Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python venom?

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Jeremy Westerman
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Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python venom?

Post by Jeremy Westerman »

http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com ... -venomous/

Yup Bryan Fry is at it again, he won't be happy until we in the professional animal community have to completely disuse the word venom. His use of the term is causing it to lose all meaning. His list of venomous creatures such as bearded dragons and iguanas have brought forth a few chuckles before but now he is claiming that pythons are venomous. Venomous Bearded Dragons is fine in a Disney movie but in reality they are a fantastic pet.

We have actual dangerously venomous animals,
then we have Mildly venomous animals,
and now we need a whole new category for fry's over the top research:
completely harmless and only even slightly perceptively venomous because they may I repeat may release miniscule amounts of venom proteins from mucus glands.

Great work there dude. He is destroying venom safety lectures and animal education because now according to Fry everything under the sun is venomous and freaking the public out instead of a few truly venomous dangerous creatures to be cautious around, I have to explain to worried mothers that no, these pythons are not venomous, yes I read that in Nat'l geo too, yes I am aware of his research and his use of terminology that everything that has glands associated with teeth and gums is venomous according to Fry. :crazyeyes: LOL. Thanks a lot Venom Doc, for unnecessarily freaking out folks who now suppose just about any snake is venomous when there are actually a rare percentage of truly dangerous snakes worldwide. As an animal educator working with the public I loathe you. You have just opened us up to frivolous lawsuits, knee-jerk laws and unnecessary restrictions. Potential python bans don't need any more hysterical fuel, Knee jerk laws by bureaucrats are based on just such type of headlines such as "Scientists say pythons are venomous, protect your kids." How about water is dangerous, scientists say so (it actually manages to kill a significant amount of people every year unlike pythons.) Lets close all the pools, waterparks and beaches because of mass stupidity instead.

Wouldn't it have been enough to say look at that, I found an analog to a functioning venom gland in a harmless species and wouldn't you know it, there are trace amounts of vestigial venom production there, neat. Instead of further dumbing down the public by gross misuse of the word venom.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by Jeremy Westerman »

Here is the reply comment Bryan Fry left at Nat Geo:
"Something we have gone to great pains to stress at every opportunity is that venomous and dangerous are not interchangeable. The vast majority of ‘rear-fanged’ snakes are totally harmless from a human medical perspective due to very small amounts of venom that is often very specific to a particular prey type (eg being 100 times more potent towards birds/reptiles than mammals). Similarly, the varanid lizards are not of consequence in this regard (but the big teeth can do a real number on tendons and arteries as I discovered two surgeries ago!). An appropriate analogy is that all spiders are venomous but only a very small handful are dangerous. In the case of pythons, there is ‘venom’ there but only in forensic levels. It takes very sensitive techniques to detect it. From the perpective of a python biting, it for all practical purposes, does not exist since their venom production is a relic much like our appendix. However, in something more basal like Cylindrophis, the glands instead pump out protein not mucus so anything produce may very well have a role in predation. Here is a review paper that came out before latest paper, were we discuss some of these issues" http://www.venomdoc.com/downloads/2012_ ... review.pdf

While I agree with the statement that "yes all spiders are venomous and the vast majority are harmless," that is NOT a great analogy with snakes in general especially comparing elapids or viperids with pythons. I am pretty sure that spiders have significant amounts of detectable venom even as small as they are and you don't need to get all "forensic" to detect a miniscule vestigial amount compared to their rather large body size in pythons.

Even if he is technically correct that venomous does not always mean dangerous for humans, he is woefully naive on how the unassuming public uses that term. It is like scientific theory vs. the layman usage of the word theory. Scientists would love for the public to understand and use that one correctly. I feel that venomous implies strongly that it is dangerous to humans to most everyone who hears or uses that term. This is why some rear-fanged snakes get the qualifier "mildly" venomous or prey specific venomous so the public perceives these animals with the appropriate level of mild or no caution. In this sense it is reckless to label pythons venomous. It would have been so much better to just say that they have vestigial relics from a venomous past.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by gbin »

I have to admit, as much as I've always admired Fry's work, I've always disliked his terminology even more. Science should elucidate, not confuse. He could easily avoid the problems resulting from his calling various species venomous based on minute technicalities rather than obvious practicalities simply by calling them something other than "venomous" (here's a fine opportunity for him to do a bit of wordsmithing), and I hope he will eventually be persuaded to do so.

Gerry

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by venomdoc »

While I sympathise with you having to explain a complex biological reality to the public who wants things in easy to understand black and white, the messy reality is the reality. I am not shoe-horning data to fit a philosophy. I am simply investigating the evolutionary history of venom in reptiles. Something that has remained rather neglected until now.

As is clear from my statements both in the papers themselves and in the popular media, I am in no way scare-mongering and have quite the contrary gone to great lengths to make things clear in regards to relative danger. Something that should have been readily apparent.

Instead you are putting words in my mouth. I did not label pythons as venomous despite your statements to the contrary 'In this sense it is reckless to label pythons venomous.' Instead I have done exactly what you have said in the sentence that followed 'It would have been so much better to just say that they have vestigial relics from a venomous past.' with my direct quote "From the perpective of a python biting, it for all practical purposes, does not exist since their venom production is a relic much like our appendix."

If you had bothered to pull the actual paper, instead of basing your opinion on a single popular science distillation (however excellent it was and which you completely misrepresented as detailed in the paragraph above) you would see we have made a careful exploration of the relative histories, including being explicit in regards to the implications of terminology
http://www.venomdoc.com/downloads/2013_ ... utters.pdf

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by gbin »

I know you were mainly replying to Jeremy's posts, but with respect to whatever might have been aimed my way, I stand by what I said. Your work in this area has offered you a chance to adopt some new terminology designed specifically to ensure that your research elucidates rather than confuses, to make it difficult for the popular media to misunderstand/misrepresent (or worse) your work in their pursuit of sensationalism. Ordinarily I staunchly believe in being conservative with language, in assiduously using words per their original meanings and not coining new words simply for the sake of doing so, but in your case there's ample justification for new terminology. The press' sensationalism of your work and the resulting frightened confusion among the public aren't your fault, no, but you have the ability to do something about them nonetheless, and I hope you choose to do so before the problem gets much worse.

Gerry

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by venomdoc »

Homologous glands and homologous secretions require homologous terms. Otherwise, it becomes an absolute word salad. At what point would we, for example use, venom gland? 'Duvernoy's gland for example was originally coined back when 'colubrids' were thought a single assemblage that was more primitive than front-fanged snakes, which were thought to share a common front fanged ancestor (with elapids being more primitive relative to vipers). However, it turned out that not only are 'colubrids' not a natural group, but that atractaspines, elapids and vipers independently evolved front fangs. Further the 'duvernoy's' glands were shown to be extraordinarily morphologically diverse, including compressor muscles in at least three non-front-fanged linages. So where does one draw the artificial line between 'Duvernoy's gland' and venom gland? As for venom, at what point does it switch from being 'toxic saliva' (which is a non-sequiter since venoms are not homologous with saliva) to a 'true venom'? These questions are not of simple academic importance, as some of these 'toxic saliva' snakes turned out to indeed be lethal (eg Dispholidus, Rhabdophis, Thelatornis).

We covered these philosophical questions quite in-depth in this paper
http://www.venomdoc.com/venomdoc/Scient ... review.pdf

So it becomes an opportunity for education, rather than adopting arbitrary infinite verbage to describe insanely complex and variable systems that all share a common starting point.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by joeysgreen »

Thanks for the work Dr. Fry; I have found it most revealing and enjoy the evolutionary implications. The finding of venom in pythons and other non-tradition species just re-affirms the notion that venom was derived in the squamata prior to the divergence of lizards, snakes, and their existing families. I wish I had the time to dive more into your research.

To the OP, do you expect a scientist to NOT continue with discovery because of how it implicates the public? On this forum we have hundreds of people recording locality data on herps. Should we not inconvenience the developers should we find an animal on the Endangered Species List? This analogy only works because Mr. Developer's rant is pretty close to what you just gave us.

Ian

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by gbin »

"Homologous terms" do not equal "identical terms." You have the opportunity here to introduce one or maybe at most a select few homologous terms - with you being the person who decides exactly how many are called for in the context of your work (no one's asking for "an absolute word salad" or "arbitrary infinite verbage," nor could I ever imagine you coming up with such) - that would still convey understanding of the evolutionary processes and relationships your work is focused on while also doing a great deal to head off the fear-mongering sensationalism the press now frequently makes of that work. You can't possibly be unaware of the broad, negative effects which often occur when you write in a scientific publication or talk with a reporter for popular media about this or that harmless species having "venom"/being "venomous." Those societal effects don't serve science, and it's hard to see how they could serve you personally, either. English is a rich language for folks of every profession, and a valid reason for the introduction of an homologous term in science is to clarify communication on a subject. That's all I'm suggesting you do.

As for exactly what distinctions would be made by your use of one or a few new homologous terms in place of "venom"/"venomous," wouldn't that best be left for you to decide as the expert on the subject? I'm sure you know as well as I do that arguments can always be made that this or that line is artificial, wherever it might be drawn and in whatever subject (all language is manmade, after all, and each of us has our own perspectives and priorities when we look out at the rest of the world); what's important is that we use the lines we draw to aid understanding. And you're already trying to do so to at least some extent, remember? "From the perpective of a python biting, it for all practical purposes, does not exist since their venom production is a relic much like our appendix." I'm just asking you to make the same effort in a manner that would be far more effective. Both the ability and the choice are yours here, to present your work - which I think very highly of in other regards, as I believe I already mentioned - in a way that elucidates or confuses, and that fact remains unchanged by whatever arguments you post here or previously offered in your linked publication on terminology.

