Don’t go to Venom: Killer and Cure, at the Natural History Museum in London if you have a phobia about spiders, wasps or snakes; your skin will be crawling the whole way through.
At the entrance is a simple distinction between poison and venom: “If you bite it and you die it’s poison, but if it bites you and you die, that’s venom.” Also, poison can be ingested; venom is injected. There’s a huge array of creatures that use it to disable and kill their prey – more than 200,000 of them, we’re told.
There’s a beautiful artistic display of an Egyptian mongoose fighting a cobra. There’s an 8ft Komodo dragon, the most venomous land animal on the planet. Some creatures, including the emerald cockroach wasp and the giant ichneumon wasp, use venom to incapacitate their victim, then lay their eggs on it, ensuring their young will have a nourishing (still living) meal when they hatch.
But it’s not all to do with killing. We also learn that male duck-billed platypuses have venomous spurs on their feet which they use when fighting other males in the mating season.
The one disappointment of Venom is its live exhibit, a burgundy goliath bird-eating tarantula. It crouched in its display cabinet, not twitching a hair; I thought it was just a stuffed one until I noticed the sign: “Please do not tap on the glass as it annoys the tarantula.”
The second half of the exhibition examines how we can benefit from the venom of such creatures. First, we can use the venom – or the antibodies created to fight it – to save the lives of people bitten by snakes. There are an estimated five million snakebites a year worldwide; 400,000 result in permanent disabilities and 100,000 cause death.
One of the scariest exhibits was a film showing a snake being milked of its venom to create an antidote. The creature is held carefully over a glass jar covered in cling film, its lower jaw against the side of the jar; then the snake strikes angrily, its fangs piercing the cling film, its venom falling into the jar. You can’t help imagining your own hand or leg or neck …
Venom is also used medicinally. Toxins derived from the jararaca pit viper can be used to lower blood pressure, reducing the risk of heart failure. The gila monster’s venomous saliva has provided a medicine for type 2 diabetes. Venom from the magical cone snail can block chronic pain, while a synthetic version of the Brazilian wandering spider’s venom is currently being trialled as a cure for impotence.
Perhaps the oddest thing about the Venom exhibition about vicious death in nature was how peaceful it was – certainly in comparison to the noisy bustle of the rest of the museum, full of excited schoolchildren.
Venom: Killer and Cure is at the Natural History Museum, London, until May 13