Venomous or Poisonous – What’s the Difference?

Harlequin Poison Dart Frog - Venomous or Poisonous – What’s the Difference?
Harlequin Poison Dart Frog

People often think of venom or poison as the same thing, but they are not. Even though people may use those terms interchangeably, there are differences in their origin, delivery system, and effects on the body. So, when is it correct to say that something is venomous or poisonous?

Venom is a toxin produced by animals, usually in specialized glands. It’s delivered to the victim through a bite or a sting. Animals use venom to capture prey and for defense from predators – and sometimes humans. For example, snakes, spiders, scorpions, and some species of fish, frogs, and insects produce venom. Venomous animals have specialized structures, such as fangs or stingers to deliver the venom into the victim’s body. The effects vary from mild pain and swelling to severe muscle paralysis and even death.

In contrast to venom, poison is a toxic chemical produced by plants, animals, fungi, microorganisms, or humans in a chemical lab. Poison is usually ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin. For example, many plants produce poisons to protect themselves from herbivores and other potential threats. Poisonous mushrooms, toxic berries, and certain types of flowers are examples of plants that produce poisons.

The effects of poison can depend on the type and amount consumed. Some common effects include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and even death. Many everyday household items are poisonous and must be secured so children or animals can’t ingest them. Medicines that promote healing or fight disease are often poisonous if taken in the wrong quantities or in the wrong way.

So, if someone talks about a poisonous snake or scorpion, they are using the wrong term. Those animals are venomous. Poison does its damage when ingested, inhaled, or touched. For example, a poison dart frog is poisonous, but wasps, spiders, and snakes can be venomous. Some animals or insects are poisonous if eaten but venomous if they bite or sting. Monarch butterflies are mildly poisonous to potential predators, but box jellyfish are highly venomous and deadly to humans. If in doubt, the word “toxic” covers both, but it’s not as precise.

When saying that an animal is venomous or poisonous, remember this. A poisonous animal, such as a poison dart frog, is always poisonous and does not choose to be. A venomous animal, such as a snake, must choose to administer the venom. Humans can choose to avoid poison, but often they do not. People can take poison by mouth or inject it into themselves or someone else. We call that foolishness or murder. Alcohol is a poison that people consume as a drink, sometimes resulting in death. Self-inflicted poisoning by illegal drugs such as fentanyl is causing many deaths in the United States.

Some people ask, “Why would a good God create venomous or poisonous animals?” There is a good reason because those toxins serve as a defense mechanism or a method to capture prey for food. The more troubling question is, “Why would intelligent humans choose to put poisons into their bodies?” When asking that question, remember that it all started with Adam and Eve. “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Genesis 2:16-17). The good news is that God provided the cure for the poison of sin. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

— Roland Earnst © 2023

Why Venomous or Poisonous Animals?

Why Poisonous Animals? Eastern Coral Snake
There are 2700 known species of snakes on this planet. Of all those, 412 species, or 15.2%, are venomous. Five hundred thousand people are bitten every year, and 40,000 of them die. People are afflicted by poisonous lizards (two varieties), frogs, salamanders, and a variety of toxic insects. This brings up the question of why venomous or poisonous animals exist if a loving God made all things.

If you or someone you know has suffered an attack by one of these animals, you know that even when it is not deadly, it’s still a very unpleasant experience. The skeptic and even the non-skeptic is moved to ask why God would create a reptile or amphibian that could cause such terrible discomfort to humans. Why should an innocent child die because of picking up a pretty ribbon that turned out to be a coral snake?

If you have experienced an encounter, no canned explanation will make the pain and loss go away. But can we make any sense of why venomous or poisonous animals exist?

We must first begin by recognizing that God may not have created these animals as they are today. God did not create many animals (dog and cattle breeds for example) as they are today. They have changed over the years. It is possible that the same is true of poisonous animals, and their original ancestors may not have been deadly. However, the complexity of the poison systems in reptiles and amphibians seems to make this explanation a little imaginative, if not impossible. Even if true, it does not remove God’s awareness of the situation.

A better answer to this question of why venomous or poisonous animals exist lies in the wisdom and planning of God. The Bible says we can know God exists and see His wisdom by looking at the creation. (See Romans 1: 19-23; Psalms 19: 1.) The more we learn about the creation, the more we see God’s design.

One thing we have come to understand is the need for balance in ecosystems. We know that all living things serve a purpose in their natural setting. Animals and insects eat plants which keep the plants from crowding themselves out. Carnivorous animals keep the plant-eaters from wiping out their food supply. Because animals do not fear death as we do, the system is not as cruel and as callous as some would have us believe. In a balanced system, things generally function smoothly and efficiently.

One of the critical factors in maintaining balance is the survival of reasonable numbers of all species. Most reptiles and amphibians are soft-bodied, slow, and generally vulnerable. Camouflage protects some, but the venom or poison glands of others are necessary to do the job. Not only does this protect that animal, but any animals that look similar. Venom also helps the animals catch their food. Rats and mice are the primary food source of many snakes, but without the venom, the snakes could never catch them. Very few venomous snakes or poisonous animals of any kind will attack a human. Most bites occur when a person molests an animal. The obvious purpose of the poison is defense and obtaining food. Accidents do happen, but the poison was not given as a device to be used on humans.

Another important factor is that venomous and poisonous animals provide medicines that we cannot secure from any other source. Medicine from snake venom stops the agents which cause rheumatoid arthritis. There are many other examples of ways science has found to use the poisons from animals.

We can see that there are reasons why venomous and poisonous animals exist. Venomous animals do not prove that God didn’t thoughtfully and intelligently design the creation. We sometimes have to look a little more closely to see the ultimate wisdom of the Creator.
–John N. Clayton © 2018