The stingray is a relative of the shark. But unlike its long lost cousin, the stingray is a shy and gentle creature who would rather swim away than strike. The same could be said of the infamous black widow spider. So why are these reclusive creatures born with such strong venom that can injure and potentially even kill?

Imagine if you were going about your daily business of swimming in the sea or spinning your web a.k.a your creative masterpiece. And then someone steps on you. Whether it was intentional or unintentional doesn’t really matter to the one who has been stepped on. Reclusive creatures do not like to be disturbed. If there is a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign in front of your hotel room door and a goof playing a prank decides to knock on it, I can almost guarantee that there will be a backlash, regardless of your intentions.

In human societies, reclusive people are often shunned or seen as socially inept, but maybe they would simply rather just be left alone. The same could be said of snakes. I grew up in a country where snakes aren’t exactly common, but they are around. Whenever I was out with the boys and we would see one, we would jump onto higher ground and stay really quiet till the snake went on its merry way. Good thing none of us were dumb enough to poke it or provoke it. That most certainly wouldn’t have ended well.

Anyways, coming back to the stingray–it cannot see its prey because its eyes are on the upper side of its body, while its mouth and nostrils are on the underside. Just because it can’t see you, doesn’t mean it doesn’t know that you are there. There is still sense of smell, touch and of course, the electromagnetic field which sends a signal that an opportunity or a threat is near.

The ‘dangerous’ part of a stingray is its tail. The spinal blade is known as the stinger and is covered with rows of sharp spines made of cartilage. The stinger is strong enough to puncture the skin and cause an injury. But it doesn’t end there. The stinger also releases a complex venom, which leads to intense pain at the puncture site.

The most common sites of human injury are the legs and feet, which is usually caused by accidentally stumbling on a stingray. While the sting does cause severe pain, it is relieved when the area is submerged in hot water. However, there are known cases where infections, serious bleeding or physical trauma has occurred. Part of the spine can also remain embedded in the tissue and require medical intervention to remove it. So it does cost the stingray something to sting you. While death is extremely rare, it usually results not from the venom but from the puncture wound.

grey and blue manta ray camouflage in corals

Venoms are naturally occurring substances that organisms evolved to deploy against other organisms, either in defence or attack. In medical terms, venom is classified as a form of poison. Over hundreds of millions of years, the toxins in venoms have evolved to target highly specific components of their prey’s vital bodily functions. Some toxins attack the nervous system while others prevent blood clotting. Although venomous animals cause tens of thousands of human deaths per year, the toxins in many venoms paradoxically contain the antidote to treat a wide range of diseases. The same dangerous properties that could kill you can also heal you. Substances that interfere with the nervous system could make great painkillers, while blood thinning is a vital part of treatment for heart disease.

Venomics–the scientific study of venom–is not exactly new. Our ancient ancestors used snake and spider venom in the same way they used medicinal plants. The Caduceus, a symbol with a short staff entwined by two serpents, pays homage to the Rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. At first glance, the use of the symbol may seem ironic; especially when a creature that has been deemed ‘destructive’ is used as an emblem for healers.

I personally don’t see this as ironic, but rather choose to view it as a fact of the necessary balance of the dark and light that exists eternally within Nature. Injury and healing are simply two sides of the same coin.

You know, that old adage, that what doesn’t kill you simply makes you stronger? The same could be said for the venomous creatures that live among us. Their venom is a powerful ally in their defence strategy; and for us humans, venom is perhaps the best antidote we have to heal our wounds.

To me, the real irony is how the very thing that tried to kill you, only served to make you even stronger…

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