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The Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) Africa's most infamous venomous snake

Sanofi Pasteur is a French biomedical corporation—the vaccination division of Sanofi-Aventis Group, the world’s third largest drug company. The company produces “Fav-Afrique” a highly effective snake antivenin cocktail used to treat bites from Sub-Saharan Africa’s ten most poisonous snakes…or I guess I should say they used to make Fav-Afrique.  Snake antivenin is difficult and expensive to produce: making Fav-Afrique involves keeping and milking extremely poisonous snakes and then giving this venom to large domestic mammals such as sheep and horses.  A course pf Fav-Afrique costs around $500.00—which is big money in Sub-Saharan Africa—and the production was already heavily subsidized by NGOs and governments.  Yet somehow the entire affair was not economically feasible for Sanofi Pasteur.   There are a limited number of fairly shelf-stable doses left, but the earliest anyone is going to make a comparable product is 2018.

This job looks hard

This job looks hard

Snakebites are not particularly deadly here in the United States where snakes kill maybe 2 people a year, however the reptiles of Southern Africa are more formidable…while medical and emergency infrastructure there is a lot poorer (and there are far more people who live closer to the ground) so an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people a year die of snakebite in Sub-Saharan Africa.  That is a huge number—for comparison the 2014 Ebola outbreak which (rightly) scared the bejeezus out of everyone “only” killed 6,500 people.

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All of this makes me wonder anew about the way incentives work in the broader affairs of the world. I understand why medical companies don’t want to mess with a process which is dangerous and complicated yet provides little (or no) profit.  Would you want to do that? Pro-market adherents (who increasingly strike me as bastards) would probably argue that the price of a course of antivenin should be much much higher (which is the case here in America with our sky-high health care costs)…but who would then pay for it in Africa?  Should we not have antivenins—even though we know how to make very fine ones which could save many lives?

By the way, Médecins Sans Frontières is a good organization

By the way, Médecins Sans Frontières is a good organization

It seems likely that powerful NGOs like the Gates Foundation and Médecins Sans Frontières will step in and take over Fav-Afrique–once they build an organization to master the complicated process of producing it.  Perhaps the entire flurry of media attention (like this article) is a useless kerfluffle designed to get frightened people to read articles…but I don’t feel like it is.  I feel like this whole error begs larger questions of how our system works and doesn’t work.   I don’t have any answers to macro-scale resource allocation questions, but I can see the invisible hand of the market trembling and doing dastardly and stupid things and it bothers me.

Tanzanian Puff Adder (Bitis arietans)

Tanzanian Puff Adder (Bitis arietans)

Of course all of this also begs question about what these ten super-poisonous African snakes are and where and how they live. I can answer questions about these amazing and formidable mambas, vipers, cobras, and puff adders!  I will be writing more about them in weeks to come…so even this poisonous cloud has a scaly silver lining.

Clouds of reef fish and corals at Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Clouds of reef fish and corals at Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

I know I just did a post on National Donut Day, but that piece was both tongue-and-cheek and nakedly self-interested.  Clearly donuts are ephemera with transient importance—scraps of fried dough which stay tasty for less time than flowers bloom (indeed I enjoy juxtaposing their cheap impermanence with the vast seemingly eternal universe in my paintings).  Today I looked at my calendar to find that June 8th is World Oceans Day!  Unlike National Donut Day (which is self-evidently a meretricious marketing “holiday”), World Oceans Day strikes me as an important and worthwhile day of observance.  The ancients celebrated the oceans with festivals and sacrifices to venerate the sea gods.  We tend to regard the oceans as an inexhaustible source of cheap fish and a place to dump our rubbish.  I worry that the careless industrialized spoiliation of the oceans is the gravest mistake humankind is currently making (and we have our grubby grasping fingers in lots and lots of pies—and are making plenty of errors).  Yet, I don’t want this blog to become an angry jeremiad or an environmentalist harangue.  I want to celebrate the beauty and grace of the oceans and their inhabitants while also underlining the stress and danger which these vast swaths of the world are facing.  What to do?

