Venom: Nature’s Deadliest Creatures

Animals have been evolving toxins for millions of years, perfecting the art of paralyzing prey, killing targets, and deterring predators. While poison is either ingested or inhaled, venom is toxin delivered directly into the target’s circulation by means of a bite, sting, or other rudely penetrative means. Even the more mild venoms from tiny insects are impressively efficient; a bee can create havoc in an animal hundreds of times its own mass (a 1/10 gram bee compared to a 70 kilogram human).

Despite the fact that some of us experience complete mental breakdowns the minute a venomous creature passes by, humans have been harvesting and utilizing animal venom for hundreds of years. The key to many of these toxins is their astonishing specificity; they bind to an exact spot on a specific protein in only certain types of cell to achieve an precise, and devastating, effect. This incredible feat is far beyond our own ability to engineer, and so we study these toxins, altering them for use in life-saving therapies and medicines. In order to celebrate these amazing chemicals (and because venomous animals are too cool to pass up), let’s see how some of the deadliest venoms work.

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Valentine’s Day in the Animal Kingdom: Tough Love

Warning: This blog post contains descriptions of animal sexual behavior, in more detail than you probably ever wanted to read.

              In honor of this week’s holiday, I thought I’d break away from diseases and delve into some of the more bizarre romance that occurs in nature (the alternative would have been to write about STDs. Trust me, this subject is better). You thought being single on Valentine’s Day was bad? Try being in a relationship as one of these creatures!

Sexual Cannibalism

Image              There is no truer expression of love than offering up one’s body in sacrifice for a romantic dinner. No? Well, red back spiders might disagree with you! Sixty-five percent of mating encounters end in cannibalism for this species [1]. What is truly bizarre, however, is the fact that the male willingly offers himself up: during copulation, the male spider performs a somersault to present his abdomen to the female’s fangs! He even undergoes special muscle contractions of the abdomen to move his vital fluids out to ensure he survives as long as possible during his consumption [1,7].

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