In any event, I hope you recognize that I offer this criticism with both respect and good intent.

Gerry

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by Jeremy Westerman »

Venomdoc, you still don't get it do you? Your work is interesting (and as scientific research, valuable) but because of your blanket use of terminology it has a decidedly negative affect on the public perception. On Facebook the herp community spreads information like wildfire (which is mostly a good thing) but you should read any of the hundreds of comments by lay persons to the pythons links which have been shared. Hundreds of negative comments from the general public like "just one more reason to stay away from snakes" or "they should be banned from pet ownership" in a mass uneducated response to you finding a few venom proteins (after looking extremely hard for them I might add) in a gland where the function is not defense or prey capture and the "venomous" effect of a bite is nil.

I have been bitten by various pythons, various monitors, iguanas and handle other species daily that you have listed as technically venomous in my career in the zoo industry, field work and animal education field. I have never had a venomous reaction to a bite because for all practical and medical purposes they should be considered nonvenomous. Zero venom reaction IS nonvenomous. I am not disputing your model that they descended from venomous ancestors or that venom components have been found in several traditionally categorized "nonvenomous" species, I am just saying that to call these animals venomous when the traditional use of the term implies there would be some effect from a venomous bite (no matter how small) is just stupid. You have more argument with the relatively harmless garter snake bite and rare mild venom reaction in a few folks than you do with a python bite which is all mechanical damage with no venom symptoms recorded what-so-ever.

The term venom implies an effect. It is that simple. If there is no effect, then those animals should be labeled nonvenomous even if technically they have vestigial traces or homologous apparatus or venom components can still be detected. We need a new term or a caveat such as not medically significantly venomous or functionally nonvenomous or something. I agree with you on the slippery slope between differentiating functioning venom glands, Duvernoy's glands and toxic saliva but to lump all these animals together is devastating to the understanding of the public who equate that term (rightly or wrongly) to implied danger and caution.

Yes all spiders are technically venomous and the vast majority are harmless to humans, but arachnophobia is one of the most common fears in human race due to a misunderstanding of the word venom and just exactly what its function and consequences of a bite are. You are single-handedly creating a new group of "venomaphobics" among those who all ready have ophidiophobia or fear reptiles in general.

The worse effect by far is the way venom is used in law making. Many states in the United States have laws on the books which restrict or prohibit the ownership of venomous species or reptiles and they obviously have no language in the law to differentiate between harmless garter snakes or pythons and cobras and vipers. The potential impact of flippantly calling technically venomous but functionally nonvenomous animals "venomous" to the pet trade, animal entertainment industry, film wrangling industry, animal education programs and zoological institutions could be huge. Lawmakers are not scientists and just go with the same public perception on these issues. I do not want to apply for more permits or be restricted from bringing a python to a classroom just because you feel the need to call a python venomous because you found trace amounts. Pythons do not belong in hot rooms or under special considerations for safety due to venom related issues (many are obviously large constrictors but that is a separate issue.) It is hard enough to educate the public and lawmakers as it is without you calling bearded dragons, iguanas and pythons venomous all staples of the pet trade I might add.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by Jeremy Westerman »

venomdoc wrote: As is clear from my statements both in the papers themselves and in the popular media, I am in no way scare-mongering and have quite the contrary gone to great lengths to make things clear in regards to relative danger. Something that should have been readily apparent.

Instead you are putting words in my mouth. I did not label pythons as venomous despite your statements to the contrary 'In this sense it is reckless to label pythons venomous.' Instead I have done exactly what you have said in the sentence that followed 'It would have been so much better to just say that they have vestigial relics from a venomous past.' with my direct quote "From the perpective of a python biting, it for all practical purposes, does not exist since their venom production is a relic much like our appendix."

If you had bothered to pull the actual paper, instead of basing your opinion on a single popular science distillation (however excellent it was and which you completely misrepresented as detailed in the paragraph above) you would see we have made a careful exploration of the relative histories, including being explicit in regards to the implications of terminology
http://www.venomdoc.com/downloads/2013_ ... utters.pdf
I have read your papers thank you, but that is not what I am talking about. It is not I putting words in your mouth, it is the media and the public perception that is putting words in your mouth. The links being shared on Facebook say "Researchers discover Pythons are venomous" or "Pythons still a little venomous", they do not say "pythons have vestigial remnants of venomous ancestors" unless you read the whole article (which apparently most haven't) or use the links provided to the actual research paper if they are even provided. This is how your work is represented in the media by popular and sensationalist (newsworthy) spin (otherwise few would be aware of your work that are not researchers themselves in the field) so in a sense you ARE labeling these animals venomous because that is exactly the impact your work has. It may be unfair that the public perception and representation of your work are distorted but you are still responsible for the effects.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by Jeremy Westerman »

joeysgreen wrote: To the OP, do you expect a scientist to NOT continue with discovery because of how it implicates the public? On this forum we have hundreds of people recording locality data on herps. Should we not inconvenience the developers should we find an animal on the Endangered Species List? This analogy only works because Mr. Developer's rant is pretty close to what you just gave us.

Ian
Certainly not. I actually like his research findings, evolutionary history and venom are fascinating subjects. His research is valuable and not in question, his use of the word venom is. I lament his choice of term use and how the media and public perceives it. It certainly is harmful to education which is absolutely ironic because research should be just the opposite. He just has to make it laser clear in interviews and news pieces about his research exactly what the implications of his findings are instead of just letting the word venom get out of hand. I believe he enjoys the notoriety and actively promotes or misinforms otherwise his research would be obscure and not widely known in the public.


~late edit excellent analogy of the endangered species and the politics of science vs. pure scientific research btw. I totally agree, if the scientific evidence shows something that is unpopular politically so what, science is about reality not such concerns and financial ramifications. I never questioned the science just his blanket use of the term venom and its public misperception when dealing with a wide array of "a complex biological reality" as Venom Doc put it.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by venomdoc »

>I believe he enjoys the notoriety and actively promotes or misinforms otherwise his research would be obscure and not widely known in the public.

Nice attempt at slander dude. Smacks a bit of jealousy me thinks.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by Jeremy Westerman »

venomdoc wrote:>I believe he enjoys the notoriety and actively promotes or misinforms otherwise his research would be obscure and not widely known in the public.

Nice attempt at slander dude. Smacks a bit of jealousy me thinks.
No not really just my opinion. But it strikes to my point about definitions: you actually meant envy instead of jealousy and libel instead of slander. Look 'em up dude.
No wonder you keep using the word venomous for animals that have no venom to speak of and do not use any venom for defense or predation just evolutionary traces of a venomous past.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by Jeremy Westerman »

gbin wrote:I know you were mainly replying to Jeremy's posts, but with respect to whatever might have been aimed my way, I stand by what I said. Your work in this area has offered you a chance to adopt some new terminology designed specifically to ensure that your research elucidates rather than confuses, to make it difficult for the popular media to misunderstand/misrepresent (or worse) your work in their pursuit of sensationalism. Ordinarily I staunchly believe in being conservative with language, in assiduously using words per their original meanings and not coining new words simply for the sake of doing so, but in your case there's ample justification for new terminology. The press' sensationalism of your work and the resulting frightened confusion among the public aren't your fault, no, but you have the ability to do something about them nonetheless, and I hope you choose to do so before the problem gets much worse.

Gerry
Gerry, thanks for explaining the situation with more tact and succinct use of words that I have been able to. I am upset because this impacts me directly as I work with pythons and the public every day and all of the laws and restrictions that implies. Dr. Fry is a valuable research scientist and I am pleased that he is furthering discovery into venom and its biological apperatus and evolution but I just don't get his stubborn refusal to use some other term, any other term for his findings.


Are pythons "still a little venomous" like the title of the Nat'l Geo article on his work says? No, not really. Any "venom" they have or its components are difficult to detect and certainly nonfunctional vestiges. They just have elegant evidence that they descended from animals that were venomous. My entire rant is how Fry uses the word venom and subsequently how it is sensationalized by the media outlets (how the public gets scientifc information) and finally how venom is misunderstood or misinterpreted by the public.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by gbin »

Jeremy Westerman wrote:Gerry, thanks for explaining the situation with more tact and succinct use of words that I have been able to...
¡De nada, amigo! It's entirely understandable why your response to the situation might be somewhat emotional, but bear in mind that there could be reasons for Bryan's response to our criticism and/or his commitment to his current terminology to be somewhat emotional, as well. Yes, scientists are supposed to be able to put aside personal feelings (and are certainly used to dealing with criticism), but we're human, too, with all that entails. And the criticism you and I are sending his way is a practical - not a scientific - one, at that. I've known unfortunately many scientists who would simply prefer to ignore as if irrelevant any criticisms they receive that don't strictly pertain to their science, I guess forgetting that we all have societal responsibilities as well as scientific ones; I must admit that I've doubtless behaved this way myself from time to time, until someone points it out. (It's surprisingly easy to focus so hard on the academic end of things that more practical aspects get shoved aside.)

Gerry

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by venomdoc »

I am quite willing to engage in discussions regarding matters of science, as I have done so above in outlining our scientific reasoning for favouring a terminology that captures the shared evolutionary history (including providing a link to our recent review paper that goes into this in-depth). However, I have little time for semantic arguments and absolutely no interest in responding to attempted character assassinations.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by gbin »

I'm not interested in pointless back-and-forth bickering, Bryan, and I've had my say on the subject of this thread. But I'll mention for the sake of clarity that Jeremy's and my criticism isn't merely an intellectual exercise (as your referring to "semantic arguments" implies); we're asking for a change that would have two clear benefits: 1) Scientifically, laypeople would better understand you because they wouldn't be getting caught up in terminology that is emotionally charged for so many of them. 2) Practically, you would no longer be feeding their fears about snakes to the animals' detriment.