An infestation of Crown-of-Thorns Starfish

An infestation of Crown-of-Thorns Starfish

For World Ocean Day therefore I am writing about the lifeform which, to me, most exemplifies the oceans of the late Holocene/early Anthropocene, the crown-of-thorns starfish, Acanthaster planci. This echinoderm is a ravenous poisonous destroyer which is exploiting the sickness of the oceans to proliferate and succeed wildly (at the expense of everything else).  It is an amoral ravenous monster covered with toxic spines which is eating the coral seas bare.  It is also a beautiful creature magnificently evolved to thrive—we can hardly hold its horrifying success against it.  Maybe it should be on the cover of Forbes smoking a cigar and bloviating about its philosophy of success.  By chance the starfish also lies at an intersection of many blog topics—crowns, invaders, colors, poison, mollusks (for its fate is connected with that of predatory mollusks), opinion, and science…perhaps even “deities of the underworld”.  This is a lot of introduction…let’s meet our antihero!

Crown of Thorns (Acanthaster planci) photo by jon hanson

Crown of Thorns (Acanthaster planci) photo by jon hanson

The crown-of-thorns starfish (or “sea star”), Acanthaster planci takes the form of a spiked disk with up to 21 prehensile arms (also covered in spines). On its underside, the starfish has numerous sticky tube-like suction feet running along the bottom of each arm. These legs run in parallel rows beside a series of closely fitting plates which form a central groove on the bottom of each arm.  The arm grooves each run ominously into the starfish’s horrifying stomach/mouth.  The starfish can grow to a diameter of up to 80 centimeters (31 inches) although they are more commonly found in the 35 centimeter range.  Acanthaster planci has a wide Indo Pacific range and lives in tropical and semitropical coastal waters from the Red Sea and the East Coast of Africa across both the Indian and Pacific Oceans all the way to the West Coast of Central America.  The starfish are usually dull grays and reds but they can range to brilliant purple, blue, orange, aqua (or display all sorts of mixed ranges). Their colors are highly mutable and variable! crown-of-thorns-starfish These starfish eat coral polyps!  It crawls into corals by means of its many sucker feet—compressing or elongating its body as needed.  When in position the starfish extrudes its stomach over the polyps it wishes to eat: the stomach can cover an area approximately equal to the starfish.  The creature then releases digestive compounds which dissolve the soft parts of the coral into a soup which the starfish slurps up.  It then retracts its stomach and moves on, leaving a bleached (i.e. dead) patch of coral skeleton.  A medium sized starfish can consume up to 6 square meters (65 sq ft) of living coral reef per year.  If times are lean the starfish can go for months (or longer) without eating. http://www.arkive.org/crown-of-thorns-starfish/acanthaster-planci/video-00.html Crown-of-thorns starfish are male or female and they do not reproduce by budding, but female starfish lay from 6.5 million to 14 million eggs each per breeding season [hereupon the author wiped his furrowed brow].  When the eggs hatch there are several interesting larval stages which the echinoderm goes through before reaching their adult form.  Suffice to say, the starfish reaches sexual maturity after 2 years and it lives as long as 8 years. Fourteen million offspring per season is a lot!  If predators do not keep the crow-of-thorns starfish in check, they can swiftly overrun entire reef systems and eat all the coral into bleached uninhabitable wasteland.  This leaves all of the multitudinous reef inhabitants homeless.  The reef skeletons dissolve in our newly acidified oceans and one of earth’s most diverse ecosystems becomes a weed-strewn graveyard. The starfish are hard to stop since they are provided with tremendous defenses: each animal is covered with 1-5 centimeter long razor sharp spines which in turn are covered with toxic saponins—soaplike chemicals which interact with cholesterols to tear holes in cell membranes.  The starfish can regenerate arms.  If removed from the water, the starfish develops holes in its body and loses its water, but it can swiftly reconstitute itself if placed back in the ocean.

