Snakes, spiders and scorpions are probably some of the animals that come to mind when you think of the word venom. There is a wide range of other venomous animals too – including the platypus, jellyfish, and, surprisingly, two species of frogs! To be clear, venom is a toxin that requires a delivery system such as a stinger or a fang. Venoms are often confused with poisons which conversely have to be ingested for their effects to be deadly.
The paradox with venom is that while it can cause harm, it can also do some good! Recent research has shown it may provide a potential cure to diseases such as cancer. As someone who has been fascinated with venomous animals since a young age, I took the opportunity to visit an exhibition at the Natural History Museum recently, titled ‘Venom: killer and cure’ to learn more.
The exhibit covers many different groups of animals and how they have evolved venom for different purposes. For example, snakes and cone shells share the use of venom as a tool for predation; bees and wasps use it as a defensive mechanism; and it also allows for easier blood feeding for vampire bats! There are numerous diverse delivery mechanisms and functions of venom within the animal kingdom, and many of these were highlighted in the exhibit. As much as I enjoyed the initial hall, where you are introduced to different animal groups and how their venoms differ, I feel that plants were left out for the single reason that they do not generate much interest. Yet plants are venomous! Just think about stinging nettles and their Australian cousin the ‘gympie-gympie’ – a nettle on steroids! Although plant venom cannot kill you, it can cause you intense pain, so much so that you to wish it had.
Other halls looked at the effects on the human body, and the cures for venom. This is an area I find interesting, particularly how our understanding of venom has changed over time, as well as the treatment! I would recommend visiting the exhibition if you, like me, have an interest in the natural world and the world of venom systems. The fact that the museum is only a couple of doors down from the South Kensington campus makes it particularly inviting! If you are planning on going, it does cost to enter – but fear not: the National History Museum has a special discount for Imperial College students, so make sure to show your student card on entry. The exhibition is only around until the 13th May, so do not leave it too long to visit if you intend to!