If it's any consolation, Jeremy, I strongly suspect someone will eventually linguistically tease apart technically venomous and practically venomous whether or not Bryan wants this to happen or helps it along. Perhaps not the popular media, but people in general prefer communication to be clear rather than confusing (let alone misleading) - and that's definitely true of most scientists. It would make the most sense for Bryan to be the wordsmith, in my opinion, but if he chooses to ignore the problem (or even to exacerbate it for whatever reason) then there's nothing to stop someone else from stepping in at some point and fixing the problem despite him.

Gerry

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by venomdoc »

As we extensively detailed in this paper (and summarised in that review paper I linked above) http://www.venomdoc.com/venomdoc/Scient ... rsenal.pdf just in the non-front-fanged snakes alone there is a tremendous variation of gland morphologies. So trying to come up with a description for each one would involve quite a few names that are determined through fairly arbitrary divisions.

Philosophically, it is much the same debate as in taxonomy: lump or split. Lumping preserves evolutionary relationships, while splitting recognises significant divisions. Both have their merits and are very much on a case-by-case situation. For very messy groups, lumping is the only logical course as otherwise you could end up with a number of genera consisting of only one species, erected solely to preserve the monophyly of other genera.

It is very much the case when discussing these glands. It is artificial to refer to the maxillary protein secreting glands of atractaspines, elapids and viperids as the only venom glands, when these glands have nothing in common with each other other than their more generalised homology that is linked by the venom glands of the various families of non-front-fanged snakes.

Please read the above article and our review paper http://www.venomdoc.com/venomdoc/Scient ... review.pdf plus this one http://www.venomdoc.com/venomdoc/Scient ... a_RCMS.pdf.

Similarly, we have shown that the mandibular glands of the varanids are just as derived and complex as those of helodermatids

http://www.venomdoc.com/venomdoc/Scient ... 282%29.pdf

http://www.venomdoc.com/venomdoc/Scient ... system.pdf

And that active evolution of the toxins is on-going even in anguimorpha lizards which do not have segregated glands
http://www.venomdoc.com/downloads/2012_Fry_Abronia.pdf

If you take the time to read the actual papers, you will see that we have given this quite a bit of thought and considered it impractical to come up with a suite of names just for the glands of the non-front-fanged snakes, let alone the various other lineages.

I am happy to answer any specific questions once you've had a chance to read those papers.

Cheers
B

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by Antonsrkn »

Wow this is ridiculous, my jaw dropped... Since when does science cater to public perception? Science doesn't always tell you (or the public) what you want to hear, that is what your mom is for :)
he is furthering discovery into venom and its biological apperatus and evolution but I just don't get his stubborn refusal to use some other term, any other term for his findings.
Smells like a duck, sounds like a duck, looks like a duck... why would anyone call it something else? Why invent other terms to confuse and muddle an already complicated field.
arachnophobia is one of the most common fears in human race due to a misunderstanding of the word venom and just exactly what its function and consequences of a bite are. You are single-handedly creating a new group of "venomaphobics" among those who all ready have ophidiophobia or fear reptiles in general.
Most people that are scared of spiders aren't thinking about the venom, they're just freaked out by them. A few years ago I lived with a few female roommates who were all terrified of spiders they all knew they were harmless and saw me pick them up and toss them out the window many times and that did nothing to alleviate their fears. My mom is terrified of snakes even ones she knows are completely harmless, its just something hardwired in her head. I don't think its accurate to say most people are thinking about the venom when they get freaked out by certain animals. Same with some of my friends who know a garter snake is harmless but will still freak out around it.
when the traditional use of the term implies there would be some effect from a venomous bite (no matter how small) is just stupid.
I would argue the opposite, that to stick to an traditional term or dated meanings despite new evidence provided by science and backed up by research is stupid.
unless you read the whole article (which apparently most haven't) or use the links provided to the actual research paper if they are even provided. This is how your work is represented in the media by popular and sensationalist (newsworthy) spin
Sensationalism is nothing new, nor is biased reporting. Now you're blaming him for the public not reading an entire article :crazyeyes: So scientists should break their research down into little easily digestible tidbits (which can't possibly be taken out of context) that the average citizen can read and understand within a few minutes before losing interest? That's not how SCIENCE works, its a complicated field there is (and has been) all kinds of new info that changes the way we see things. Just because someone doesn't like something doesn't give them the authority to change the results or findings or create the invent new terminology to confuse things.

I'm not trying to fight Dr. Fry's battles for him as he is more than capable of doing so on his own if he desires, I was just aghast at the attitude here. Bashing a scientist with good solid research because you don't like his wording and because some of the public misinterprets... Seems extremely misguided and almost petty to me.

I'm not doing too good of a job tying words together at the moment as I am tired and in a hurry but I think you guys get my point. What I see here is good science shedding light on something we knew little to nothing about previously and I for one am looking forward to more.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by Jeremy Westerman »

Antonsrkn wrote:Smells like a duck, sounds like a duck, looks like a duck... why would anyone call it something else? Why invent other terms to confuse and muddle an already complicated field.
Do you really feel that pythons or iguanas or monitors should be categorized with cobras, kraits, mambas, rattlesnakes, vipers, etc.? There is obvious need for more than one term.
Antonsrkn wrote: Most people that are scared of spiders aren't thinking about the venom, they're just freaked out by them. A few years ago I lived with a few female roommates who were all terrified of spiders they all knew they were harmless and saw me pick them up and toss them out the window many times and that did nothing to alleviate their fears. My mom is terrified of snakes even ones she knows are completely harmless, its just something hardwired in her head. I don't think its accurate to say most people are thinking about the venom when they get freaked out by certain animals. Same with some of my friends who know a garter snake is harmless but will still freak out around it.


I disagree. Fear of snakes, spiders, scorpions, bees etc. is absolutely grounded in whether they could potentially be dangerous or not, the sad fact that many with these unreasonable phobias extend them to harmless species still doesn't explain away the fact that fear is a response to percieved danger or potential for danger, the lay person has no way of differentiating a dangerously venomous animal from a harmless one if they are of the same general type due to ignorance of the subject matter. How many untold snakes are killed because they are percieved as a threat?

Antonsrkn wrote: I would argue the opposite, that to stick to an traditional term or dated meanings despite new evidence provided by science and backed up by research is stupid.


Ok we agree here the traditional term is dated. Venom cannot be used to describe garter snakes and bushmasters with the same definition. The new evidence screams for a new set of terms not lumping everything as "venomous."
Antonsrkn wrote: Sensationalism is nothing new, nor is biased reporting. Now you're blaming him for the public not reading an entire article :crazyeyes: So scientists should break their research down into little easily digestible tidbits (which can't possibly be taken out of context) that the average citizen can read and understand within a few minutes before losing interest? That's not how SCIENCE works, its a complicated field there is (and has been) all kinds of new info that changes the way we see things. Just because someone doesn't like something doesn't give them the authority to change the results or findings or create the invent new terminology to confuse things.


I am not blaming him for the public's misinterpretation or failure to actually read, I am blaming him for his conduct in interviews with the media which then reach the public. Simple explicit clarification would stop misleading headlines such as "Pythons are still slightly venomous."

This is a major problem in all of science, there is no clear dissemination of information to the general public that the lay person can readily understand. this is exactly why false beliefs are allowed to perpetuate in the face of strong scientific evidence, the general public remains ignorant of many of our advancements in understanding. We rely on the media and popular outlets to educate the public instead of taking the time to explain things in a general statement that could be used for such purposes.

edited to fix quotes

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by venomdoc »

> Simple explicit clarification....

You mean explicit clarification such as that I provided for the Nat Geo page "From the perpective of a python biting, it [venom] for all practical purposes, does not exist since their venom production is a relic much like our appendix."

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

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venomdoc wrote:> Simple explicit clarification....

You mean explicit clarification such as that I provided for the Nat Geo page "From the perpective of a python biting, it [venom] for all practical purposes, does not exist since their venom production is a relic much like our appendix."

Yes exactly, while the information is buried in the article, it obviously failed to alter the sensationalist headline. If you actually read the paper then it is obvious that it is vestigial traces you are talking about. But the "take home message" for the public was pythons are now classified as venomous. Don't believe me? Read the several hundred ignorant comments fueled by just the nat geo article link on facebook.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

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I am hardly in control of what headline is put up. However, the article itself did a very good job of conveying the point that the python 'venom' is a relic, but that there is enough there to give a false-positive in the venom detection kit. This proper conveyance of information was due to me giving the explicit points that you imply I did not.

So you are blaming me for things that are quite out of my control when I have done all I can to get the point about the lack of medical danger but at the same time, staying true to the biological reality.

The fact that it has the potential to cause confusion, means that is up to educators (such as you claim to be) to explain the nuances, rather than shooting the messenger.

I have not engaged in any of the sensationalism you have accused me of. Quite the contrary, I have gone out of my way to be explicit. Not only in the article, but also in threads spawned by the facebook linking of the article.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

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Venom doc, I understand that you probably presented the scientifc material in a professional manner and that you probably didn't see the finished article before Ed Yong the author published it and had no way to edit content, but it certainly seems to me that he tried to spin it sensationally to grab headlines (either on purpose or ignorance) without really understanding it. Had you expained it further, he might not have chose to write it as he did. Hopefully he at least read your paper before writing the article but I am not really sure he didn't just go off of some summary in an interview with you.

Insurance rates for businesses that keep pythons could skyrocket just because of the mention of the word venomous. Your use of terminology is misleading to the public which is exactly who science is supposed to benefit and educate rather than just circulating papers for academia.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

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Actually, Ed Yong is a scientist and read the paper all the way through and asked quite a number of searching questions. So he was factually correct in how he presented the material.