Crown-of-thorns starfish wash up in Japan (BBC)

Crown-of-thorns starfish wash up in Japan (BBC)

Fortunately there are some tough predators of the crown-of-thorns starfish.  Certain triggerfish, parrotfish, and blowfish can insouciantly crunch through the spines with hardened mouths.  Painted shrimp and polychaete worms can tear off and eat pieces of the starfish until the latter dies (whereupon the impatient scavengers devour the corpse).  Best of all, the magnificent Triton’s trumpet, a huge gastropod mollusk, can rasp the odious starfish to pieces with its sharpened radula and suck up the offending echinoderm!  Unfortunately, the fish are vanishing into the aquarium trade or the soup pot and the tritons have been killed en masse so their shells can be sold to tourists.  This results in a feedback loop wherein the crown-of-thorns devastate a reef to the extent that the predators can not survive at all.  The plague of starfish then descend of virgin reefs and kill them off too.

A plague of crown-of-thorns starfish (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

A plague of crown-of-thorns starfish (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Healthy reefs have a certain ability to fight off the crown-of-thorns star, but today’s reefs are coping with overfishing, invasive creatures, acidification, pollution, and fluctuating temperatures.  The crow-of-thorns is exploting these weaknesses (and the diminished stock of its predators) to run rampant.  Humans have stepped in late to try to kill of the rampaging multi-armed villains, but, for all of our skill at doing in other organisms, we seem to not be very good at killing these fiendish starfish.  They are difficult to rip apart.  They are hard to net or trap.  They are surprisingly resistant to punctures.  Recently divers have had success suppressing infestations by injecting the starfish all individually with sodium bisulphate (which echinoderms and my great uncle cannot abide, but which is relatively harmless to most other lifeforms).   Obviously this is an expensive and labor intensive solution (although if somebody wanted to hire me as a starfish bounty killer, I would not decline).

New frontiers of pest control (via DIVE QUEENSLAND)

New frontiers of pest control (via DIVE QUEENSLAND)

The common name of the crown-of-thorns starfish is a reference to Christian mythology.  One of the tortures endured by Jesus was a crown woven of thorns (which pierced his temple and hurt him while simultaneously mocking his alleged crime—pretending to the throne of Judaea).  Throughout Christian art, the crown of thorns is the supreme crown of the king of kings which he wears during the passion or as he harrows the underworld.  The voracious starfish earned its sobriquet not by godliness, but by looking like a horrible alien crown made of thorns (and arguably also by bringing death and devastation to coral reefs).  I find it to be one of the most poetic and horrifying common names in all of taxonomy—and as the starfish destroys ecosystem after ecosystem, it seems fully earned.

A giant triton snail feeding on crown-of-thorns starfish. Image supplied by Australian Institute of Marine Science

A giant triton snail feeding on crown-of-thorns starfish. Image supplied by Australian Institute of Marine Science

The Yellow Aconite or Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

The Yellow Aconite or Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

This lovely little yellow flower is Eranthis hyemalis, more commonly known as the winter aconite.  Native to the woodlands of continental Europe, the winter aconite is a member of the sprawling & poisonous buttercup family (which includes beauties and horrors like the monkshood, the ranunculus, and the delphiniums).  Eranthis hyemalis which is now blooming here in New York (in gardens which are eccentric enough to have it) is a quintessential spring ephemeral—it blossoms and grows in earliest spring before any trees are in leaf—or even in bloom.  The plant flowers and puts out leaves and gathers sunlight and stores energy all before the other plants even start.  Then, as the woodland canopy expands above it and as its growing spot is covered with shade, the aconite dies back to its hardy underground tuber which remains dormant until next spring.  Although it lives in verdant forests it could almost be an ascetic desert flower based on its hardiness and hermit-like lifestyle.  It would be a big mistake to mistake the flower for a weakling or a vegetable–like the other buttercups, all parts of it are ferociously poisonous.  Do not eat it (or smoke it…or even look at it funny)!

Illustration Eranthis hyemalis

Illustration Eranthis hyemalis

Ilha de Queimada Grande

Ilha de Queimada Grande

Off the coast of Sao Paolo State, the main industrial and financial province of Brazil, lies Ilha de Queimada Grande, a tiny tropical paradise of 106 acres (approximately half the size of the Bronx Zoo). The island is uninhabited by humans, but it is the sole home of the Golden Lancehead pit viper (Bothrops insularis), a toxic yellow and brown viper which lives on small birds and lizards. Adult snakes are usually around 70 cm (28 inches) in length, although large specimens can grow to 118 cm (46 inches). The vipers are mostly arboreal although they can also live on the cliffs and scrubland of their rugged little island. The Brazilian navy forbids all but authorized personnel and invitees from setting foot on the island, so the little spit of rock and forest mostly belongs to the snakes.

