5 Venomous Animals That Could Save Your Life

A light-brown scorpion positioned on a tree trunk.

Ernst Haas / Getty Images 

Venomous animals tend to get a bad rap, even though their unique abilities often serve an important purpose as a defense mechanism or to help catch prey. Either way, this reputation is certainly understandable; the venom from some of these species can kill humans in a matter of minutes. But in an interesting twist, those same qualities that make venom dangerous to humans in a natural setting are also being leveraged into a powerful force for good by medical researchers.

The venomous animals described below range in size, and are as tiny as snails and as large as jellyfish, to name a couple. You might want to take notes while looking through this list of formidable creatures, because one of them just might save your life someday.

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Spiders

A black widow spider climbs its web.
Many black widow spiders can be recognized by a red hourglass marking.

Mark Kostich / Getty Images

It's hard to convince an anti-spider person to embrace them, but in general, spiders are highly misunderstood. Spider venom has been proven to fight pain, cancer, muscular dystrophy, and other diseases. The black widow has some of the most beneficial venom, and other spiders with beneficial venom include the brown recluse, parson spider, and the sac spider.

Research published in PNAS found that venom from Australia's deadly funnel-web spider along with its cousin, the double-knot spider, could stop brain damage caused by a stroke. Similarly, a study published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry found that certain molecules in tarantula venom could be used as a nonaddictive alternative to opioid pain killers for people seeking chronic pain relief. Each of these discoveries has led to more scientific interest in the promising ways that spider venom can both treat and protect humans across a wide variety of medical conditions.

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Snails

A cone snail on the ocean floor.
The venom of a cone snail (Conus textile), is responsible for several human deaths.

Harry Rose / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

You might not think of snails as being venomous – don't worry, most aren't. Cone snails however, are some of the most toxic animals in the world. While 800 different species of cone snails are located in various warm areas throughout the world, the deadliest kind, known as the "cigarette snail," can be found among reefs across the Indo-Pacific region. Anyone who gets stung by one of these snails likely has only a few hours to live. The name is an exaggerated play on the speed by which the venom is fatal, referencing succumbing to the powerful venom in the time it would take someone to smoke a cigarette. The venom this four to six inch creature produces is said to be hundreds of times more powerful than morphine, and scientists are still trying to figure out the best ways to harness it. By studying the science behind how cone snails deliver their venom at such breakneck speeds, researchers hope to find new ways to deliver medicines into humans faster than is currently possible.

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Snakes

Malayan pit viper keeps close to the sand.
The venom of Malayan pit vipers can serve as a life-saving coagulant.

KAMONRAT / Shutterstock

Snake venom might take the cake for being the most widely understood of the animal venoms. It is used to treat heart attacks, blood disorders, high blood pressure, minor heart attacks, blood clots, brain injuries, and more. The history of using snake venom as medicine can be traced back thousands of years to when Indian and Chinese cultures utilized cobra venom. More recently, in the 1960s, Hugh Alistair Reid made a breakthrough. He was a doctor in Malaysia when he discovered that the venom from Malayan pit vipers could help with blood clotting, according to an abstract from a study published in Toxicon, the official journal of the International Society on Toxicology. This eureka moment led to many more discoveries by Reid and others, and snake venom is being increasingly studied and adapted into life-saving pharmaceutical drugs.

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Scorpions

A large scorpion on muddy terrain.

Dancinon / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Researchers are studying how venom from several different animals could help with the treatment and cure of cancer. Scorpion venom might just be the key to that work. The toxins in the venom are believed to help shrink tumors and slow their growth, prompting researchers to continue testing the toxic effects of the venom on cancer cells. According to the National Foundation for Cancer Research, scientists are able to utilize a key compound in scorpion venom to target cancerous cells without affecting nearby adjacent healthy cells. This discovery could help lead to a major breakthrough when it comes to treating one of the deadliest forms of brain cancer: glioblastoma multiforme, or GBM.

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Bees

A wasp with its head lowered to a flower.

Artur Rydzewski / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

 

Most people don't realize that a bee sting actually injects a type of venom. No one likes getting stung, but evidence shows that it can help you in the long run; it helps build up a natural immunity toward future stings. However, this isn't the case for those who are allergic to bee stings – for that group, the stings could be deadly. But for those without an allergy, bee venom therapy (BVT) is catching on in popularity, and being used to treat a variety of diseases and ailments including arthritis, Lyme disease, eczema, asthma, tumors, and more. Humans have been harnessing the healing power of bee venom for over 5,000 years, and recent science has significantly bolstered our understanding of this powerful natural medicine.

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Lizards

A gila monster sleeps on a bed of rocks.

 OZinOH / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

One of the first breakthroughs in animal venom medicine happened in the early 1990s, when researchers discovered something interesting about gila monster venom. The gila monster, a large, colorful lizard native to the southwest United States, was found to have a powerful hormone in its venom that could stimulate insulin production. As insulin is the key hormone needed to regulate diabetes, researchers were intrigued. The hormone was found to replicate one found in the human digestive tract that regulates glucose. Led by Drs. John Eng and Jean-Pierre Raufman, researchers licensed the discovery, and a synthetic version of the hormone was approved by the FDA in 2004, and has gone on to be used by over two million people nationwide.

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Bats

A bat sleeps upside down in the daytime.

Ian Waldie / Getty Images

Bat venom is one of the most cutting-edge research areas when it comes to using animal venom in humans. A research team led by The University of Queensland discovered that the venom of vampire bats contains blood-pressure regulating peptides, which could ultimately revolutionize the way we treat a whole array of conditions, including heart failure, hypertension, and kidney disease. According to research professor Bryan Fry, "The peptides are mutated forms of the Calcitonin Gene Related Peptide (CGRP), used by our bodies to relax blood vessels." As the condition of our blood vessels are directly linked to our cardiac health, these properties in bat venom could mark a paradigm shift for the millions of people who suffer from cardiac issues if the research findings ultimately pan out.

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Jellyfish

A jellyfish underwater.

Alexander Semenov / Getty Images

One of the greatest fears of beach-side swimmers is the thought of getting stung by a jellyfish. However, a 2017 study shows that after testing it in a lab, jellyfish venom was shown to have anti-cancer properties that could be of use in treating humans. While using jellyfish venom for medicine hasn't been researched as much as other animal venoms, there has been increased interest in recent years.