There are many different creatures on this planet that have the power to cause significant harm to us humans through the use of highly sophisticated biochemistry, such as toxins. However, different animals, pursue different strategies and in classical Linnaean (18th century guy who liked to classify everything he could find) fashion we decided to differentiate between them. That way we could know exactly how a particular life form could/would kill us. Thus, the terms ‘poisonous’ and ‘venomous’ were born. However, not all languages are equally obsessed with characterising ways to die in detail and, consequently, don’t use separate words. One of these languages is Danish where everything is classified as ‘giftig’ and, thus, I figured I would help shed some light onto why one might want to understand the difference between a poisonous and a venomous animal and which is more dangerous.
So, whilst both use a myriad of different toxins, what is the difference between the two? Given that either way we could die, let's treat this as we would a criminal trial (although in many cases it is our own mistakes that lead to us being envenomated or poisoned – but let’s forget about that for now). Just like in most criminal trials involving assault, manslaughter, or murder, intent is a key factor. Was the accused trying to bring harm to the victim or were they maybe just defending themselves? In the case of our question, poisonous animals use their toxins in self-defence and thus usually store them inside their bodies or secrete them to avoid getting eaten (e.g. toads, poison dart frogs, puffer fish, etc.).
Assortment of poisonous animals. This includes a California newt (top left), an Australian cane toad (top middle), a strawberry poison-dart frog (top right), a green-and-black poison-dart frog (bottom left), a dog-faced puffer fish, and a yellow-banded poison dart frog (bottom right).
Venomous animals on the other hand can use their toxins both offensively, e.g. for prey capture (snakes, scorpions, spiders, jellyfish), or defensively (Stone fish, Sting rays, bees, etc.).
Medley of venomous animals. Here we have a European bumblebee (top left), a greater blue-ringed octopus (top middle), an Indian spectacled cobra (top right), a Costa Rican tarantula (bottom left), a pacific sea nettle jellyfish fish, and an Australian scorpion (bottom right).
This leads onto the next point of our trial, the weapon. Well, in the case of poisonous animals there is none, however venomous animals have gotten very creative over the past millennia and come up with innovative and very sophisticated tools to serve their particular venom cocktail to their victims: Snakes and spiders use fangs, scorpions are equipped with stingers, stone fish have 13 spines aligned with venom glands, octopuses sport (cool way of saying “have”) beaks, and the list goes on. Thus, having a way of actively introducing your toxins or not is a key distinguishing factor between venomous and poisonous animals. Consequently, the biochemical pre-requisites for the toxins also often differ.
Whilst poison toxins need to cause harm by being absorbed through the skin, being eaten, and sometimes being inhaled, venom toxins are directly injected into the lymphatics or blood system of the victim. This often leads to poison toxins being smaller and hardier than venom toxins (they typically need to survive stomach acids and other nasty things trying to prevent them to fulfil their existence’s purpose).
So, to conclude our trial: poisonous animals use toxins to protect themselves, do not actively inject their toxins (and couldn’t even if they wanted to), and will only kill you if you decide that touching or eating them is a good idea – I believe Charles Darwin would call this ‘natural selection’. Thus, in the worst case one could charge them with accidental manslaughter, but really, it’s a classic case of self-defence. With venomous animals we have a different story, since they could have either done it to capture and eat you (although in reality no venomous animal is large enough to eat us, so…) or they are just trying to save themselves, i.e. from a big stomping human stepping on them whilst they are having a nice little nap. However, they have a huge arsenal of weapons to induce death and suffering and biochemical warfare with toxins never looks good in front of a judge. Nevertheless, I would once again argue self-defence and absolve them off all their alleged crimes. After all, we are the big scary ones and they are just afraid. Apologies for this totally un-Games of Thrones-esque ending to our trial, but I hope at least the differences between poisonous and venomous animals became a bit clearer.
Now that we have answered the first part of our initial question, we can move on to figure out which one is more dangerous, a poison or a venom. In the context of animals, I would say this is an easy answer, but before I bias you with my opinion let me ask you this: Would you be more scared of encountering a black mamba, and a deathstalker scorpion, a funnel web spider, a box jellyfish, OR a poison dart frog, a puffer fish, a newt, and a cane toad?
What's more intimidating this lineup of venomous or poisonous animals? On the top we have the venomous creatures (from left to right: a black mamba, and a deathstalker scorpion, a funnel web spider, a box jellyfish) and on the bottom the poisonous ones (from left to right: a poison dart frog, a puffer fish, a newt, and a cane toad).
If you are more frightened by the prospect of encountering the second list of animals you either have a strong Batrachophobia (fear of amphibians), an unhealthy appetite for Japanese Fugu (puffer fish, which is one of the most toxic creatures on the planet and some particular humans still decide to eat it), or simply are evolutionary predisposed to die in nature – let me refer back to Darwin once again. I would strongly argue that the first list is significantly more intimidating given that we have a lot less control over being intoxicated (I am not talking about the fun kind of intoxication here). Don’t get me wrong, this list of poisonous creatures can pack a serious punch, but you would typically have to actively decide to get close enough to them for anything to happen.
Let’s get back on track though. I would argue in the context of animals, venom is more dangerous. Yet, if we just look at the substances themselves one could argue the other way around. There is a reason that historically poisons and not venoms were used to rid yourself of people you didn’t like. The key advantage being that you could inconspicuously add poisons to someone’s food or drink, or merely bring it in contact with their skin. Even today assassins still use poisons, as became evident after the Salisbury attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal where Novichok nerve agent was in play. If you tried to do something similar using snake venom, you would need to find a means to inject it, since eaten or drinking these toxins would typically just lead to the destruction of the venom toxins by the stomach acid and skin absorption would typically also be unsuccessful. In fact, the lack of danger venoms pose when ingested rather than injected was a point I wanted to prove whilst at high school.
In 10th grade I had to give a presentation of neurotoxins (I already was super keen on anything and everything toxic, so I was very motivated and wanted to smash it out of the park). I decided to include a live demonstration into my talk and prepared accordingly. When the day came I started my presentation I started by introducing the many ways neurotoxins can affect the body and moved on to where they come from. This led me to both bacteria which use neurotoxins as poisons, but also to snakes to use them as venoms. Then I explained the difference and pulled out a vial containing a yellow and amber coloured liquid – cobra venom (I was volunteering at a reptile rehabilitation centre at the time and stated that that’s where I got the venom from). I took of the lid from the vial and declared that to prove venoms cannot cause harm when ingested I would drink this cobra venom. Much to the shock of my classmates, but even more so my teacher, I proceeded to drink the whole vial. Once the initial shock subsided, my teacher asked me whether I was sure about what I had just done and what would happen if I had any minor cuts in my mouth or throat? Would the venom still enter my bloodstream? Well, yes – so I had no good answer and just told him that I was pretty sure I had no cuts and it would be fine…
Fortunately, whilst I was a stupid teenager, I wasn’t that stupid, and neither were my colleagues at the reptile centre. They would never give me cobra venom and I would never drink it for the above-mentioned reasons. I had just filled some apple juice into that vial, creating the perfect illusion. Nevertheless, it was enough to net me max points for the presentation. I think it was mostly, because my teacher was relieved, I didn’t die and more importantly, that he didn’t have to deal with.
My old high-school in Munich (Theresien Gymnasium) and the vial of 'venom' I drank in my Biology class
So, to sum up: I would argue that venoms are more dangerous than poisons in the hands (or actually fangs, stingers, and spines) of animals, whereas the opposite is true for when they are in the hands of humans. Either way, I would stay clear of both. Neither are too pleasant after all…
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