A gripping read that offers a remarkably broad and in-depth look into the evolution and impact of Earth’s deadliest creatures.
Humans are innately afraid of snakes. Camouflaged as some snakes may be, our eyes can locate them with incredible precision. Some scientists theorize that humans evolved to possess such acute eyesight as a specific survival mechanism against such a slithering threat. And that’s what makes Venomous by biologist Christie Wilcox such an enthralling read—not only are these deadly creatures exotic in their own evolution and thrilling in the potential damage they can inflict with a tiny bite or sting, but the wallop they pack in fang, stinger, tentacle or spur has impacted life on a global scale.
Wilcox starts her book in an unlikely place and with one of Earth’s most preposterous creatures. The platypus is not only unique due its bizarre duck-meets-beaver physique, or even the fact that it’s a mammal that lays eggs. It’s got another trick up its sleeve in the form of a venomous spur that can cause unimaginable pain to those unfortunate enough to be stung by it. Here and elsewhere, Wilcox pauses to offer some firsthand accounts with the potentially dangerous animals she discusses, although often they are in a laboratory or other controlled settings, making the more sensational second-hand stories she relays more compelling. These include accounts from self-immunizers, who unwisely inject themselves with snake venom in the hopes of building their immune systems. There’s even a section dedicated to a few lurid cases of murder (or attempted murder) by venomous creature, one involving a snake-handling preacher on a bender.
Throughout the book, Wilcox also takes time to focus on venom more indirectly, such as in a chapter about the few creatures on the planet that have evolved a resistance to it. The mongoose is the one that first comes to mind, but there are many others, including the honey badger, certain skunks, opossums and hedgehogs. She also goes into depth about how various antivenoms are developed, and she doesn’t hold back on stressing its importance in survival rates, which brings in a socio-cultural element, as fatalities from venomous creatures are most rampant in poorer sections of the planet where medical care is lacking. She also details the differences between the effects of neurotoxic venom (attacking and paralyzing the nervous system and proving far more lethal) with hemotoxic venom (poisoning the blood and tissue to the point of necrosis and therefore proving less deadly but incredibly gross). And Wilcox takes time to dispel some popular myths about various venomous creatures, pointing out that only about a dozen of the 8,000 annual venomous snake bites in the U.S. turn fatal, or that black widow spiders really only bite as a last resort if they are pinched or squeezed.
But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the really exotic venomous creatures steal the show. Komodo dragons, blue ring octopi, box jellyfish, bullet ants, king cobras, urchins, snails, caterpillars—they’re why you’ll pick up this book. But Wilcox’s enthusiasm and accessible writing style (she is, after all, a young scientist with a passion for advancing scientific knowledge through social media) craft a gripping read that offers a remarkably broad and in-depth look into the evolution and impact of Earth’s deadliest creatures.