What do Odysseus and TV wildlife expert Steve Irwin have in common? (Stingray barbs killed them both.) What is the most venomous creature in the world? (The Australian box jellyfish.) What does it feel like to get high on cobra venom? (Weird.) Could bee venom cure Lyme disease? (Possibly.)
These are some of the fascinating stories Christie Wilcox tells in Venomous: How Earth's Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry. When National Geographic caught up with her by phone in Hawaii, she explained why the king cobra packs such a punch; how snakes may have helped our ancestors evolve bigger brains; and why the Gila monster’s venom may hold the key to the treatment of diabetes and even Alzheimer’s. [Find out about the medical potential of venom.]
Let’s cut to the chase: What are the five most dangerous venomous creatures in the world?
Oh, I love that question! [Laughs uproariously] You have to give snakes their due because overall snakes kill 90,000-plus people a year and disable countless more—though the sad fact is we don’t exactly know [how many] because a lot of these places are poor and don’t have medical systems that allow good reporting.
The main places people are dying are Africa, Sri Lanka, India, and South America. In Africa there is a snake bite crisis because not only do they have deadly snakes that cause significant morbidity and mortality, but the only good antivenom we used to have is not being made anymore.
At the top of the snake list is the king cobra. Compared to other snakes, their venom isn’t particularly potent, but they can inject massive volumes and they’re huge, seven-to-eight-foot-long snakes.
Next, I would put the Australian box jellyfish because they can kill in less than five minutes. The Conus geographus, or geographic cone snail, has a 70 to 80 percent fatality rate when it stings but, luckily for us, it’s very rare.
I would also include the Lonomia caterpillar because I like the way it kills. [Laughs] It’s this tiny, furry caterpillar, but it can cause massive internal hemorrhaging. That’s just so badass. [Laughs]
Number one is the mosquito, though. And I have a specific reason for saying that. When people talk about venomous, they talk about venomous to humans. And by far and away the most dangerous creatures to humans on this planet, other than ourselves, are mosquitoes.
By Simon Worrall