Davy Jones’s Locker is a phrase common among seafarers: it is used to refer to wreckage (and humans) condemned to the bottom of the oceans. If the Australian box jellyfish (sea wasp) stings a human being, the probability of the victim ending up on the ocean floor is quite high. Although they look harmless and wispy, their sting is among the deadliest on the planet on account of the venom they produce. Unbearable pain is followed by shock, which can be followed by drowning or heart failure; all in a few minutes. The lucky ones who survive are left with scarring from the tentacles and severe pain for weeks afterward.
Why Be So Venomous
Jellyfish are ethereal-looking and literally go with the flow of the water. Even as food trends come and go, the ancient, non-harmful jellyfish is still food on the plate for many people. The box jellies are different; they swim and hunt their prey, which typically includes shrimp and fish. They don’t really hunt humans, so why do they produce venom potent enough to kill a human being? Researchers think this might be the wrong question to ask.
A Box Jellyfish
Image Credit: Mithril (Wikimedia Commons)
The theory for why its venom is so toxic is as follows: while co-evolving with creatures that could harm the jellyfish easily, the jellyfish needed their venom to work swiftly and potently. Humans, on the other hand, have not particularly evolved alongside, or under the particular threat of, predators that have wanted to overwhelm them with toxins; that’s why humans are susceptible to jellyfish venom.
As preys evolve to develop immunity to their attackers’ venom, the hunters also evolve by upping the toxicity of their venom. This is an arms race, so to say. When preys feel they are not especially under attack from a particular animal, their ability to develop resistance or immunity to the attacking animal’s venom may diminish. Creatures like mice, mongoose, and ground squirrels can survive the bite of a venomous snake because snakes continue to pose an obvious threat to their survival.
Humans have not had to deal with venomous predators on the lookout for human prey; in other words, the human specie has not developed any significant resistance to venoms. It’s unfortunate that venomous creatures that hunt other prey end up killing humans.
Do Poisons Only Kill?
Many antibiotics used by humans to fight bacterial infections are poisonous to the bacteria inside the human being, not to the human being consuming it. One creature’s food–or, in this case, medicine–is another creature’s poison. Even water, which is essential for humans and most species, can cause death when consumed in excess.
In other words, a helpful substance can be toxic under some circumstances. It’s also well documented that certain poisons can heal.
For instance, Botox is a modern drug that is used effectively to treat ailments like migraines, uncontrolled blinking, overactive bladders, and excessive sweating. It also helps with relieving spasms in the food pipe and helps cerebral palsy patients to move better. Botulinum, a toxin found in contaminated food, is also commonly available in soil and dust. Interestingly, Botox is a form of botulinum toxin. Its effectiveness in treatment vis à vis its role as a poison is decided by the quantity used. To put things in perspective, one gram can kill 5.5 people averaging 70 kilos.
The CDC (Center for Disease Control) even lists Botox as a Category A substance as it can be misused as a biological weapon.
Venoms or Toxins that Humans Use
Just as humans have learnt to harness botulinum, here are a few other animal whose venoms can be beneficial to humans if administered correctly:
- The Gila Monster
The Gila monster (pronounced hee-luh), endemic to the deserts of Mexico and the US, does not hunt often; it only gets hungry three or four times a year. Spending 95% of its life in burrows, the slow creature surfaces to raid eggs from nests, and eat young mammals. Storing its fat in its tail, the lizard can grow up to two feet in length.
The lizard’s venom is a mild neurotoxin, which is delivered through its teeth as it chews. A chemical in its saliva helps the lizard digest its food gradually. Scientists have come up with a synthetic form of the same chemical, which is effective in controlling sugar levels and facilitating weight loss in diabetics.
Rattlesnakes are large venomous snakes found in the US. Arizona, in particular, is home to thirteen varieties. The snake relies on its heat-sensing facial pits to spot its prey. Although its bite can be dangerous, it is rarely fatal.
The anticoagulating protein in the snake’s venom is used in modern medicine to design drugs to help prevent blood clots.
3. Scorpion Venom
Scorpion venom contains an element that helps target cancerous cells without affecting the good cells. This makes it easier for doctors to excise the cancerous cells and save lives.
A synthetic version of the mini-protein in the Deathstalker scorpion from Israel binds to cancerous cells. By attaching a fluorescent dye, researchers create what they call a “molecular flashlight,” which, once bound to the cancerous cells, emits near-infrared light. This helps surgeons spot and excise cancerous cells.