Deadly Snake Hunted for Lifesaving Venom

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Like that of other snakes, death adder venom, is a form of saliva. When a venomous snake bites, it injects venom into its victim through hollow fangs—though this does not happen with every bite.

In the milking process, a snake is prompted to bite through a latex membrane stretched over a glass beaker. Venom is collected in the beaker then later dried, weighed, and packaged by staff members wearing protective masks.

Dried venom is sent to the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, in Melbourne, Victoria. Over long periods of time, some 250 huge Percheron horses are injected with tiny but increasing amounts of venom (the animals are unharmed). The horses produce natural antibodies to counteract the small amounts of poison in their systems. After about a year, blood plasma is extracted from the horses in a process as simple a human blood donation—plasma rich with antibodies that can neutralize snake venom.

Death Adders Hunted For Potent Venom

Capturing a death adder is difficult and dangerous. The snakes grow up to 75 centimeters (29.5 inches) long and are rather reclusive. They hunt by ambush—sometimes partially buried in sand, soil, or leaves—waiting for lizards, birds, or other small animals beneath low bushes and shrubs. The camouflaged snake uses the thin tip of its brightly-colored tail as a lure before striking its prey with large fangs six to eight millimeters (0.2 to 0.3 inches) long.

The several species of death adders are often ranked among the world's most deadly snakes—although their reputation may be a bit misleading. "These popular listings are often based on the potency of the snake's venom— the quantity of reconstituted dried venom it would take to kill a laboratory mouse or a human." Weigel explained.

While death adder venom is highly potent, such rankings often overlook important mitigating factors when determining how likely a human is to survive an encounter with the snake. Factors include the amount of venom typically injected during a bite, the likelihood of a death adder to strike and bite, and even the odds of encountering the snake in the wild. So while death adders rank among the most deadly snakes, the risks they pose to humans are not quite so high. This tempered threat is due to the high success rate of antivenin treatment and also decreased instances of human-snake encounters as the death adder's population has declined.

Nonetheless, hunting the snakes is dangerous. If left untreated, the death adder's bite is deadly. "It's one of those snakes that, if it bites and envenomates you, you can certainly die," said Weigel.

The snake's venom contains neurotoxins that can cause major respiratory paralysis within 6 hours of receiving a bite. "An untreated bite has a high death rate," Weigel explained. "In New Guinea, where we don't have much antivenin, the death rate remains something like 50-50."

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