WHOA! 10 Snakes with Flesh-Eating (Cytotoxic) Venom

Written by Colby Maxwell
Published: April 2, 2022
Image Credit iStock.com/EcoPic
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Think You Know Snakes?

Snakes are some pretty scary animals to people. Part of what makes them so scary is their ability to bite! There are over 3,000 species of snake in the world, but thankfully, almost all of them are totally harmless. Still, there are a small group of snakes that use venom as a method of hunting and defense. Each venomous snake has its own special concoction within its fangs, but there are a few generally recognized types of snake venom, all with their own purpose. Today, we are going to be taking a look at cytotoxic venom, a chemical famed for its ability to eat away at flesh! Let’s discover: 10 Snakes with Flesh-Eating (Cytotoxic) Venom.

What is cytotoxin?

All snake venom is unique, but there are a few commonalities that related snakes share. One of the potential venom types is known as “cytotoxic” venom, and it is known for its destruction of tissue.

A cytotoxin is a protein that destroys cell membranes. This is essentially a microscopic cell “explosion,” and the resulting cell is totally destroyed. When there is a large amount of cytotoxic, huge groups of cells are killed, resulting in large-scale tissue damage. Although the effects are microscopic, the overall effect is tissue damage and necrosis that can be seen in a macro sense. In common language, cytotoxic venom kills cells and tissues at scale. Many regard it as flesh-eating venom.

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It’s important to know that “cytotoxin” is a generally broad term, with many other toxins fitting under the umbrella of “cell or tissue damage.”

For example, myotoxins damage skeletal muscle fibres (myo = muscle); cardiotoxins specifically affect cardiac (heart) muscle. Some toxins cause indiscriminate cell death, leading to localised tissue die-off. In these cases, it is appropriate to simply call them cytotoxins.

Biomedical Sciences

What does cytotoxin do to your body?

The effects of cytotoxic venom depend on the amount of venom injected and how potent the concoction is. Here are the effects after most people are bitten by a snake with cytotoxic venom.

  1. Localized swelling as your body flushes the area to dilute the venom
  2. Extreme pain as your nerves process the venom as a massive injury
  3. Skin, muscle, and other tissues are eaten away
  4. The body carries the dead tissue into the bloodstream and to the kidney and liver to be filtered
  5. With excess amounts of large tissue being processed by the organs, organ failure is common

Keep in mind that the above effect is for highly potent cytotoxins. For many snakes, the resulting damage is more localized (like with the copperhead). Still, all cytotoxins are dangerous, and many snakes utilize these proteins as a way of hunting and defense.

What snakes have cytotoxic venom?

Most snake venom is a concoction of various toxins, cytotoxin being among them. This list details some of the most dangerous snakes that utilize cytotoxins as a primary ingredient in their venom, and almost all of them are deadly. There are many other snakes that use cytotoxins, but these examples are the most well-known and the deadliest. Here are 10 snakes with flesh-eating venom!

Rattlesnakes

WHOA! 10 Snakes with Flesh-Eating (Cytotoxic) Venom
Rattlesnakes have deadly venom and live in the Americas.

Joe McDonald/Shutterstock.com

There are many species of rattlesnake across the Americas, and all of them are dangerous. Rattlesnakes are known for their deadly venom, which is made up of various toxins and molecule combinations. Their venomous compound is primarily a hemotoxin. Hemotoxins kill red blood cells and other tissues, causing them to rupture and burst.

Rattlesnakes can be found across North, Central, and South America in almost every environment.

Puff adders

WHOA! 10 Snakes with Flesh-Eating (Cytotoxic) Venom
Puff adders are the deadliest snake in Africa by the numbers.

iStock.com/EcoPic

The venom of the puff adder is extremely dangerous and is responsible for more fatalities than any other snake in Africa, although that is mostly due to how distributed they are. All adders have cytotoxic venom that results in swelling, bleeding, and hemorrhages. Adders generally inject 150-350 mg of venom per bite, with most humans dying with injections of only 100 mg.

