lacerations in the throat or open wounds in the stomach, you can safely swallow snake venom without any ill effect. Not that I am recommending this as some people may well be allergic to snake venom and may go into anaphylactic shock if exposed to venom. And with dire consequences.
So then the question changes – which snake is the most venomous. This is quite a debate as the most venomous snake in
Boomslang venom is haemotoxic, affecting the blood clotting mechanism, and very slow to take effect. Victims seldom experience serious symptoms in the first few hours and untreated cases may result in human fatalities after 12 hours or even after a few days. There is a monovalent antivenom made especially for Boomslang envenomation and this is kept at the South African Vaccine Producers and supplied when required.
To measure the strength of snake venom, we used to rely on a test called an LD50. Increasing quantities of a specific snake venom would be injected into 100 mice or rats until 50 of them would succumb. The result would then be reflected in milligram per kilogram animal. Because of rules around animal ethics, these tests are used less often nowadays. One of the problems with such tests is that humans are not mice and the effect of the venom may well be very different on humans. We know, for instance, that many snakes have prey-specific venoms that are highly effective at killing some prey but have little or no effect on humans.
So perhaps the question should be what the deadliest snake is. Some of the sea snakes have venom that is far more toxic than that of land snakes but as people very seldom get bitten by sea snakes (you cannot easily accidentally stand on one) they don’t really feature in snakebite accidents. If you do an internet search you might find that the Australian Taipan is rated as one of the deadliest snakes in the world and this view may well be because of the LD 50 test. But as most Australian Taipans live in the outback where few people live, they seldom account for bites and the first human mortality from a Taipan bite happened very recently. So can you really consider the Australian Taipan to be one of the deadliest snakes in the world if one person has been killed by it in recent years?
Of our cobras the
As for the most dangerous snake in
There is no two-step snake – the mythical snake that bites and you die after two steps. A severe untreated bite from a Black Mamba may kill a human in anything from 4 – 16 hours and in severe cases within an hour but that is unusual. Having said that, people die within minutes from a bee sting or eating a peanut but that is the exception and not the rule.
Communicated by: Johan Marais - African Snakebite Institute
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