Cobras, vipers, and adders are some of the world's most poisonous snakes. If antivenin's aren't given quickly victims will die a quick and painful death.
Snakes seem to inspire either awe or fear - we love them or hate them - there's no middle ground. They hiss, they rattle, they don't blink, and they shed their skin. A few species can puff themselves up and others can play dead. Some have horns or odd protrusions and worst of all, their venom can cause severe pain or death within minutes if sprayed or injected through needle-sharp fangs. For many of us, this one attribute alone is the stuff of nightmares. Yet despite a bad rap that goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden, snakes are a vital part of our ecology, even the world's most lethal snakes.
Venom is a very complex mixture of proteins and toxins. Snakes use their venom to immobilise, and in some cases, digest their prey, which consists mainly of rodents, frogs, birds and smaller snakes. After a snake strikes its venom goes to work very quickly and effects the heart, the lungs, the muscles or the red blood cells. Venoms are divided into three categories: 1) hemotoxic - damages blood vessels and promotes haemorrhage 2) neurotoxic - paralyses the heart and respiration 3) myotoxic - causes severe muscular pain. In some cases a combination of effects occurs. Cobras and Coral snakes are said to have the most potent neurotoxic venom, the latter literally liquefying tissue, especially the flesh closest to the snakebite. Cottonmouth venom causes fatal haemorrhaging in all organs of the body if an antidote isn't administered on time. Scientists continue to study the intricacies of snake venoms. Some have already been put to use as painkillers for various chronic or terminal conditions and as coagulants for haemophiliacs.
Prepared antivenins are the only known antidote for snakebites. These are made by injecting large animals with close to lethal doses of a specific snake venom until the animal develops immunity. Serum is then extracted and processed as an antivenin. Other factors play a large part in saving a snake bite victim: proper identification of the snake, the location of the bite and time elapsed from the initial strike to administering an antivenin. Some people are allergic to snake bites or to antidotes and may suffer a severe reaction or even die.
North America has its share of potentially deadly snakes. However,death from snakebites is very rare since medical help is usually readily available. Encounters with Rattlesnakes are the most common. Various species of rattlers are found all over the US and into Canada, particularly in the arid zones. Water moccasins, Mexican Moccasins, the Cottonmouth, and the Copperhead, all relatives of the Rattlesnake, reside in more southerly regions of the US and are also serpents to be wary of. Of the 24 varieties of Coral snake, the Harlequin and Arizona Coral, deliver a series of potentially lethal bites if disturbed.
In the tropical Americas and certain West Indies islands, the Fer-de-lance is considered especially dangerous. A nocturnal hunter, it often slithers into homes in search of prey. This snake grows to 7 feet and will strike without warning. It has various cousins going by names like, the Okinawa Habu, Jararaca, Wutu, Jumping Viper and the Wagler's pit viper.
Africa is a hotbed of extremely deadly snakes. The Egyptian or African cobra, or asp, is the specimen Cleopatra used to end her life. The Ringals, Spitting and Black-necked Cobras spit venom but rarely bite. Of the three, the Black-necked Cobra is the most aggressive and can spray venom into the eyes of intruders from as far as 7 feet. The Black Mamba is another hostile snake whose bite is 100% fatal if antivenin is not administered quickly. It reaches a length of 14 feet and actually rears up to strike at a man or large animal. The Green Mamba is more timid and somewhat smaller, growing to a mere 9 feet. All of these African snakes have the ability to expand neck ribs to form a hood, making them appear even more dangerous. The Boomslang is a tree dweller whose skin and eyes change color according to its surrounding and can stay immobile for hours waiting out its prey. The Gaboon viper is considered the most dangerous of African snakes. Its bite is rarely felt or is confused with an insect sting and victims often die before antivenin can be administered.
Australia is the habitat for quite a number of the world's most lethal serpents. The Inland Taipan is a very rare species and believed to be the most toxic of all snakes, it makes the Cobra look like a garter snake. One bite delivers enough venom to kill around 100 people. A close cousin, the Taipan, reaches a length of over 10 feet and is very aggressive. It strikes without warning, not once, but several times, injecting a venom that clots blood and can kill in minutes. The Death Adder, relative of the Cobra, has a bite that is lethal in 50% of cases that go untreated. Other potential killers are the Tiger snake, the Australian Black snake and the Brown snake, whose bites cause the most deaths in Australia.
India, Ceylon, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia, are home to the Saw Scaled viper, one of the smallest venomous snakes at only 2 feet, but with a bite that is usually fatal. Cobras and the Russel's viper are responsible for the close to 20,000 yearly snake bite deaths in India. Many of these fatalities occur because of the Cobras' appetite for rats. It's not uncommon for the snakes to lay in wait for the rodents inside a home or a hut. If a human gets in the way the encounter usually proves fatal.
The King Cobra is the world's largest and most formidable venomous snake. The record length for a King was measured at 18 feet, 4 inches. They are most aggressive during mating and nesting season. King cobras are the only snake species that watch over their young and both male and female diligently guard their nest and will attack any interlopers who venture near. King cobra bites can kill a full grown elephant in less than 3 hours.
The warm ocean waters around Australia and Indonesia are home to 32 varieties of sea snakes. Of these the Beaked Sea Snake has the most toxic venom, attacking the muscles of the body and causing excruciating pain. The initial bite is not painful and if left untreated, the victim dies. Sea snakes are curious creatures and are generally nonaggressive. Most encounters occur when fisherman net them or if the snakes are washed ashore after a storm and stepped on or handled by the unwary.
Our fear of snakes isn't likely to go away any time soon. But as a scientists continue to study them our attitudes can only change. Perhaps in time we will respect these fascinating reptiles, not fear them, even the most lethal of the world's snakes.