Puff adders can be found across sub-Saharan Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

Gaboon vipers

WHOA! 10 Snakes with Flesh-Eating (Cytotoxic) Venom
The Gaboon viper has the largest venom glands of any venomous snake.

Danita Delimont/Shutterstock.com

The Gaboon viper is known for having the highest venom yield and all venomous snakes. As a result, their bite is often deadly. Thankfully, bites are rare as they are pretty docile and live in isolated areas. Their venom is cytotoxic but is dangerous due to the amount injected and isn’t as potent as others.

The Gaboon viper is found in the rainforests of central and west Africa.

Saw-scaled vipers

WHOA! 10 Snakes with Flesh-Eating (Cytotoxic) Venom
The saw-scaled viper has a bite fatality rate of 20% if left untreated.

reptiles4all/Shutterstock.com

The venom of saw-scaled vipers is hemotoxic and cytotoxic. The bitten areas suffer from necrosis and a lack of clotting, with about 20% of their bites being fatal if left untreated.

Saw-scaled vipers can be found in the arid and dry regions around the equator in Africa, Arabia, southwestern Asia, and India.

Russell’s vipers

WHOA! 10 Snakes with Flesh-Eating (Cytotoxic) Venom
Russell’s vipers are dangerous snakes that often live in paddy fields.

jaroslava V/Shutterstock.com

The venom of Russell’s vipers is characterized as “Russtoxic” and results in bleeding, lack of coagulation, neurological problems, and eventual organ failure. Their bite has a mortality rate of 2.6%, and the most common victims are paddy farmers.

Russell’s vipers can be found in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and much of Southeast Asia.

Bushmaster

WHOA! 10 Snakes with Flesh-Eating (Cytotoxic) Venom
Each species of bushmaster snake has a black line that runs behind its eyes.

iStock.com/reptiles4all

The venom of the bushmaster viper is very dangerous, although little research has been done on them. They are notably hard to keep in captivity, with their amount of venom and venom toxicity dropping over time. Of the few reported bites, however, the mortality rate appears to be around 80%.

Bushmaster vipers are found in South America and are recognized as one of the deadliest snakes in the New World.

Lancehead vipers

WHOA! 10 Snakes with Flesh-Eating (Cytotoxic) Venom
Snake Island is the only place in the world that is home to the golden lancehead.

Nayeryouakim / Creative Commons – License

There are a few lancehead viper species, but the most famous is the golden lancehead. It has a highly hemotoxic venom that destroys cells and prevents clotting. They are evolved to live on an island off the coast of Brazil that is almost devoid of mammals. As a result, their venom is specifically targeted toward birds, ectotherms, and arthropods.

The golden lancehead is native to the small Queimada Grande Island, located off the coast of Brazil. The other lancehead vipers are found in Central and South America.

Cobras

WHOA! 10 Snakes with Flesh-Eating (Cytotoxic) Venom
Cobras utilize incredibly high percentages of cytotoxic compounds in their venom.

Eugene Troskie/Shutterstock.com

Of all the snakes famous for cytotoxins, cobras are the most notable. Some species are known to have venom that is between 40-70% cytotoxin. The king cobra is the largest venomous snake in the world, and its venom is famed for its necrosis effects. Additionally, cobras utilize neurotoxic venom, making it a potent and deadly combination. Bites result in paralysis and mass tissue necrosis.

True cobras belong to the Naja genus, all of which are known for their cytotoxic compounds and potent venom. Members of the genus Naja can be found in most of Africa and Asia.

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puff adder in aggressive pose
The puff adder has a distinct triangle-shaped head.
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About the Author

Colby is a freelance writer from Charlotte, North Carolina. When he isn't distracted by his backyard birdfeeder, you can find him camping, exploring, and telling everyone around him about what he's recently learned. There's a whole world to learn about and Colby is content to spend his life learning as much as he can about it!

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