 

The Golden Lancehead Viper (Bothrops insularis)

The Golden Lancehead Viper (Bothrops insularis)

Living on a forbidden island and possessing venom capable of killing a human, the vipers would seem to be invulnerable, but, of course such is not the case. The habitat for the vipers is so small that they suffer from inbreeding and cannibalism! Also, the fell hand of man is toying with the poor snakes. ABC News reported on the situation today. According to the news/entertainment site, “Rogerio Zacariotti, a researcher with the Cruzeiro Do Sul University in Brazil, travels to “Snake Island” regularly to monitor the Gloden Lancehead population. He is convinced poachers are stealing the snakes from the island and selling them on the black market.”

 

Psssst, wanna buy a dangerous snake?

Psssst, wanna buy a dangerous snake?

What sort of crazy person would want a deadly inbred endangered snake? What is wrong with people? Hopefully the Brazilian navy and the vipers themselves will teach the thieving interlopers a little lesson about victimizing a miniature ecosystem!

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

In the middle of the nineteenth century, oil and gas lamps replaced candles as the main source of indoor illumination.  At the same time, chemists and industrialists were rapidly bringing numerous new dyes and pigments to market.  Because of these innovations there was a great change in interior decorating: gone was the era when walls had to be pale-colored to keep rooms from being gloomy.  There was a tremendous revolution in color! Paints, dyes, and wallpapers became available in shades never seen before. Thanks to the nineteenth century British love of green, few colors were more popular than Scheele’s green, a beautiful yellow green which became the color de rigueur for fashionable bedrooms, studies, and dining rooms during the 1850s and 1860s.  The color was unimaginatively named after Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swedish chemist who discovered the pigment in 1775.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Unfortunately, the compound which lent the distinctive and vivid color to Scheele’s green was an acidic copper arsenite (which contains the highly poisonous heavy metal arsenic).  Soon rich and modish people throughout Great Britain were falling sick of headaches, nausea, tremors, and other symptoms of arsenic poisoning.  Numerous children died outright (particularly since sick people were confined to their poisonous rooms by medical norms of the day).  In addition to being poisonous, arsenic is a potent carcinogen so wallpaper which did not kill a person outright (or was replaced by newer fashions) might still shorten its owner’s life by decades.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Cheap wallpaper released toxic powder, but even expensive well-made wallpaper could be colonized by various fungi when the paper became damp.  As the fungi metabolized the Scheele’s green dye, arsine gasses were produced.  In case you are not alarmed enough at the idea of people coating their walls with arsenic, Scheele’s green was also used as a food color for candies and sweets (and as a potent insecticide).

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the story is the lengths to which merchants and manufacturers went in order to prove that Scheele’s green was perfectly safe.  Craftsmen and wallpaper sellers would earnestly lick the walls and vigorously swear that nothing was wrong with the color.  Even when the link between Scheele’s green and morbid toxicity was firmly established, some artists and artisans were difficult to constrain.  To quote  suttonplacedesign.com, “The famous artist and designer, William Morris,only removed green arsenic pigments from his wallpapers under protest, writing in 1885: ‘….it is hardly possible to imagine….a greater folly…than the arsenic scare.’” To celebrate Morris’ strong feelings, I have illustrated this post about a horrible toxin entirely with his beautiful designs.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

In our era, there is a pervasive sentiment that the stuff in our walls, food, and air is gradually killing us.  At least we can take comfort we do not live in the Victorian era when the word “gradually” was not a part of that sentence!

