strikes Tennessee Aquarium
March 2000, the Tennessee Aquarium will open a killer
new exhibit in the changing exhibit gallery -- VENOM:
Venom. The word itself is loaded. Throughout history, venom
and venomous animals have inspired fear and even horror. Countless
writers have used the word venom to symbolize evil, fueling
the imaginations of generations of readers and movie audiences.
Of course, the truth about venomous animals is not reflected
in B-grade movies. The truth is often much more interesting
than fiction. The behaviors and adaptations of this diverse
group of aquatic and terrestrial creatures are more fascinating
than frightening. In the new exhibit, VENOM: Striking
Beauties, visitors to the Tennessee Aquarium will
explore the surprising secret lives of animals whose killer
reputations are based more on fear than fact.
Most people are aware of only a few of the many types of venomous
animals. Snakes come to mind first, but only about 300 of
the world's nearly 3,000 species of snakes are venomous. Although
spiders use venom to subdue their next meal, fewer than 30
of more than 30,000 kinds of spiders have venom that is harmful
to humans. Furthermore, spiders bite people only in self-defense.
In the Aquarium's new exhibit, you will come face to face
with more than 40 species of venomous animals, from well-known
stars like the diamondback rattlesnake to little-known gems
like the flower sea urchin.
In addition to showcasing a variety of venomous beauties,
the exhibit also clarifies the difference between venom and
poison. It's a matter of delivery and action. Venomous animals
use fangs, teeth, spines, or stingers to inject venom directly
into the body of their attacker or next meal. Poisonous animals,
on the other hand, must be touched or eaten to deliver their
toxins, usually serving as a defense. Venom, a complex chemical
cocktail, brings about a biochemical process launched by a
mere prick from a venomous animal. In mammals, including humans,
venom may attack the nervous system, circulatory system, or
heart -- or any combination of the three. But there is a reasonable
chance that any bite from a venomous animal could be "dry."
For example, it is estimated that the bites of as many as
one-quarter of terrestrial snakes and three-quarters of sea
snakes are dry. Many people imagine that venomous animals
are aggressive, but the truth is that most go to great lengths
to avoid using their venom. Because venom is expensive to
produce from an energy standpoint and is the key to their
survival, most animals catch their prey without using venom
if at all possible.
These animals use a variety of warning strategies to discourage
aggressors. For example, red is a color that usually signals
stop or danger in the animal world. Humans use it on stop
signs, emergency vehicles, and railroad crossings. Animals
like cow killer ants and black widow spiders display it on
their abdomens, while the coral snake is wrapped in red warning
stripes. Behaviors, like a rattling rattlesnake or a hooding
cobra also offer warnings.
Masters of illusion and contrast, venomous animals range from
the camouflaged -- like that most venomous of all fish, the
stonefish -- to flamboyant -- like the small but brightly
colored coral snake. Venomous animals often lead sedentary
lives, as seen in sit-and-wait predators like the scorpionfish
and most snakes. Some, however, are active, like the foraging
bullet ants. Habitats of venomous animals range from barren
deserts to vibrant coral reefs to lush jungles, all of which
are represented in the exhibit.
The exhibit space will illustrate the tension and intrigue
that are the essence of life for venomous animals. Steel,
corrugated metal, galvanized aluminum and bolts create an
ominous gallery filled with beautiful habitats from around
the world. Natural sounds woven into a thematic musical backdrop
add an eerie and strangely beautiful depth to the experience.
In this setting, the true nature of the world of venom unfolds
as you come safely within striking distance of venomous animals
from both land and sea.
Listed here are just a few of Venom's stars:
Fear to Respect
the warty skin of the reef stonefish are 12-14
grooved spines, each with a large venom sack. Punctures
are extremely painful and can result in loss of limb or
death. To add insult to injury, stonefish are masters
of disguise and hard to find hidden in the coral.
Bullet ants are the largest ants in Central America, at
about an inch long. Don't worry about this ant biting
you, because the real sting is in the tail. A sting is
said to feel like - you guessed it - a bullet.
The largest native US lizard is the gaudy Gila monster,
at 24 inches long. Though shy, the Gila monster has a
bad bite and clamps down with a tenacious hold. Venom
is chewed in through grooves in the rear teeth of its
lower jaw. Though the Gila packs a powerful nerve toxin,
most prey is killed by the bite, not the venom.
The stinging catfish is the only catfish likely
to be found on a coral reef. With a highly venomous serrated
spine on its fins, these racy stingers can cause dangerous
wounds that are occasionally fatal.
Though its venom is powerful and among the deadliest in
the world, few people are bitten by the yellow-lipped
sea krait, a sea snake that is mostly active at night,
when it can feast on its favorite dinner of eel. Rather
than being threats to man, these snakes are threatened
themselves. Tens of thousands of sea snakes are killed
in the Philippines for their skin and meat. Some people
even believe that eating sea krait gall bladders improves
In the United States, you have a better chance of being hit
by lightning than of having a fatal encounter with a venomous
animal. In fact, most deaths from venomous animals are caused
not by toxins but by allergic reactions, particularly to bee
and wasp stings. This phenomenon reveals another twist --
it is not necessarily the strength of the venom that matters,
but how likely it is to cause allergic reactions in people.
In some parts of the world, however, fear of venom is based
on daily reality. In India, for example, 10,000 to 15,000
people each year die from snakebites, as opposed to 9 to 15
annual fatalities in the United States.
Close Encounters, Close to Home
Black widow spiders are fairly common throughout the United
States, including Tennessee. But they are not the only venomous
animals in the Southeast. Red velvet and cow killer ants also
are found in here. These "ants" are actually wingless wasps.
Unlike true ants, they lead solitary lives, so the chances
of seeing one are slim. The South is home to other venomous
animals including bees and wasps, copperhead snakes and timber
So What Good are They, Anyway?
Venomous animals are often shy and secretive, but deserve
a better reputation than they have. They often act as our
silent partners in controlling pests and even disease. It
is estimated that at any moment, we are each less than 3 feet
from the nearest spider. A spider eats up to 100 times its
weight in insects annually, and together spiders eat 80 percent
of the world's insect population. Similarly, snakes do a quietly
efficient job of controlling rodent and small mammal populations,
animals that destroy crops and stored food and may carry disease.
Animal venom is used to produce antivenin, required by hospitals
worldwide. Many venoms are being researched for their potential
uses as sources of vitamins, commercial and agricultural products,
and medicines. Captopril (Capoten), a billion-dollar drug
for high blood pressure, was inspired by a component in venom.
Venom from Australia's highly toxic cone snail is being studied
as the newest miracle drug for controlling chronic pain, and
the venom of the Malayan pit viper has been used to create
a new blood-thinning drug that prevents new blood clots from
forming. While few of these venom-derived medicines are approved
for use in the United States so far, their importance is growing.