Regardless of how you feel about it making your life difficult as an educator, rather than taking this as an opportunity to educate, this does not give you license to immediately launch into unfounded personal attacks on me.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

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venomdoc wrote: So you are blaming me for things that are quite out of my control when I have done all I can to get the point about the lack of medical danger but at the same time, staying true to the biological reality.
I don't think you have done all that you can to alleviate potential error and misunderstanding, you could come up with some terms like Gerry suggested instead of perpetuating the problem.

Functionally venomous: animals that use venom for prey capture and/or defense. the venom component has a measurable effect on potential target/recipient species.

relict venomous: animals that have traces of venom apperatus indicating a venomous past ancestor but do not have measurable venomous effects with a bite.

Now these are obviously not adequate but there needs to be some differentiation between the two. In this example garter snakes and komodo dragons would still be classified as functionally venomous but not pythons, iguanas or bearded dragons they would fall in the relict category.

There needs to be clarification to distinguish between different levels of toxicity, functionality and potential danger to humans. I agree "mildly venomous" is an obsolete term to cover rear fanged snakes especially due to boomslangs and twig snakes. "Toxic saliva" is not enough to describe garter snakes and dangerous keelbacks. "Prey specific venom" is not enough to cover situations where humans have not been bitten yet or the data is insufficient to analyze. Some change in terminology is needed.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

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a personal attack to me is you have a big nose or whatever. I am not trying to attack you personally just express my dismay at the huge public misperception that you inadvertently cause. I hope you wouldn't do such a thing purposefully. You may not see any need for new terms but then we wouldn't be having this discussion about public misperception if that were actually the case would we? You created the controversy you fix it.



While my critism is directed at you personally (for I think you could prevent the public misperception) I did not intend any personal attack or character attack. If I did so I apologise. For all I know it is the media or others to blame and you have been busting your guts to make sure they don't distort your intent. The reason for my critism in the first place is every time you publish a new paper, a great many people are left scratching their heads, "hey don't they sell iguanas and pythons in pet stores? My Nat Geo or Scientific American or Herp Weekly says they are venomous, they really aughta regulate that stuff better." Then they ask me about it, and I am left saying "pythons? Nah. They are not functionally venomous despite what you may have heard."

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

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>Functionally venomous: animals that use venom for prey capture and/or defense. the venom component has a measurable effect on potential target/recipient species.
>relict venomous: animals that have traces of venom apperatus indicating a venomous past ancestor but do not have measurable venomous effects with a bite.
>Now these are obviously not adequate but there needs to be some differentiation between the two. In this example garter snakes and komodo dragons would still be classified as functionally venomous but not pythons, iguanas or bearded dragons they would fall in the relict category.

What you are saying we should do, is exactly what we have already done and did from the very beginning, such as clearly defining Iguania glands as 'incipient' to distinguish them from the glands of other Toxicoferan reptiles http://www.venomdoc.com/venomdoc/Scient ... _venom.pdf in addition to our recent statements about python glands being relics.

As for personal attacks, stating 'I loathe you' and saying that I actively 'misinform' certainly fall well within that scope. You have hardly restricted yourself to matters of science but instead have from the very beginning cast aspersions about my character.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

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The very first question I get asked in any animal presentation that involves a snake is: Is it venomous? (actually they use the word poisonous most of the time but you get my point.)

No is the simple answer when it comes down to pythons and most age groups. Although technically venom traces might be present and they could potentially trigger a false poitive on a venom detection test, I still would answer no and for the same reasons Bryan has quoted in the article, they are not practically venomous. Sure I could discuss the finer points of a complex biological issue about venom apperatus morphology, potency and functionality, but what they are really asking is: Is it dangerous? The answer to that is no (aside from the bite damage itself or constriction exceedingly rare in documented cases affecting humans.) Why mislead the public to see something that is false? Pythons are not dangerous in a general sense any more than dogs or houseplants are (which both have caused many fatalities) but are owned by billions without undue concern. Are pythons venomous? No, not really.

By simply clarifying terms or inventing new ones the public would be better informed on where the real potential dangers are and why even the dangerously venomous snakes are valuable and irreplacable parts of our biosphere.

Many people are very suprised to hear that venomous snakes like ringnecks or nightsnakes or whatever are harmless because they fail to distinguish between dangerously venomous and technically venomous. Or they are astonished to learn that animals they know are harmless are venomous or "mildly venomous" and harmless for humans.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

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venomdoc wrote:... just in the non-front-fanged snakes alone there is a tremendous variation of gland morphologies. So trying to come up with a description for each one would involve quite a few names that are determined through fairly arbitrary divisions.
Bryan, I've been conversing with you respectfully, and I ask that you do likewise with me. Repeatedly mischaracterizing my position so that it's easier for you to argue against is disrespectful to me - and dishonest to everyone following the thread. In a number of posts above I made it clear that I am not asking for you to come up with a plethora of new terms, and I feel rather sure Jeremy wants nothing more than I have asked for. I'll just quote my last post (with the most relevant portion writ large and colorful this time), though as I mentioned more or less the same thing was posted by me numerous times; there's no justification whatsoever for you to continue to misunderstand:
gbin wrote:I'm not interested in pointless back-and-forth bickering, Bryan, and I've had my say on the subject of this thread. But I'll mention for the sake of clarity that Jeremy's and my criticism isn't merely an intellectual exercise (as your referring to "semantic arguments" implies); we're asking for a change that would have two clear benefits: 1) Scientifically, laypeople would better understand you because they wouldn't be getting caught up in terminology that is emotionally charged for so many of them. 2) Practically, you would no longer be feeding their fears about snakes to the animals' detriment.

If it's any consolation, Jeremy, I strongly suspect someone will eventually linguistically tease apart technically venomous and practically venomous whether or not Bryan wants this to happen or helps it along. Perhaps not the popular media, but people in general prefer communication to be clear rather than confusing (let alone misleading) - and that's definitely true of most scientists. It would make the most sense for Bryan to be the wordsmith, in my opinion, but if he chooses to ignore the problem (or even to exacerbate it for whatever reason) then there's nothing to stop someone else from stepping in at some point and fixing the problem despite him.
The whole point of the suggestion is to stop people from mistakenly fearing harmless animals based on your work, so substitution for the fearsome words "venom" and "venomous" (not merely qualification of them, e.g. "incipient venom," "vestigial venom") in discussing animals that present no reasonable risk of harmful envenomation is what is called for, and therefore asked for. And again, it's asking for nothing that you aren't already trying to provide with much more verbage and inadequate effect (e.g. "From the perpective of a python biting, it for all practical purposes, does not exist since their venom production is a relic much like our appendix.").

Gerry

P.S. By the way, it made it into widespread news reports two months ago that scientists now suspect the appendix might not be just a relic, after all.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

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gbin wrote: The whole point of the suggestion is to stop people from mistakenly fearing harmless animals based on your work, so substitution for the fearsome words "venom" and "venomous" (not merely qualification of them, e.g. "incipient venom," "vestigial venom") in discussing animals that present no reasonable risk of harmful envenomation is what is called for, and therefore asked for. And again, it's asking for nothing that you aren't already trying to provide with much more verbage and inadequate effect (e.g. "From the perpective of a python biting, it for all practical purposes, does not exist since their venom production is a relic much like our appendix.").

Gerry

P.S. By the way, it made it into widespread news reports two months ago that scientists now suspect the appendix might not be just a relic, after all.
thanks again Gerry indeed we are trying to convey the exact same message, you are much better at explaining it than I, I end up using invectives and unwarranted personal attacks and ineffectual arguments and analogies. (and run on sentences and incorrect grammar.) Lol

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by venomdoc »

Gerry,

I was answering your questions respectfully, not sarcastically and certainly without personal attack. What you are asking in regards to a linguistic definition of 'technically venomous' and 'practically venomous', cannot be done so in the absence of coming up with characters to distinguish the two, which must thus rest with drawing arbitrary lines between different gland morphologies and venom potency or taxon specificity.

The difference between 'technically venomous' and 'practically venomous' is inherently ambiguous. Does the difference between the two types of venomous rest upon the effects upon humans? There are, for example, many species of elapid snakes in Australia that are completely harmless to humans. So are they technically venomous or practically venomous? Does it therefore go back to venom gland architecture? Whereby those with compressor muscles and hollow fangs retain the title of venomous irrespective to their relative medical implications? What about rear-fanged species with glands that lack compressor muscles but are lethal to humans (eg Rhabdophis). What about rear-fanged species with venoms that are 100 times more potent upon birds than mammals (such as the Boiga genus)?

As you can see, it is all points on a continuum. So coming up with designations as to technically venomous vs practically venomous depends on context and subjectivity. These are all concepts we explored in the review paper I linked to previously
http://www.venomdoc.com/downloads/2012_ ... review.pdf

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by Jeremy Westerman »

Venomdoc, I will get to all of your reference links when I can to further understand your point of view, but I feel that you are not willing to take apart the complexity for some reason. It is as if you are saying its too hard to precisely define so I give up they are all venomous.

Perhaps we do need a lot more research and understanding to come up with efficient terms, but clearly you already understand the need for differentiation into catagories and new terms.

cat snakes with bird specific toxins
Bandy Bandy and other snakes harmless to humans but technically possessing toxins
Keelbacks without compressor muscles and a more passive toxin delivery but dangerous to humans
Leptomicrurus, Micruroides, and Micrurus reluctant to bite but extremely dangerous
pythons with trace venom proteins
iguanids with analog glands

Just as you pointed out the species, subspecies or genus concepts also have blurred lines where a definition in taxonomy becomes arbitrary and we must choose between lumps and splits, but we should still categorize animals based on distinguishing characteristics. Given enough information and terminology even the general public could distiguish between a harmless snake and a potentially dangerous snake or one that uses toxins adapted for overcoming birds or lizards but is relatively harmless or whatever.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by gbin »

venomdoc wrote:... What you are asking in regards to a linguistic definition of 'technically venomous' and 'practically venomous', cannot be done so in the absence of coming up with characters to distinguish the two, which must thus rest with drawing arbitrary lines between different gland morphologies and venom potency or taxon specificity.
Which you somehow manage to do every time you say something like "From the perpective of a python biting, it for all practical purposes, does not exist since their venom production is a relic much like our appendix." ;) Which I bet happens with some frequency given your studies.