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) assuming defensive posture (a fearless photo by Stephen Zozaya)

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) assuming defensive posture (a fearless photo by Stephen Zozaya)

Ah, lovely Australia…the land down under is famed for its magnificent coral reefs, its dreamlike wastelands, its proud citizens, and, above all, its innumerable toxic animals. Although the hordes of poisonous jellyfish, spiders, snails, centipedes, and octopi are alarming, humankind is particularly hardwired to be afraid of snakes and it is in this reptilian realm that the island continent especial shines.  In fact, the most venomous land snake in the world, the inland taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidotus) lives in Australia.  A single bite from an inland taipan has enough poison to kill up to 250,000 mice!  Yet the inland taipan is far from the most formidable snake in Australia (indeed, it is a very shy and retiring serpent which lives in the inhospitable dry scrubland of central/southeast Australia).  The snake which Australians truly fear is (slightly) less toxic, but vastly more numerous and also far more prone to bite first and ask questions later (insomuch as snakes ever examine their actions).

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis)

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis)

Brown snakes (Pseudonaja) constitute an entire genus of venomous elapid snakes which are found throughout almost the entirety of Australia. There are nine different species of brown snakes which vary somewhat from location to location, however almost all brown snakes can be aggressive and they are apt to bite or even attack a much larger animal when provoked (although hopefully they will overlook the occasional fear-mongering blog post).  The eastern brown snake is the second most toxic land snake in Australia (and arguably the world) and, appallingly it lives all sorts of places—scrubland, eucalyptus forests, woodlands, grasslands, and farmlands (though not swamps, rainforests, or true deserts).  Because it is so adaptable, the eastern brown snake easily thrives in gardens, suburban lawns, and even in urban habitats.  Eastern brown snakes live along the highly populated southeast of Australia, up the coast to the York peninsula and into Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.  They also range through the Northern territories to Western Australia.

Speckled Brown Snake (Pseudonaja guttata) from "Reedy's Reptiles"

Speckled Brown Snake (Pseudonaja guttata) from “Reedy’s Reptiles”

The venom of the eastern brown snake is a heady cocktail of neurotoxins and blood coagulants.  Bites begin by causing diarrhea, dizziness, and collapse—which can then develop into convulsions, renal failure, paralysis and cardiac arrest (symptoms which hold true—although to a lesser degree for the other brown snakes). Fortunately all species of brown snakes have tiny fangs and they do not usually deliver much venom per bite.  Additionally, the snakes can control how much venom they inject per bite and they frequently give a venom-free warning bite out of good sportsmanship (although if you are bitten by one of the world’s most toxic snakes, the fact that the snake might not have injected you with a lethal amount of poison will be scant comfort).   A person’s weight matters greatly when it comes to surviving bites—so small children are particularly at risk.

Gwardar (Pseudonaja nuchalis)

Gwardar (Pseudonaja nuchalis)

Brown snakes eat rodents (which were introduced to Australia), small mammals, amphibians, birds, eggs and other reptiles.  They are a helpful (albeit scary) part of the ecosystem, although considering their honed deadliness, they could afford to be a bit more flamboyant.  Also, humans have effective antivenins for all the brown snakes (so if you are bitten by a modestly colored but oddly insouciant snake while you are down under, you should probably contact some health-service providers).

Bornean Slow Loris (Nycticebus menagensis) Photo courtesy of the Danau Girang Field Centre

Slow lorises are primates from the genus Nycticebus. All five species of slow lorises live in Southern and Southeast Asia.  The various species are scattered across a swath of territory running from southern India down across Southern China across the Malay Peninsula and throughout Indonesia. All of the slow lorises are nocturnal and arboreal.  Their large eyes help them see at night and their sense of smell is unusually acute.  The primates are omnivorous and consume insects, fruit, and plant matter.  Their metabolism is very low and their movements are slow and methodical.

Slow lorises are strepsirrhine primates: they have traits which biologists consider to be “ancestral” for primates such as rhinariums (i.e. “wet” noses such as dogs, cats, and bunnies have), multiple sets of nipples, and the ability to enzymatically manufacture ascorbic acid.

Illustration of a Slow Loris’ Brachial Gland

Slow lorises also have glands on their elbows called brachial glands which produce a strong smelling secretion.  They anoint themselves with this substance and groom it through their fur using their tooth combs (which consist of needle-like teeth on the lower jaw used for grooming).  Some zoological literature contends that slow lorises are poisonous and that the combination of their saliva and the secretion from their brachial glands is toxic to humans, however this is not exactly correct.  Humans are allergic to slow loris secretions and sometimes go into anaphylactic shock when bitten, yet the secretions are not toxic per se.

