My last post on the tools we use to work with our venomous snakes led to some good questions… like what is the difference between venomous and poisonous?
As keepers talking to visitors, we try really carefully to use the correct terminology, but most people use the words venomous and poisonous interchangeably. Technically speaking, they are different. For feeding or self defense, venomous animals produce and store venom and deliver it through a specific set of organs. Examples of venomous animals include some snakes (like our copperhead and rattlesnake) and some spiders, as well as stingrays, bees, and gila monsters. While venom is injected, poison is either ingested or absorbed through the skin. Poisonous animals have a toxic substance that is distributed throughout their body tissues. Poisonous animals and plants have a great defense mechanism against things that want to eat them. Sometimes, poisonous animals will have very obvious warning signs, like the bright colors of the poison dart frog.
Where we see beautiful colors, potential predators see “Don’t eat me or you’ll be sorry!” You can see poison dart frogs up close here at the Museum in our Butterfly House. It’s usually pretty easy to find a poisonous plant just a few steps from your door. If you’ve ever itched incessantly for a few days, it’s likely you stumbled upon the “leaves of 3” poison ivy plant.
Read a neat article about poison ivy and climate change at Science News
As far as venomous snakes go here in the Triangle, we only have one! It’s the copperhead, and it is best left alone, although its bite is rarely fatal to healthy adults, kids, or even dogs (one of our wolves was bitten a few years ago and had 3 swollen and painful days, but was OK otherwise). Read more about copperheads in N.C. and how to avoid a bite : http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/gaston/Pests/reptiles/copperhead.htm
Venomous snakes are an important part of the web of life, helping control rodent populations. So if you see one, give it a nod of gratitude for the job it does, a smile for the beauty of its biology, and a wide berth out of respect for its venom!