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"Killer" new exhibit
strikes Tennessee Aquarium

In March 2000, the Tennessee Aquarium will open a killer new exhibit in the changing exhibit gallery -- VENOM: Striking Beauties.

Venom. The word itself is loaded. Throughout history, venom and venomous animals have inspired fear and even horror. Countless writers have used the word venom to symbolize evil, fueling the imaginations of generations of readers and movie audiences.

Of course, the truth about venomous animals is not reflected in B-grade movies. The truth is often much more interesting than fiction. The behaviors and adaptations of this diverse group of aquatic and terrestrial creatures are more fascinating than frightening. In the new exhibit, VENOM: Striking Beauties, visitors to the Tennessee Aquarium will explore the surprising secret lives of animals whose killer reputations are based more on fear than fact.

Venomous Variety
Most people are aware of only a few of the many types of venomous animals. Snakes come to mind first, but only about 300 of the world's nearly 3,000 species of snakes are venomous. Although spiders use venom to subdue their next meal, fewer than 30 of more than 30,000 kinds of spiders have venom that is harmful to humans. Furthermore, spiders bite people only in self-defense. In the Aquarium's new exhibit, you will come face to face with more than 40 species of venomous animals, from well-known stars like the diamondback rattlesnake to little-known gems like the flower sea urchin.

In addition to showcasing a variety of venomous beauties, the exhibit also clarifies the difference between venom and poison. It's a matter of delivery and action. Venomous animals use fangs, teeth, spines, or stingers to inject venom directly into the body of their attacker or next meal. Poisonous animals, on the other hand, must be touched or eaten to deliver their toxins, usually serving as a defense. Venom, a complex chemical cocktail, brings about a biochemical process launched by a mere prick from a venomous animal. In mammals, including humans, venom may attack the nervous system, circulatory system, or heart -- or any combination of the three. But there is a reasonable chance that any bite from a venomous animal could be "dry."

For example, it is estimated that the bites of as many as one-quarter of terrestrial snakes and three-quarters of sea snakes are dry. Many people imagine that venomous animals are aggressive, but the truth is that most go to great lengths to avoid using their venom. Because venom is expensive to produce from an energy standpoint and is the key to their survival, most animals catch their prey without using venom if at all possible.

These animals use a variety of warning strategies to discourage aggressors. For example, red is a color that usually signals stop or danger in the animal world. Humans use it on stop signs, emergency vehicles, and railroad crossings. Animals like cow killer ants and black widow spiders display it on their abdomens, while the coral snake is wrapped in red warning stripes. Behaviors, like a rattling rattlesnake or a hooding cobra also offer warnings.

Masters of illusion and contrast, venomous animals range from the camouflaged -- like that most venomous of all fish, the stonefish -- to flamboyant -- like the small but brightly colored coral snake. Venomous animals often lead sedentary lives, as seen in sit-and-wait predators like the scorpionfish and most snakes. Some, however, are active, like the foraging bullet ants. Habitats of venomous animals range from barren deserts to vibrant coral reefs to lush jungles, all of which are represented in the exhibit.

The exhibit space will illustrate the tension and intrigue that are the essence of life for venomous animals. Steel, corrugated metal, galvanized aluminum and bolts create an ominous gallery filled with beautiful habitats from around the world. Natural sounds woven into a thematic musical backdrop add an eerie and strangely beautiful depth to the experience. In this setting, the true nature of the world of venom unfolds as you come safely within striking distance of venomous animals from both land and sea.

Listed here are just a few of Venom's stars:
  • Beneath the warty skin of the reef stonefish are 12-14 grooved spines, each with a large venom sack. Punctures are extremely painful and can result in loss of limb or death. To add insult to injury, stonefish are masters of disguise and hard to find hidden in the coral.
  • Bullet ants are the largest ants in Central America, at about an inch long. Don't worry about this ant biting you, because the real sting is in the tail. A sting is said to feel like - you guessed it - a bullet.
  • The largest native US lizard is the gaudy Gila monster, at 24 inches long. Though shy, the Gila monster has a bad bite and clamps down with a tenacious hold. Venom is chewed in through grooves in the rear teeth of its lower jaw. Though the Gila packs a powerful nerve toxin, most prey is killed by the bite, not the venom.
  • The stinging catfish is the only catfish likely to be found on a coral reef. With a highly venomous serrated spine on its fins, these racy stingers can cause dangerous wounds that are occasionally fatal.
  • Though its venom is powerful and among the deadliest in the world, few people are bitten by the yellow-lipped sea krait, a sea snake that is mostly active at night, when it can feast on its favorite dinner of eel. Rather than being threats to man, these snakes are threatened themselves. Tens of thousands of sea snakes are killed in the Philippines for their skin and meat. Some people even believe that eating sea krait gall bladders improves your vision.
From Fear to Respect
In the United States, you have a better chance of being hit by lightning than of having a fatal encounter with a venomous animal. In fact, most deaths from venomous animals are caused not by toxins but by allergic reactions, particularly to bee and wasp stings. This phenomenon reveals another twist -- it is not necessarily the strength of the venom that matters, but how likely it is to cause allergic reactions in people. In some parts of the world, however, fear of venom is based on daily reality. In India, for example, 10,000 to 15,000 people each year die from snakebites, as opposed to 9 to 15 annual fatalities in the United States.

Close Encounters, Close to Home

Black widow spiders are fairly common throughout the United States, including Tennessee. But they are not the only venomous animals in the Southeast. Red velvet and cow killer ants also are found in here. These "ants" are actually wingless wasps. Unlike true ants, they lead solitary lives, so the chances of seeing one are slim. The South is home to other venomous animals including bees and wasps, copperhead snakes and timber rattlesnakes.

So What Good are They, Anyway?
Venomous animals are often shy and secretive, but deserve a better reputation than they have. They often act as our silent partners in controlling pests and even disease. It is estimated that at any moment, we are each less than 3 feet from the nearest spider. A spider eats up to 100 times its weight in insects annually, and together spiders eat 80 percent of the world's insect population. Similarly, snakes do a quietly efficient job of controlling rodent and small mammal populations, animals that destroy crops and stored food and may carry disease.

Animal venom is used to produce antivenin, required by hospitals worldwide. Many venoms are being researched for their potential uses as sources of vitamins, commercial and agricultural products, and medicines. Captopril (Capoten), a billion-dollar drug for high blood pressure, was inspired by a component in venom. Venom from Australia's highly toxic cone snail is being studied as the newest miracle drug for controlling chronic pain, and the venom of the Malayan pit viper has been used to create a new blood-thinning drug that prevents new blood clots from forming. While few of these venom-derived medicines are approved for use in the United States so far, their importance is growing.



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