Slow Loris (from Cute Overload)

In the wild slow lorises are preyed on by large snakes, hawk-eagles, and orangutans (who are evidently not quite as vegetarian as they are made out to be).  Predictably, the hugely expanding human population of Southeast Asia constitutes the most serious threat to the various species of slow loris.  Many of the little creatures are captured for the pet trade.  Since slow loris bites are painful, hunters cut out captured animals’ teeth—an operation which is frequently fatal and, if successful, leaves them  defenseless and lacking their principle means of cleaning themselves and interacting with other lorises (since grooming is a part of bonding).

Not only are slow lorises threatened by the pet trade.  Local superstition attributes magical protection powers to the slow loris, an so their bodies are burned or cut up for various spells, potions, and nostrums (evidently the protective magic does nothing for the slow lorises themselves). David Adam, detailed some of the consequences of magical myths about lorises in an article written for The Guardian:

As a result [of superstition], the luckless lorises frequently find themselves roasted alive over wood fires while eager people catch the supposedly life-giving liquor that drips out. Bits of their bodies are used in traditional medicine. And legend has it that villagers anxious about traffic safety need only bury a loris beneath a new road to keep it free from accidents.

As stupid and malicious as human reasons for hunting slow lorises are, the most serious threat to the animals comes from deforestation and habitat destruction.  Hopefully the rampant destruction of Southeast Asia’s rainforests will halt in time to save our big eyed cousins.

Texas Coral Snake (Micrurus tener)

Many reptiles and amphibians are beautifully colored, particularly the poisonous ones. When I was growing up, I had a set of field guides of the creatures of North America.  Of all the land animals of North America, the animals which I thought were most beautifully colored were the coral snakes. Coral snakes constitute four genera of snakes within the family of elapid snakes (cobras, mambas, sea snakes, kraits, and other poisonous snakes from warm climates).  Many coral snakes live in South America and the old world (where some coral snake species are evolving into sea snakes), but I’m going to stick to writing about the gorgeous red, yellow, and black coral snakes of North America.  These snakes are brightly colored to warn potential predators that they are extremely venomous.  This strategy has failed somewhat when it comes to intimidating humans, who have a collective fascination with pretty colors.

Eastern Coral Snake (Micrurus fulvius)

There are three coral snakes which live in the United States.  The eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius) ranges from North Carolina to Texas (including Florida and the Gulf Coast swamps). The Texas coral Snake (Micrurus tener) ranges from northeast Mexico up through Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.  The Arizona coral snake (Micruroides euryxanthus) lives in the Sonoran desert through Southern New Mexico, Arizona, and Sinaloa.  All species of coral snakes in the United States can be identified by the fact that their red bands touch the yellow bands (which is in marked opposition to mimics like king snakes and milk snakes).  Coral snakes from Central/South America and from Asia do not always follow this rule: the black bands can sometimes touch the red bands, or the bands can be colors other than red, yellow, and black–or there might be no bands at all!

Arizona Coral Snake (Micruroides euryxanthus)
Photographer: Wayne Van Devender

Coral Snakes are fossorial predators which spend most of their life just beneath the leaf litter or loose topsoil where they hunt lizards, frogs, insects, and smaller snakes.  Baby snakes are 18 centimeters (7 inches long) when they hatch from their eggs. Adult snakes can grow to 0.6 meters (2 feet) in length. Coral snakes can live up to seven years in captivity.

Coral Snakes are extremely poisonous, but they are also shy and retiring. Instead of hanging around biting, they would prefer to escape as quickly as possible.  This makes sense from the snake’s perspective, since their fangs are very tiny and they have to chew directly on their prey in order to inject a fatal dose.  Since they have tiny mouths, it is not necessarily easy for them to score a direct bite on humans.  Additionally their venom acts slowly—at first there is only a mild tingling associated with the bite. Lethargy, disorientation, and nausea set in hours later.  In extreme cases, coral snake bites can cause respiratory arrest.  Fatal bites are extremely rare: most sources state that nobody has been killed by a coral snake in the US since antivenin was released in 1967 (although I also found allusions to a 2009 case where a man laughed off a bite only to die hours later).