I'm really not the guy to come up with these lines. You are the best person I could imagine doing the job, being the expert. Keeping in mind that ours is a practical concern rather than a scientific one, though, I would expect that something fairly simple would suffice. Use "venom"/"venomous" when discussing animals that could reasonably harm humans (e.g. "venomous to humans") or other animals (e.g. "venomous to their lizard prey, but not to humans") thereby, and some other term to discuss animals that technically have venom/venomous aspects but don't reasonably pose a harm to humans or any other animals thereby. I should think that would do it. But really, I reckon pretty much everyone will readily accept - and a lot more people than you realize will be grateful for - whatever lines you choose to draw for us. I know that the continuum you speak of exists (evolution is messy business!), but go ahead and break it up for us in some simple fashion that you can accept and that the popular media won't be so able to use to gin up hysteria, and we'll be satisfied. Sure, the new term (or two) will probably stick in your throat every time you try to say it for a good while, but don't you already get tired of having to repeatedly explain that there's no cause for alarm about this or that species, as in the above quote about the python?

Gerry

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by Jeremy Westerman »

I restate my definition that venom has a measurable effect on the organisms it is used against, regardless of whether bit, sprayed, stabbed, etc. Venom must have potency to be effectual.

If some venom components are there or architecture or apparatus that supports venom production in part or whole but the products have no measurable effect, then the animal is nonvenomous.

unfortunately this definition still doesn't explain prey specific venoms or how effective against humans any given toxin may be or how or why the creature is venomous in the first place, but it is a good place to start.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by Jeremy Westerman »

venomdoc wrote: There are, for example, many species of elapid snakes in Australia that are completely harmless to humans. So are they technically venomous or practically venomous?
If I say to a snake specialist: "I see an elapid snake should I pick it up?" That is not enough information to acurately assess the potential danger. There are examples that you yourself point out that are not dangerous. If I say "I see a venomous snake should I pick it up?" Likewise in the exact same fashion that is not enough information to acurately assess the danger perhaps it is a harmless to humans but venomous anyway species.

What would you do as the specialist in such a case? You err on the side of caution when the words elapid or venomous are used, that is what you do, and you tell your student not to pick it up in a loud voice. This is exactly what the public does with the word venom, they rightly err on the side of caution: "suddenly according to the latest research pythons may be venomous so let's steer clear just in case." they don't wait for subtle explanations on how this or that gland functions, if it has developed fangs or how effective it is against mammals they just hear "venomous."

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

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>I feel that you are not willing to take apart the complexity for some reason. It is as if you are saying its too hard to precisely define so I give up they are all venomous.

It is easy to do the extremely broad brush-strokes of incipiently (Iguania) or relics (boids/pythonids) or with some degree of venomous (everything else). But what you are really asking for in regards to for a definition of venomous, is whether they are medically important to humans. That is obviously all the public really cares about. They are not interested in the specificity against avian postsynaptic alpha1 nicotinic acetylcholine receptors versus mammalian alpha1 nicotinic acetylcholine receptors.

Whether or not it is medically important to humans does not change the biological reality in regards to whether or not it is venomous. So it is not actually a distinction between whether or not it is venomous, but whether or not it is dangerous to humans.

So it is not a matter of being willing to define the complexity, but rather which complexity? If all that matters is relative danger to humans, then this distinction applies to certain Australian elapids just as easily as it applies to various other lineages. And in some cases, this comes down to 'not enough information so we better err on the side of caution'. Such as Macropisthodon, a species I have long flagged as one of potential medical concern, but for which no useable information is available. Here is a picture of their spectacular dentition

Image

As I have stated several times before and provided the links for, we have explored the possibility of defining the complexity and have made clear the distinction between venomous from a biological perspective and venomous from a medical/legal perspective.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

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We have just been made aware of this forum and the current discussion. For the information of those contributing to or reading this forum, this issue has not escaped the attention of scientists working in this field and it should not be assumed that all scientists agree with Dr. Fry’s approach/conclusions/speculation; they do not*. A recent robust scientific-peer-reviewed exchange on the topic of definition and use of the word “venom” has been published and those interested in this topic might find this exchange worth reading†. For those preferring a brief summary, in essence a number of scientists, arguably of some note, have contested the effective redefinition of “venom” by Fry et al, arguing that there is, at present, insufficient evidence to support the redefinition and that to be considered as “proven” it would be necessary for independent researchers to perform parallel studies confirming the results of Fry et al. Independent repeatability is a hallmark of good science. Results from research by just one group can be considered as interesting findings, but cannot be considered proven or facts until such independent confirmation is available. Thus any interpretation of such findings should be prefaced with “we speculate ...”, because, without independent confirmation, such interpretation is purely speculation. Speculation in science is acceptable as long as it is not passed off as “fact” rather than a hypothesis.

We suggest that if Fry et al had just followed the existing definition of “venom” and “venomous” they could have avoided the current dissent and confusion and instead of seeking “a new paradigm” they could have formulated new terms for their postulated new additions of the “technically venomous” and “incipient venom gland” organisms. Of course this might not have drawn much media interest, but would still have gained the attention of scientists working in this field.

In a world where money is a dominant force for societal evolution and activity, it is inevitable that science will be driven by money, such as the need to attract grant funding for research. Funding agencies must try and demonstrate that the research they fund is new and exciting, so studies that appear to show something new and controversial are welcomed, thus putting pressure on researchers to portray their work as new, exciting, controversial and important. This is, arguably, not in the best interests of science, humanity, or the planet.

Julian White and Scott A Weinstein

*Note the recent papers by Novell & Yi (2012) and Gauthier et al (2013) that synthesise an enormous amount of arduously procured data from osteological and phenotype marker analyses. These authors carefully place their findings in provisional context and indicate clearly that further work will be required to confirm their conclusions. Gauthier et al also include comments in their conclusions that indicate discrepancies between nucleic acid-based phylogenetic studies (including those describing the “Toxicofera”) and comprehensive morphological investigations. Reproducibility of key elements in these studies is a central requirement to distinguish advanced hypotheses from established fact.
[Yi H-Y, Norrell MA. (2013) New materials of Estesia mongoliensis (Squamata:Anguimorpha) and the evolution of venom grooves in lizards. American Museum Novitiates 3767:1-31 ]
[Gauthier JA, Kearney M, Maisano JA, Rieppel O, Behlke ADB (2012) Assembling the Squamate Tree of Life: Perspectives from the Phenotype and the Fossil Record. Bull. Peadbody Museum Natural History 53:3-308]

†We have included here citations of the original paper by Fry et al and the correspondence that followed, both criticising the paper and the author’s responses (ie I have not just cited one side, but both sides, for balance). Note that the correspondence is longer than the original paper, which is unusual.
[Fry BG, Casewell NR, Wuster W, Vidal N, Young B, Jackson TNW (2012) The structural and functional diversification of the Toxicofera reptile venom system. Toxicon 60:434-448]
[Weinstein SA, Keyler DE, White J (2012) Replies to Fry et al. (Toxicon 2012, 60/4, 434–448). Part A. Analyses of squamate reptile oral glands and their products: A call for caution in formal assignment of terminology designating biological function. Toxicon 60:954-963]
[Kardong K (2012) Replies to Fry et al. (Toxicon 2012, 60/4, 434–448). Part B. Properties and biological roles of squamate oral products: The “venomous lifestyle” and preadaptation. Toxicon 60:964-966]
[Jackson TNW, Casewell NR, Fry BG (2013) Response to “Replies to Fry et al. (Toxicon 2012, 60/4, 434–448). Part A. Analyses of squamate reptile oral glands and their products: A call for caution in formal assignment of terminology designating biological function”. Toxicon 64:106-112]
[Jackson TNW, Casewell NR, Fry BG (2013) Response to “Replies to Fry et al. (Toxicon 2012, 60/4, 434–448). Part B. Analyses of squamate reptile oral glands and their products: A call for caution in formal assignment of terminology designating biological function”. Toxicon 64:113-115]
[Weinstein SA, White J, Keyler DE, Kardong K (2013) Response to Jackson et al. (2012). Toxicon 64:116-127]
Most of this material can be accessed at the following website (one reply letter [the reply of Jackson et al. to Kenneth Kardong is not included on the website): http://www.toxinology.com/fusebox.cfm?s ... nology.htm

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by venomdoc »

>We suggest that if Fry et al had just followed the existing definition of “venom” and “venomous” they could have avoided the current dissent and confusion and instead of seeking “a new paradigm”

Yes, we could have left the field in the 1960s

It is a classic piece of psychology in regards to the nature of scientific revolutions. That the proponents of the previous philosophy, who did the best they could with the data at hand at the time, typically do not change their position in the face of new evidence. To the contrary, there is often a hardening of position. Thus, as they do not adapt their views based on new data, they instead stop behaving like scientists and more like religious adherents.

