Venom saves lives... Wait, what?
Snakes have long been perceived as the cryptic enemy, waiting to pounce on any foreseeable threat, and “chase” those who enter their “nests.” They are also marked with an extensive history of superstition, resulting in a legacy more victimized than glorified. Human activities such as habitat destruction and harvesting for rattlesnake round-ups has caused a precipitous decline of many snake species, especially the “villainous” venomous snakes (Source). However, these misunderstood creatures play a major ecological role in food webs by stabilizing rodent population and serving as prey themselves. Their venom is also vital to breast cancer treatment and blood disorders because of its medical properties.
Antivenom is another important use, as snakebites do occur throughout the United States and the world. Globally, snakebites are considered a significant source of high mortality, however, the chances of dying from a venomous snakebite in the U.S is very low, due to modern treatment regimens and wide availability of antivenom. In areas with no or few hospitals qualified to treat snakebites, folklore and myths often surround treatment of snakebites. However, in the U.S, fewer than one in 37,500 people are bitten by venomous snakes each year, but only about 5 out of the 8,000 bites annually are fatal (Source). You are nine times more likely to die from a lightning strike than a venomous snakebite. (Source) You are also about four times more likely to be bitten by a dog (Source). The most common snakebite in all of Florida is from the dusky pygmy rattlesnake, while the water moccasin is responsible for most snakebites in South Florida (Source). Even so, provocation, mishandling, and lack of caution are usually the reasons behind these snakebites (Source). Normally, venom functions as an effective tool for capturing prey, and aids digestion for some species. Because of the massive amount of energy needed to produce venom, snakebite is a defensive mechanism and snakes will almost always attempt to flee first.
Venom is a highly modified saliva and is comprised of hundreds of different forms of peptides, enzymes, and toxins. Venom composition may vary within a single species and provide a different purpose to the medical field. For instance, hemotoxins target the circulatory system. Interestingly, although the venom has the ability to damage circulatory systems, it is also utilized for treating heart attacks and blood disorders. Tirofiban is a drug that contains venom from the African saw-scaled viper, and found in medication for minor heart attacks (Source). Research is currently being done on the neurotoxins from the African black mamba, and how they can be used for brain injuries, and diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s (Source). Mamba venom has molecules that attach to certain receptors in the brain, attacking the amyloid plaques found in patients with advanced Alzheimer’s (Source) A protein called contortrostatin, found in the venom of southern copperheads is also currently helping combat breast cancer (Source). The injection of the protein is applied at a localized level, inhibiting the growth of the tumor by isolating blood flow. Though unbeknownst by many, venom has contributed to numerous treatments, saving lives one drop at a time!
Unfortunately, wild venomous snake populations are declining due to multiple reasons. Habitat fragmentation has caused limited mobility and prey availability. Without unfragmented corridors, many species are forced to cross roads, leading to a higher mortality rate. Because snakes are slow moving and are often the intentional target of drivers, roads are a significant source of mortality (Source). Loss of habitat has also caused both venomous and nonvenomous snakes to move into urban areas, where an increase in urban and wildlife confrontation has resulted in the rise of indiscriminate killing. The harvesting of venomous snakes, particularly rattlesnakes, has also contributed to less of a presence in the natural community (Source). Round-ups, an in inhumane sport dressed as a recreational event, has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of rattlesnakes across the U.S. These factors can lead to a rise in rodent populations, which in turn increases the spread of Lyme disease (Source). Agriculture can also be negatively impacted, resulting in a higher use of pesticides in the absence of a natural predator.
Using education, the conservancy, along with partnered organizations, has set out to demonstrate and teach the importance of these often-feared animals. The goal is to help people understand these animals and inspire respect for their many contributions to humans and the natural environment.