A coral snake’s little teeth.

Coral Snake antivenin was solely manufactured by one US drug company, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals (now a wholly owned subsidy of Pfizer Inc.). In 2003 Wyeth ceased manufacturing coral snake antivenin since too few people were bitten to make the product profitable.  There is still a small supply left on hand (although the expiration date has been extended twice), but Pfizer does not seem to have any intention of pursuing a microscopic niche market when it has more profitable businesses to pursue.  Foreign pharmaceutical companies continue to produce coral snake antivenin, but they do not sell it in the United States because of prohibitive licensing and regulatory costs (hooray! the United States health care system is unsolving problems which were figured out 40 years ago!).

Actually Wyeth just doesn’t want to save this guy.*

*Don’t be this guy.

Man O’ War (Photograph by Enrique Talledo)

The Portuguese man o’ war (Physalia physalis) is not a jellyfish, in fact it is not a discreet animal at all, but instead a siphonophore—a colonial medusoid made up of specialized animal polyps working together as an organism.   These siphonophores have stinging tentacles which typically measure 10 metres (30 ft) in length but can be up to 50 metres (165 ft) long.  Being stung by a man o’ war does not typically cause death, but sailors and mariners who have survived the experience assert that it taught them a new definition of agony.

Glaucus atlanticus

But the fearsome man o’ war is not the subject of this post.  Instead we are concentrating on the animal which feeds on the man ‘o war (as well as other siphonophores which drift in the great blue expanses of the open ocean).  One is inclined to imagine that men o’ war are eaten only by armored giants with impervious skins and great shearing beaks (and indeed the world’s largest turtles, the loggerheads, are the main predators of siphonophores), however another much less likely predator is out there in the open ocean gnawing away at the mighty stinging colonies.   Glaucus atlanticus, the blue sea slug, is a tiny shell-free mollusk which lives in the open ocean.  The little nudibranch only grows up to 3 cm in length but it hunts and eats a variety of large hydrozoans, pelagic mollusks, and siphonophores (including the man o’ war).

Glaucus atlanticus eating velella colony animal

Although not quite as gaudy as its lovely cousins from tropical coral reefs, Glaucus atlanticus is a pretty animal of pale grey, silver, and deep blue with delicate blue appendages radiating out from its six appendages.  The little mollusks live in temperate and tropical oceans worldwide. They float at the top of the water thanks to a swallowed air bubble stored in a special sack in their gastric cavity. Because of this flotation aid, the slug is able to cling upside down to the surface tension of the waves.  Since it is entirely immune to the venomous nematocysts of the man o’ war, the sea slug can store some of the man o’ wars venom for its own use.   The tendrils at the edge of Glaucus atlanticus’ body can produce an extremely potent sting (so it is best to leave the tiny creatures alone, if you happen to somehow come across them).

Glaucus atlanticus inshore

Each and every Glaucus atlanticus is a hermaphrodite with a complete set of sex organs for both genders.  Incapable of mating with themselves they ventrally (and thoroughly) embrace another blue sea slug during breeding, and both parties then produce strings of eggs.  The hatchling nudibranchs have a shell during their larval stages, but this vestige quickly disappears as they mature into hunters of the open ocean.

The southeastern crowned snake (Tantilla coronata)

Today’s post combines two major Ferrebeekeeper topics to get an unexpectedly mild result!  I imagined that by combining crowns and serpents I would get some sort of spectacular king cobra or a mythological crown made of golden serpents and rubies but what turned up instead was the Southeastern crowned snake (Tantilla coronata), a slender dusky-colored snake with a little sand colored diadem.

The crowned snake is indigenous to the American Southeast from southern Virginia down through the Carolinas and Georgia to the northern panhandle of Florida. Unlike the regal snakes of my imagination, the crowned snake is a tiny snake which measures from 15 to 20 centimeters long (6 to 9 inches) and lives on small arthropods like scorpions, spiders, and insects.  Although not dangerous to people or mammals, the crowned snake possesses an extremely mild venom which it slowly chews into its prey like a old man deliberately eating a biscuit.

Hmm, not what I expected from a crowned serpent!

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