As, is the case here, they cannot formulate criticisms of the new data itself or the methodologies, they instead resort to quibbling about semantics and making arguments from authority such as, to quote Weinstein himself, that we should listen to them because they are scientists 'arguably of some note'.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by venomdoc »

As for these papers:

[Yi H-Y, Norrell MA. (2013) New materials of Estesia mongoliensis (Squamata:Anguimorpha) and the evolution of venom grooves in lizards. American Museum Novitiates 3767:1-31 ]

First, in their discussion of relative tooth serration to previous studies on Varanus komodoensis and Varanus priscus (Fry et al., 2009), they obviously misunderstood this study. In regards to V. priscus, we use the tooth and skull morphology simply to link them as being closely related to V. komodoensis, V. indicus and V. salvadorii. We do not state that serrations must be present for venom delivery or that serrations in any animal are an immediate indication of venom. We make it very apparent that serrations and venom are independent characters.

Second, Yi and Norrel then question 'Whether protein-secreting oral glands are present in the Varanus species without serrated teeth is yet to be studied', when in fact one of the studies they cite (Fry et al., 2006) contains venom gland transcriptome analyses of three varanid species lacking serrated teeth (V. acanthurus, V. mitchelli, V. panoptes rubidus). In addition literature they do not cite contains venom gland studies on the other non-serrated tooth varanid species V. albigularis, V. eremius, V. glauerti, V. gilleni, V. gouldii, V. giganteus, V. indicus, V. panoptes panoptes, V. mertensii, V. prasinus, and V. tristis orientalis (Fry et al 2010). Further the presence of the glands and the toxins was demonstated in a wide range of other non-serrated toothed anguimorph lizards including Lanthanotidae (Lanthanotus borneensis) and Anguidae (Abronia graminea, Gerrhonotus infernalis Ophisaurus apodus) (Fry et al., 2010; Koludarov et al., 2012).

Thus, we feel that their otherwise excellent publication is detracted by their misunderstanding of other literature, and thus taking statements out of context regarding tooth serrations in varanids, while their over-looking of published findings regarding the widespread presence of venom glands in serrated and non-serrated toothed species, undermines their broader applications of their findings and perpetuates misunderstandings regarding lizard venom evolution.

[Gauthier JA, Kearney M, Maisano JA, Rieppel O, Behlke ADB (2012) Assembling the Squamate Tree of Life: Perspectives from the Phenotype and the Fossil Record. Bull. Peadbody Museum Natural History 53:3-308]

This papers simply adds to the body of knowledge regarding the limitations of morphology to elucidate higher level arrangements in squamates. In contrast, the genetic results from our group and quite a few other groups strongly support the arrangement of Toxicofera (Iguania+Anguimorpha+Serpentes) and other high order relationships that are dramatic paradigm shifts in our understanding of reptile evolution.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by TNWJackson »

I find it somewhat amusing that this entire discussion has been sparked off by an article discussing a paper which does not in fact state that pythons are venomous. As is abundantly clear if you read the paper, it is an investigation of the relictual and/or incipient venom systems of certain toxicoferan reptiles. The study was conducted in order to shed further light on the evolutionary history of venom systems and to continue to investigate these systems as a source of potentially useful bioactive proteins/peptides. This should no longer be controversial - call them what you want, these animals possess "toxin-secreting oral glands" that are homologous with those of other, more famous (and venomous) reptiles. Why this sort of investigation still has people up in arms, particularly when its authors have bent over backwards to point out that the animals being investigated are not in fact venomous, is a mystery to me.

We have discussed at length our feelings on the use of the terms "venom", venomous", "venom system" etc in the papers/letters referenced above by Bryan and Dr. Weinstein, so there is no need to rehash that here. Dr. Weinstein and his colleagues differ with us on our usage of the term "venomous" for many non-front-fanged snakes, and that's fine. We don't claim that there is a consensus in the scientific community with regard to the usage of these terms. We have defined them with regard to our own usage of them. Others in the field see things differently and we respect that fact and look forward to further interesting discourses on the subject as evidence continues to come to light.

Now, on to a digression (this being an informal forum and all) about a pet peeve of mine. Having been an "animal educator" (educating people about animals, not educating animals....although I try my best with my dog) in the zoo industry for a number of years, I have little sympathy with complaints about new information "complicating" things. In the past when someone asked me if a certain spider was venomous, I said "yes, but not dangerous", and then went on to define the term venomous and explain how it has nothing to do with an animal being dangerous to humans. To me, this sort of "confusion" on the part of a member of the public is an "in" to talk about what I most love to talk about - animals and their evolution. This is the job of an educator - in a literal sense, it is to interpret. It is to take information from a level not appropriate for a certain audience, and then interpret it so that audience can more easily digest and understand it. The term "venomous" has always been misunderstood, and will continue to be so no matter how we use it. When someone asks you if a snake is venomous, if it is, you say yes, and then elaborate on whether or not its dangerous to humans (which, I agree, is probably what they mean by the question). If it's not (like a python), you say no. Either way you are being given an opportunity to go into a discussion about the evolution of the animals you are most interested in. If you are not interested in discussing snakes in detail with members of the public, and explaining away misconceptions about technical terms, why become an educator in the first place? You can complain that people just aren't interest in detailed information, but that's generally a problem with your delivery of the information, and not the information itself. Being an educator is about having a passion for information and the sharing/interpreting of information. If you don't have that it's a very tough job.

Anyway, pythons aren't venomous. Glad we could all agree about that. I'd really rather get on with science than keep debating semantics.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by SAW »

I had no intention to enter this discussion "solo", but I will clarify just a couple of points. "Weinstein" did not make any individual statement because the comment was a joint opinion expressed by Julian White (who isn't yet registered here and thus made a co-authored contribution here using my account) and I (and was jointly signed as such). I also believe that the cited quote was not pretentiously intended in any way, but was rather meant to establish that others with recognized qualifications in the relevant field have a differing opinion. Also, while I fully agree with T Jackson that both sides have exchanged views formally in the linked papers, our side had not been provided until we posted our reply. Therefore, I am not going to reiterate our comments and views in those papers. It is relevant to add that the proposed "re-defined" use of the term "venom" has not been limited to squamate reptiles (e.g. we comment in one of the papers that there is no evidence that Nycticebus coucang [slow loris] is the "only venomous primate"). Regardless, the main point is that within the discussion of terminology, it is useful for both sides of the considered discussion to be available to all interested parties.

The citation of the papers by Gauthier et al and Yi and Norrell were included with the comment that others also do not agree with the interpretations of the interesting information published by Fry et al., and also that those investigators cautiously qualify their interpretations of their analyses. Gautheir et al. in particular suggest that due to the lack of clear concordance among phenotypic character analyses and molecular systematics that interpretation should be cautious. Meaning, that the conclusions of these studies, whether osteological, phenotypic or genomic, etc., should be considered with patience in order to assure that the conclusions are correctly interpreted. This is especially meaningful as their study was an impressive arduous morphological study of squamate higher phylogeny. Thus, I know that we and a significant number of colleagues who have not publicly expressed their views, have absolutely no resistance to a shifted paradigm, and on our part, this was repeatedly stated in our published debate on this topic. Rather, we do not agree with premature and unilateral declaration of a changed definition, paradigm, without independent reproducibility and further confirmatory investigation. The "psychology" of Kuhnian paradigm shifts actually was best described by Schopenhauer who remarked, "All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed, second it is violently opposed , and third, it is accepted as self-evident". We do not ridicule, nor violently oppose any of the work by Fry et al. and have stated repeatedly that it is interesting and hope that further related work continues. However, we also do not agree that the basic measure of scientific evidence has been met in support of the interpretations suggested by Fry et al. Further investigation and independent confirmation may indeed lead to a shifted paradigm. If that is the case, we would fully accept it, as would others. A proposed paradigm shift should be rigorously and independently tested before formal adoption as fact.

I can't resist but make one final comment re something noted earlier in the string. Just for the sake of the balance evasive in some of the discussion, for some 20 years in clinical medicine there has been increasing evidence of the role of the vermiform appendix as an active lymphoid organ. While it is still somewhat debated, the majority opinion is that it likely regulates coliforms and thereby influences the proportional colonization of endogenous flora of the colon. There are some growing data that associate several pathophysiological states such as recurrent Clostridium difficle colitis with appendiceal function, or as post-appendicectomy sequelae. It is very likely not a "relict" organ, just as the tonsils aren't either.

It is unfortunate that such discussions often become personally charged. I now largely avoid posting in Internet fora because these "discussions" often lose the opportunity for a broad-based useful exchange of ideas and/or opposing views. It is worth remaining cognizant that just over 20 years ago, such discussions would take place only in print and could take months.

Scott Weinstein

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by Jeremy Westerman »

TNWJackson wrote:I find it somewhat amusing that this entire discussion has been sparked off by an article discussing a paper which does not in fact state that pythons are venomous. As is abundantly clear if you read the paper, it is an investigation of the relictual and/or incipient venom systems of certain toxicoferan reptiles. The study was conducted in order to shed further light on the evolutionary history of venom systems and to continue to investigate these systems as a source of potentially useful bioactive proteins/peptides. This should no longer be controversial - call them what you want, these animals possess "toxin-secreting oral glands" that are homologous with those of other, more famous (and venomous) reptiles. Why this sort of investigation still has people up in arms, particularly when its authors have bent over backwards to point out that the animals being investigated are not in fact venomous, is a mystery to me.

We have discussed at length our feelings on the use of the terms "venom", venomous", "venom system" etc in the papers/letters referenced above by Bryan and Dr. Weinstein, so there is no need to rehash that here. Dr. Weinstein and his colleagues differ with us on our usage of the term "venomous" for many non-front-fanged snakes, and that's fine. We don't claim that there is a consensus in the scientific community with regard to the usage of these terms. We have defined them with regard to our own usage of them. Others in the field see things differently and we respect that fact and look forward to further interesting discourses on the subject as evidence continues to come to light.

