What’s in the Venom?

Anyone who has ever worked in a controlled environment like a zoo with venomous snakes knows that the possibility of a venomous snake bite is serious business. Protocol including alarms and lock down procedures are common place. The right snake, the wrong timing and fangs meeting flesh merits an emergency situation and the entire facility jumps into action. Yet, there are individuals who keep deadly snakes in situations without any backup. Are they thrill-seekers or just naïve? Henry Rollins meets people obsessed with dangerous snakes in “Fatal Obsession” the first episode of Animal Underworld and looks into this very question.  Crazy or not, if someone is bitten by a deadly snake with no one for miles around, what really happens? It all depends on the venom.

Poison in the Blood

While snake venoms have various levels of toxicity, what matters most is the way it is delivered. A snake with shallow fangs or fangs positioned at the back of its mouth is much less likely to deliver a solid bite, especially through clothing than other snakes with more effective delivery systems. Each of the three main families of snakes has a slightly different means of delivering their fatal toxin. The most primitive delivery system belong to the Columbridae family, with short fangs positioned far back in the mouth, meaning the snake needs to have already started gulping down their prey before they can deliver the debilitating toxins at their disposal. King cobras belong to the Elapidae family and have fixed fangs in the front to deliver venom. It is the viper family, Viperidae, however that has the most effective means of injecting poison into the blood stream. Their fangs fold up against the roof the mouth when the snake is relaxed, but drop down at the ready when needed. These hollow fangs in species such as Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are able to convey venom shooting from the salivary glands directly into prey, no muss, no fuss and fast damage.

Three Flavors of Deadly

Turns out that all venoms are complex creations of various proteins and enzymes, which is why getting the right anti-venom can be tricky. Broken down simply, however, they are three main kinds of deadly.

Neurotoxin attacks the central nervous system with proteins that have a very light molecular weight and are able to move swiftly through the blood stream. Initially, the venom causes a tingling sensation which quickly becomes drowsiness and may also cause hallucinations. Soon the venom attacks the nerves that control breathing, paralyzing them so that the victim asphyxiates.

Cytotoxin initiates digestion before prey is even swallowed. So tissue, especially muscle, begins to break down as cells are destroyed immediately after the injection of the venom. Some venoms even go straight for the heart muscles, eventually causing cardiac arrest. It is slower acting venom, but even after being treated, any parts of a person that are already “digested” are damaged irreversibly. Survivors may still end up disfigured or require amputation of digits and limbs.

Hemotoxin can kill in two different ways. This venom attacks red blood cells either causes clotting or destroying them. Some destroy blood vessels cells causing internal and external bleeding, so that prey dies of blood loss. Other hemotoxins cause the blood to coagulate. Thickened, clotting blood is not able to pump through the system and the victim dies of masses of blood clots.

If you aren’t sure which death to choose, don’t worry. If you are handling venomous snakes, chances are you won’t have to make a choice. Most snake venoms are a cocktail of several toxins. Thrill-seeker or snake-lover is it worth risking being digested, bleeding to death or suffocating? Watch Animal Underworld: Fatal Obsession and decide for yourself!

Tune in to the three-part series Animal Underworld Monday, May 28th starting at 8P et/pt.


  1. Max Higgs
    Oxford, UK
    May 18, 2012, 9:12 am

    Very good TV.
    Had the chance to meet Henry Rollins here in England and was very happy when I was welcomed with open arms apon speaking to him, a truly kind human being.
    His work has helped me no end and for that I would like to thank him.
    Very pleased to meet you Mr Rollins.

    I’m looking forward to seeing more Animal Underworld later this May.

  2. Georgetta
    May 24, 2012, 10:23 am

    omg soo scary