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How Earth's Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry

Christie Wilcox

Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Venomous Download image

ISBN10: 0374537100
ISBN13: 9780374537104

Trade Paperback

256 Pages



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From the coasts of Indonesia to the rainforests of Peru, venomous animals are everywhere—and often lurking out of sight. Humans have feared them for centuries, long considering them the assassins and pariahs of the natural world.

Now, in Venomous, the biologist Christie Wilcox investigates and illuminates the animals of our nightmares, arguing that they hold the keys to a deeper understanding of evolution, adaptation, and immunity. She reveals just how venoms function and what they do to the human body. With Wilcox as our guide, we encounter a jellyfish with tentacles covered in stinging cells that can kill humans in minutes; a two-inch caterpillar with toxic bristles that trigger hemorrhaging; and a stunning blue-ringed octopus capable of inducing total paralysis. How do these animals go about their deadly work? How did they develop such intricate, potent toxins? Wilcox takes us around the world and down to the cellular level to find out.

Throughout her journey, Wilcox meets the intrepid scientists who risk their lives studying these lethal beasts, as well as “self-immunizers” who deliberately expose themselves to snakebites. Along the way, she puts her own life on the line, narrowly avoiding being envenomated herself. Drawing on her own research, Wilcox explains how venom scientists are untangling the mechanisms of some of our most devastating diseases, and reports on pharmacologists who are already exploiting venoms to produce lifesaving drugs. We discover that venomous creatures are in fact keystone species that play crucial roles in their ecosystems and ours—and for this alone, they ought to be protected and appreciated.


Praise for Venomous

"[Venomous] gives these toxic but necessary creatures their due . . . Wilcox, a biologist and science writer based in Honolulu, takes a deep dive into what makes these dangerous creatures tick."—John Bonazzo, The New York Observer

"[Wilcox] paints a vast portrait of poison . . . No stranger to encounters with these poisonous creatures, Wilcox brings years of personal insight to her research and analysis."—Seth Ferranti, Vice

"Wilcox’s book is one of the better science books I’ve read in some time . . . as a person who has lived for years in the venom-rich rain forest . . . I still found myself learning something new with every page turn."—Greg Laden, ScienceBlogs

"Christie Wilcox is the perfect guide to the wild and weird world of venomous creatures—a scientist who knows how to tell a vivid story, a storyteller who understands the elegant science of poisons. As a result, Venomous succeeds both as an insightful study of the natural world and, equally important, as a fascinating read."—Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook

"Even at its most sinister, nature can’t help but be fascinating, and in Venomous, Christie Wilcox has created a fitting tribute to one of nature’s most sinister creations of all. She not only provides a tour of the venomous world’s most frightening specimens, but she also dives into the astonishing biology underlying their deadly success."—Carl Zimmer, author of Parasite Rex

"Having just been stung by a scorpion while camping in the Mexican desert, I have a renewed interest in venomous creatures. But you don’t need to have been stung or bitten to be utterly captivated by this important and original book. Christie Wilcox has a natural gift for storytelling, and she gracefully mixes anecdotes and humor with science and spellbindingly gory details about some of the most feared animals on the planet."—Mark Carwardine, zoologist

"Reader be warned: Venomous sinks its fangs into you and won’t let go. Christie Wilcox is as remarkable as the hemorrhage-inducing caterpillars and mind-controlling wasps in the pages of her book: a molecular biologist who can write. I’m recommending Venomous to every friend who wonders what venom scientists are so excited about and to every student who asks, ‘What is left in nature for me to discover?’ "—Leslie V. Boyer, MD, founding director of the VIPER Institute at the University of Arizona

"Readers of Christie Wilcox’s blog Science Sushi already know her as a candid, curious guide to the myths and much more interesting realities of ocean and land biology. Venomous, her intoxicating exploration of poisonous beasts and the scientists who celebrate them, should bring her the wider audience she deserves."—Maryn McKenna, TED speaker and author of Superbug and Beating Back the Devil

"A lively tour . . . Whether she’s discussing snakes and pufferfish or Komodo dragons and spiders—not to mention octopuses, snails, platypuses, and bees—Wilcox relates technical biochemical and physiological information in a manner that is accessible and enjoyable."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt




Venoms are not accidents, poisons may be.


If you decided to create a list of the most improbable...