Now, on to a digression (this being an informal forum and all) about a pet peeve of mine. Having been an "animal educator" (educating people about animals, not educating animals....although I try my best with my dog) in the zoo industry for a number of years, I have little sympathy with complaints about new information "complicating" things. In the past when someone asked me if a certain spider was venomous, I said "yes, but not dangerous", and then went on to define the term venomous and explain how it has nothing to do with an animal being dangerous to humans. To me, this sort of "confusion" on the part of a member of the public is an "in" to talk about what I most love to talk about - animals and their evolution. This is the job of an educator - in a literal sense, it is to interpret. It is to take information from a level not appropriate for a certain audience, and then interpret it so that audience can more easily digest and understand it. The term "venomous" has always been misunderstood, and will continue to be so no matter how we use it. When someone asks you if a snake is venomous, if it is, you say yes, and then elaborate on whether or not its dangerous to humans (which, I agree, is probably what they mean by the question). If it's not (like a python), you say no. Either way you are being given an opportunity to go into a discussion about the evolution of the animals you are most interested in. If you are not interested in discussing snakes in detail with members of the public, and explaining away misconceptions about technical terms, why become an educator in the first place? You can complain that people just aren't interest in detailed information, but that's generally a problem with your delivery of the information, and not the information itself. Being an educator is about having a passion for information and the sharing/interpreting of information. If you don't have that it's a very tough job.

Anyway, pythons aren't venomous. Glad we could all agree about that. I'd really rather get on with science than keep debating semantics.
I did read the paper. My point of contention and the reason for my post in the first place was the popular media and science outlets like the Nat Geo article DID call pythons venomous in response to the paper. Perhaps you missed their titles? Then that dutifully was shared by dozens of herp related sites and hundreds if not thousands then recieved that misleading information.

Educator about animals is more precise but is a mouthful, I wish we had another descriptive term here too, ;) .

Right, and if asked about spiders I would respond the same yes, venomous, no harmless to humans, but now thanks to sensationalism to Fry et al work "I get is that snake venomous?" I respond no, they respond uh huh I read about it in Cosmo and Maxim or whatever. I then can enter into a educational discussion on the research in question and why they described their findings like that etc. if I have time or if the audience in question can follow, but most of the time I need to press on with my presentations.

I am not complaining about fielding questions about animals, far from it. I am complaining that laws, regulations, restrictions, and most importantly public opinion all hinge heavily on terminology and the perceived risk that certain words imply. For instance we if have a false water cobra or Hognose snake at my work should they be placed in a hot room because the city, county or state animal control boards find out that yes technically they are venomous even though the effects of a envenomation are mild and exceedingly rare? One of the few serious envenomations on record the guy possibly let it chew on his hand during a feeding response for several minutes. Even then it wasn't life or limb threatening. I don't want to have to seek/pay for more permits or explain to wildlife boards why I differ in opinion with a popular article based on a scientific paper, which they interpret as authoritarian. Must we pay increased insurance and get denied bringing a particular animal to any establishment because those who run it fail to distinguish the true potential danger level based on blanket use of terminology especially the word venom? Both youself and Fry seem to be intelligent folks so it is baffling that you deride this as a "semantics" debate that is beneath you when the implications over how certain terms are defined is very serious, especially if you own, say a pet store or a zoo; and suddenly you have to impliment potentially expensive new handling/caging protocols or are forced to stop selling certain animals.

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by Jeremy Westerman »

venomdoc wrote:As for these papers:

[Yi H-Y, Norrell MA. (2013) New materials of Estesia mongoliensis (Squamata:Anguimorpha) and the evolution of venom grooves in lizards. American Museum Novitiates 3767:1-31 ]

First, in their discussion of relative tooth serration to previous studies on Varanus komodoensis and Varanus priscus (Fry et al., 2009), they obviously misunderstood this study. In regards to V. priscus, we use the tooth and skull morphology simply to link them as being closely related to V. komodoensis, V. indicus and V. salvadorii. We do not state that serrations must be present for venom delivery or that serrations in any animal are an immediate indication of venom. We make it very apparent that serrations and venom are independent characters.

Second, Yi and Norrel then question 'Whether protein-secreting oral glands are present in the Varanus species without serrated teeth is yet to be studied', when in fact one of the studies they cite (Fry et al., 2006) contains venom gland transcriptome analyses of three varanid species lacking serrated teeth (V. acanthurus, V. mitchelli, V. panoptes rubidus). In addition literature they do not cite contains venom gland studies on the other non-serrated tooth varanid species V. albigularis, V. eremius, V. glauerti, V. gilleni, V. gouldii, V. giganteus, V. indicus, V. panoptes panoptes, V. mertensii, V. prasinus, and V. tristis orientalis (Fry et al 2010). Further the presence of the glands and the toxins was demonstated in a wide range of other non-serrated toothed anguimorph lizards including Lanthanotidae (Lanthanotus borneensis) and Anguidae (Abronia graminea, Gerrhonotus infernalis Ophisaurus apodus) (Fry et al., 2010; Koludarov et al., 2012).

Thus, we feel that their otherwise excellent publication is detracted by their misunderstanding of other literature, and thus taking statements out of context regarding tooth serrations in varanids, while their over-looking of published findings regarding the widespread presence of venom glands in serrated and non-serrated toothed species, undermines their broader applications of their findings and perpetuates misunderstandings regarding lizard venom evolution.

[Gauthier JA, Kearney M, Maisano JA, Rieppel O, Behlke ADB (2012) Assembling the Squamate Tree of Life: Perspectives from the Phenotype and the Fossil Record. Bull. Peadbody Museum Natural History 53:3-308]

This papers simply adds to the body of knowledge regarding the limitations of morphology to elucidate higher level arrangements in squamates. In contrast, the genetic results from our group and quite a few other groups strongly support the arrangement of Toxicofera (Iguania+Anguimorpha+Serpentes) and other high order relationships that are dramatic paradigm shifts in our understanding of reptile evolution.
In the course of working with large potentially dangerous animals I have unfortunately been bitten by several monitor species including water monitors, nile monitors, and savanna monitors (also green iguanas and pythons for that matter, I know not varanids.) These are all animals that your work implies have venom. In no instance was I envenomated and I did not need any but the most minor first aid to treat the wound, certainly I did not impliment our strict venom protocols, notify the authorities and head to the nearest hospital for antivenin treatment. They are not venomous in any practical sense of the word. I assume as voracious indescriminate carnivores, monitors if they do have venom present would affect mammals with it. To label these animals venomous in the same sense as a cobra, rattlesnkae or coralsnake is absurd. We need differentiating terms. Now if I had been bitten by a Gila Monster...

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by gbin »

One can hardly fault a group of scientists or their work for the fact that they are running well ahead of the pack; it's really up to the remainder of scientists in the same field to catch up. But neither that nor the various technical details of venom evolution (as related as these details might be) are really the topic of this thread. Nor is this thread merely a semantic exercise. It has a very practical purpose, one with real societal and environmental impact, and I would very much like to see that purpose seriously addressed.

In the hope that it'll help keep people focused on the thread's actual topic (please correct me if I'm wrong about your intent in starting the thread, Jeremy), then, I'll repeat my last post, which has apparently remained unanswered (as have certain points in it which I and Jeremy have now raised numerous times) in favor of interesting but off-topic scientific debate:
gbin wrote:
venomdoc wrote:... What you are asking in regards to a linguistic definition of 'technically venomous' and 'practically venomous', cannot be done so in the absence of coming up with characters to distinguish the two, which must thus rest with drawing arbitrary lines between different gland morphologies and venom potency or taxon specificity.
Which you somehow manage to do every time you say something like "From the perpective of a python biting, it for all practical purposes, does not exist since their venom production is a relic much like our appendix." ;) Which I bet happens with some frequency given your studies.

I'm really not the guy to come up with these lines. You are the best person I could imagine doing the job, being the expert. Keeping in mind that ours is a practical concern rather than a scientific one, though, I would expect that something fairly simple would suffice. Use "venom"/"venomous" when discussing animals that could reasonably harm humans (e.g. "venomous to humans") or other animals (e.g. "venomous to their lizard prey, but not to humans") thereby, and some other term to discuss animals that technically have venom/venomous aspects but don't reasonably pose a harm to humans or any other animals thereby. I should think that would do it. But really, I reckon pretty much everyone will readily accept - and a lot more people than you realize will be grateful for - whatever lines you choose to draw for us. I know that the continuum you speak of exists (evolution is messy business!), but go ahead and break it up for us in some simple fashion that you can accept and that the popular media won't be so able to use to gin up hysteria, and we'll be satisfied. Sure, the new term (or two) will probably stick in your throat every time you try to say it for a good while, but don't you already get tired of having to repeatedly explain that there's no cause for alarm about this or that species, as in the above quote about the python?

Gerry

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by venomdoc »

>I'll repeat my last post, which has apparently remained unanswered (as have certain points in it which I and Jeremy have now raised numerous times)

I have answered these posts in several different ways. Essentially what you are asking for can only be applied on a case-by-case basis. There is no real natural grouping. For example, if you look at the list below non-front-fanged snakes with the potential to be lethal or possible to cause observable symptoms (with variable degrees of supporting evidence), you will notice that they are scattered all over the taxonomical tree

Lethal: Dispholidus, Rhabdophis, Thelatornis
With potential to cause notable symptoms: Alsophis, Boiga, Conophis, Hydrodynastes, Macropisthodon, Madagascarophis, Malpolon, Oligodon, Phalotris, Philodryas, Psammophis, Rhamphiophis, Thrasops, Tomodon, Waglerophis, Xenodon

So what you are asking for in regards to terms, does not reflect the evolutionary patterns. It is simply a matter of engaging in discussion to qualify that venomous and dangerous to humans are non-synonymous. This provides the opportunity to point out that in the case of the non-front-fanged snakes, the vast majority are of no concern to humans and thus from a medical/legal perspective do not qualify as 'venomous' in this semantic arena.

