Venom: Killer and Cure at the Natural History Museum

Spiders, scorpions and snakes strike fear into the hearts of many. Not only are many equipped with an intimidating bite or sting, many also have another weapon in their armoury – venom. It is this powerful biological substance that is the latest focus of the Natural History Museum at their exhibition – Venom: Killer and Cure.

If the enormous spiders’ silhouette at the entrance doesn’t deter you as you walk through an eerily dark corridor, you will be met by a fascinating array of venomous creatures, each with their own unique story to tell. From gigantic invertebrates like the Amazonian giant centipede (Scolopendra gigantean) to terrifying reptiles like the western diamond rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox), a collection of specimens are on display covering all classes. But not all these specimens are floating in formaldehyde, with a live Burgundy goliath bird-eating tarantula (Theraphosa stirmi) patiently waiting for your arrival. Despite residing being glass, this gargantuan spider is enough to send fear into anyone with arachnophobia.

Venom is used for a mesmerising range of purposes across the animal kingdom, from blood-feeding to defence, zombification to armoury; as well as being harvested by humans for weaponry within South American tribes for hunting and traditional rituals. Other ‘venom thieves’ include sea slugs like the sea swallow (Glaucus atlanticus). By feeding on the venomous nematocysts of the Portuguese man o’war (Physalia physalis), it produces a deadlier sting than the jellyfish itself. Venom is generally associated with invertebrates and reptiles, but a few mammals have also harnessed its potent power. Perhaps most surprisingly is the slow loris (Nycticebus – genus). Commonly seen as a cute, wide-eyed primate, fit for a cuddle, don’t let its appearance fool you. Licking a gland on their arms and mixing the secretion with saliva, these seemingly adorable primates produce a venomous bite when threatened.

Importantly, venoms’ historical significance and impact upon humans is the other focus of this fascinating exhibition. Justin Schmidt is an intriguing individual at the heart of this exhibition and our understanding of venoms’ capabilities. This mad man subjected himself to venomous stings, bites and injections to create the Schmidt Index – I’d rather him than me. A tree displaying the most painful venomous organisms in the world according to the Schmidt Index keeps you hot on your toes with horrifying descriptions of agonising envenomations. Starting ‘tamely’ with a tropical fire ant (Solenopsis geminata) and ending with the two “most painful stings in the world”. Firstly, with the “blinding, fierce, shockingly electric” venom of the tarantula hawk wasp (Pepsis genus), followed by the “pure, intense, brilliant pain” of the bullet ants (Paraponera clavate) sting.

But this exhibition isn’t solely aimed at scaring the bejeebers out of you. It also highlights the significance of venom within medical research. Did you know that the gila monsters’ (Heloderma suspectum) venom is helping diabetes sufferers? Or that a protein in the venom of the Caribbean Sea anemone (Condylactis gigantea) could provide relief for those with autoimmune diseases? Sydney funnel web spiders (Atrax robustus) may also produce a venomous protein that helps stroke victims. Not only are these venomous proteins providing potential cures and medications for an array of maladies but harnessing them is also integral for anti-venom production.

Australia is frequently noted as being home to some of the most venomous creatures on the planet. Being home to the coastal taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus), one of the deadliest snakes in the world, doesn’t help to suggest otherwise. Approximately, 100,000 people die globally by snakebite every year, predominately in African countries. Frustratingly, these deaths can be prevented by improving accessibility to these crucial anti-venoms and increasing funding to their production. For me, this highlighted the significance of anti-venom research, alongside heightening education surrounding these venomous species and how to admire them whilst remaining safe.

Whilst not for everyone – maybe those with ophidiophobia should sit this one out – the Natural History Museum’s latest offering provides a captivating window into this lethal toxin. Leaving this exhibition, I had a new appreciation for venom within the natural world, particularly within entomology. Leaving the painful reactions and lethality at the door, for me, venoms’ complexity was bought into a new light. Each venom is unique, comprised of multiple proteins and each potentially holding a secret remedy for a range of human maladies. It is an exceptional example of convergent evolution across the animal kingdom, with each one continually adapting to its environment for maximum efficiency. Are you ready to delve into the dark and come face to face with some of natures’ most formidable creatures?

Venom: Killer and Cure is at the Natural History Museum, London until Sunday 13th May 2018. £5 Concessions and £9 Adults.

Words by Hannah Rudd

Images by Natural History Museum


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