Why are Aussie snakes so toxic?

29 March 2009

Question

Why are Australian snakes so much more toxic in general than other snakes in other parts of the world?

Answer

We put this to Wolfgang Wüster, University of Wales and Bangor. The idea that Australian venomous snakes are more toxic than those anywhere else is, to a large extent, a myth which started out with a study that was published approximately thirty years ago. They took 25 different snake venoms and showed that the top ten of those were Australian. It only included five non-Australian snakes so it's rather like the American baseball World Series: you can't lose if you don't include the competition. In reality the two snakes in the world with the most toxic venoms drop for drop are in fact Australian. Immediately after that when you look at the table of most toxic venoms you start having a large number of other snakes coming in. A large number of Australian venomous snakes are actually not spectacular at all in their potency of their venom. There's nothing intrinsic about Australian snakes being particularly toxic. The amazing thing is that the snake with the most toxic venom in the world - the inland Taipan has never actually killed anyone. Some snakes live in remote areas and in places where there is no medical treatment and other snakes live in areas which either are very remote and people don't go to so they don't bite anyone or there is good anti-venom and good treatment available. If you're bitten in Australia a flying doctor comes and picks you up and you go to a hospital and 99.5% of cases everything's going to be just fine. If you get bitten in West Africa then there is no anti-venom, there is no hospital that can treat you and you slowly bleed to death from a snake that has a fraction of the killing power.

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