Often, an Academy biologist or docent will bring out one of the snakes for guests to see and touch. There are many common questions when a guest comes up close and personal with a Ball Python or Boa Constrictor. The most common question asked is – is this snake poisonous? And it is not only children asking if the snake is poisonous but adults as well. Many people think snakes are poisonous animals, however, snakes cannot actually be poisonous.
Although both poison and venom are toxic, they differ in the method of delivery. Poison is only effective if ingested orally or absorbed; venom, on the other hand, is always injected. So snakes are not poisonous, but they can be venomous.
There are many telltale indications that an animal is poisonous or venomous. Toxic animals usually advertise by color, behavior, or sound. Take, for example, the Poison Dart Frog – it secretes poison through its skin. These frogs are brightly colored, which acts as a visual deterrent for predators. Rattlesnakes, on the other hand, will signal their toxicity through threatening behavior and sound. When threatened, rattlesnakes will ready themselves in a striking pose and rattle their tails. Additionally, rattlesnake venom is kept in two venom sacs in the snake’s mouth, which alters the shape of the mouth. Non-venomous snakes have a circular mouths while venomous snakes, like rattlesnakes, have triangular mouths.
Venom is a highly effective survival tool for many different species. Venomous animals are found throughout the world and are most often very distinctive. Along with being able to defend themselves from many predators, venomous animals are also able to take down prey which are larger and faster than themselves.
Being venomous is so advantageous in the animal world in that many animals will fake it. Known as mimicry, the mimic will take on the coloration or characteristic of the model. Both the venomous Eastern coral snake and non-venomous scarlet king snake are banded red, yellow, and black; however; the order of the colors differs just slightly. Though both are striking in color, only the coral snake is toxic.
So in many instances color, behavior, or sound can let you know if an animal is poisonous or venomous. You can never be one hundred percent sure, however, as toxicity is an adaptation that many other species will copycat. When in nature it is better to be safe and keep a distance. For more information about toxic animals, to take a venom quiz, or to learn about different toxic species visit http://www.calacademy.org/exhibits/venoms/html/venoms_101.html#.
But back to the original question – is this snake poisonous? No. Is it venomous? Again the answer is no. We do not have any venomous programming animals. The most common type of programming snake we have at the Academy is a constrictor. A constrictor will squeeze its prey causing death through asphyxia or cardiac arrest. The majority of constrictors are non-venomous.
Cat Aboudara is the Special Projects Manager at California Academy of Sciences and works in the public programs division. The Academy is a wonderful fit for her because of her curiosity about the natural world and her experience in working with native California wildlife.
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