Cheers,
B

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by gbin »

venomdoc wrote:... what you are asking for in regards to terms, does not reflect the evolutionary patterns...
I'm pretty sure that "venomous" wasn't created as an evolutionary term. I'm very sure that the vast majority of English-speaking people don't currently use it that way, either.
venomdoc wrote:... It is simply a matter of engaging in discussion to qualify that venomous and dangerous to humans are non-synonymous...
There's nothing simple about that, and harm occurs due to the delay and difficulty. That's why some people such as Jeremy are emotionally involved in this subject.

To the vast majority of people "venomous" and "dangerous" are synonyms. You might get an unusual amount of media coverage for a scientist, but it's still nowhere near enough to enable you to meaningfully address that; indeed, of all the words you might write or utter in communicating with laypeople about your work, "venomous" in tandem with the identity of whatever species you're discussing travel much farther and faster through society, and thus reach many more ears, than does any accompanying explanation you might offer. Even among those who get the whole story directly or indirectly from you, likely a substantial majority continue to think that "venomous" = "dangerous" despite your having explained to them that they shouldn't; they hear the word "venomous," it immediately evokes a fearful response and that response diminishes their interest in and ability to process the remainder of what you're saying. Jeremy has been pointing you toward a wealth of evidence that this is the case, and you're only kidding yourself if you choose to believe otherwise.

Creating some term without "venom"/"venomous" in it to describe animals which technically have some venomous aspect to them but which are not harmful thereby 1) most certainly is possible, 2) would help rather than hinder your efforts to communicate about your research (both by avoiding the unnecessary use of fearsome words and by using less verbage overall) and 3) would reduce the harm you're currently causing by misleading people into thinking this or that harmless animal is dangerous. (Sorry, but it's not your intent that defines whether something is misleading, it's the effect of your actions - especially when you have the capability to act with greater clarity but choose not to do so.)

Gerry

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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by TNWJackson »

Hi Scott, I definitely didn't think you were citing anything in a pretentious manner, and agree it's relevant to have all opinions available here. I think the reason both "sides" were not initially referenced is because the OP was about misconceptions relating to a paper which largely discusses henophidian snakes and iguanian lizards, and we all agree that these animals are not functionally venomous. The debate you referenced primarily centred around species which some of us consider venomous, and others don't.

As stated elsewhere, I do not think the "redefinition" of venom presented in Fry et al., 2009 and reiterated in Fry et al., 2012 is really a "redefinition" at all, more of a refinement to ensure all animals considered venomous can be included (as highlighted, it is not a "reptile specific" definition). As for slow lorises - use of physiologically active proteins, delivered by a bite in defence, has always been covered by the "traditional" definition of venom. Whether or not the proteins in question are more related to allergens or other, recognised, secretory toxins is irrelevant in a definition which prioritises the functional use of said proteins in the life of the animal. Having worked directly with lorises and having observed their characteristic defensive posture and the effects of a bite, I am personally in no doubt that they qualify as venomous.

I hope it's clear, Scott, that we respect your reluctance in applying the term "venomous" to certain species and welcome the dialogue on the subject. I understand your avoidance of Internet fora, and largely do the same myself.

If your mention of the vermiform appendix was implying that there may be a function for the toxin-secreting oral glands of iguanian lizards and henophidian snakes, rather than them just being "relictual" or "incipient" venom glands, we agree wholeheartedly. There is some interesting evidence to suggest that this is the case, some of which is highlighted in the paper which sparked this discussion. At this stage, however, we prefer to refer to these structures as what they certainly are (homologous with the "venom glands" of other toxicoferan reptiles), rather than what they might be. When further evidence accumulates demonstrating an alternative function, we will of course modify our use of terminology to reflect that.

Jeremy, I do understand your point about legislation, insurance etc, and I absolutely do not consider it "beneath me". If you read the papers/letters referenced by Scott, you will see that we have put a great deal of time into discussing this issue, rather than just writing it off as unimportant. What I meant by my final comment about preferring to get on with the science, is that I think it's more productive for us to continue amassing evidence to support our use of terminology, rather than continually rehashing the current debate. It is an unfortunate fact that legislators, in their ignorance, will misinterpret (perhaps willfully) scientific information and use it as the basis for creating new and unreasonable laws. I support you in your struggle against this, as I know does Bryan. If legislators actually ask experts for their opinion on the matter, rather than simply run with their misunderstandings (if only), those experts will clarify the meaning of the term "venomous" and point out that it is irrelevant to humans and that only a subset of venomous animals are in fact dangerous to humans. It is not our fault if legislators choose to be lazy, corrupt etc.

I actually deal with this personally all the time. I regularly send venomous animals to collaborators and have to justify my need to do so. For example, the other day I was posting snakes - the "From" box read "Timothy Jackson, Venom Evolution Laboratory" and the "To" box read "Venom Supplies". I was asked if the snakes were venomous.....I had to say that they were, of course, but that these particular venomous snakes were not dangerous to humans. This caused a fair bit of consternation, until I gently explained that "venomous" and "dangerous" are not the same things, and that these particular snakes were likely only dangerous to their prey. I have had far greater problems in the past trying to send harmless (to humans) spiders and being forced to plaster big "BEWARE - VENOMOUS" stickers all over the box. There may come a time when restrictions, even for researchers, become tighter, but even then I'm not going to say "no", when the answer is "yes".

I continue to maintain that we have not greatly modified the technical usage of the term "venomous". This is the "traditional" definition (lifted from Weinstein et al., 2012, referenced in full by Scott above):

“a complex substance produced in a specialized gland and delivered by an associated specialized apparatus that is deleterious to other organisms in a given dosage and is actively used in the subjugation and/or digestion of prey and/or in defense”

Now, ours:

"a secretion, produced in a specialised tissue (generally encapsulated in a gland) in one animal and delivered to a target animal through the infliction of a wound (regardless of how tiny it is). A venom must further contain molecules that disrupt normal physiological or biochemical processes so as to facilitate feeding or defence by/of the producing animal."

These are not vastly different. In fact, they aren't really different at all except that ours contains slightly more information (and omits "digestion", because we don't think that solely contributing to digestion qualifies something as "venom"). Notice, primarily, that neither of them (including the "traditional" definition) mention danger to humans. The word "venomous" has never had anything to do with "dangerous to humans". It is very unfortunate that many people do not understand this, but the answer to that is to try and educate them, not to make up a bunch of other terms for them to misunderstand. When discussing venomous organisms, it has to be understood that the vast majority of those that are recognised as such (by us or "traditionally") are not in fact dangerous to humans. Most of them are dangerous to their prey, and possibly other similarly sized animals, but not to us. Unfortunately snakes are particularly polarising animals, but that doesn't mean we should change our terminology to placate people who misunderstand it. It means we should continue to endeavour to explain our terminology.

Gerry, what you are proposing is that we change the traditional definition of venom to mean what people mistakenly think it means, and then come up with several other terms to replace "venomous" in cases where that term was previously correct but is now rendered incorrect by our changed terminology. Sound confusing? I don't see how doing that would make things simpler for everyone, it would only increase the complexity of the terminology and promote further confusion. My feeling is that we are best to stick with the current terminology and continue to refine our usage of it and bring it closer to the biological reality which it has always been intended to describe. If you want to say "venomous, but not dangerous to humans", every time you talk about a venomous creature that is not dangerous to humans, then please do so, I support you. I don't support you saying "weakly venomous", because that obscures the biological reality that the venom might not be "weak" against its intended target, and furthers the confusion that "venomous" = "dangerous to humans".

"I'm pretty sure that "venomous" wasn't created as an evolutionary term. I'm very sure that the vast majority of English-speaking people don't currently use it that way, either."

I think I have dealt with this above, but, again: "Venomous" was created as a term to describe animals that actively deliver (biting or stinging) physiologically active proteins/peptides to target animals in order to facilitate defence or feeding. That's all. That's how we continue to use it. Someone mentioned the word "theory" earlier on, and it's actually a good example. Many people misunderstand this word in scientific contexts.....but we haven't abolished its use or invented new words to replace it in those contexts. So it is with "venomous" - we continue to use it accurately, and try to explain what accurate usage of the word is.

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gbin
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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by gbin »

TNWJackson wrote:I continue to maintain that we have not greatly modified the technical usage of the term "venomous". This is the "traditional" definition (lifted from Weinstein et al., 2012, referenced in full by Scott above):

“a complex substance produced in a specialized gland and delivered by an associated specialized apparatus that is deleterious to other organisms in a given dosage and is actively used in the subjugation and/or digestion of prey and/or in defense”
Sorry, but I'm not buying it. I haven't (yet) looked at the reference you mentioned, and I don't know exactly what you meant by the definition you provided being the "traditional" one, but I do have a long-standing interest in and at least some facility with the English language, and that looks to me to be a definition that was developed well after the term "venom" was invented and put into broad usage, to try to translate the term from the vernacular into the scientific (or perhaps medical). I'm almost certain that the term was indeed in widespread use in day-to-day speech long before it was formally defined for science or any other technical use. (I could be persuaded to think otherwise by solid documentation, though, if you have such to offer.) A cursory look at the etymology of "venom" (in line with my interest, which my wife shares, you wouldn't believe how many dictionaries, thesauri and other English language reference materials reside in our home; we even consider them to be great coffee table books :) ) reveals meanings such as "poison," "drug" or "potion" (even "love potion"). It seems clear that the term originally focused on effect, not function, just as expected and just as is clearly still the case in most people's minds today.

That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with refining it for science, as you folks (and presumably before you Weinstein et al. 2012 or whoever before them) have done. I've done some such work myself (which makes these kinds of definitions particularly easy for me to spot), and I'm pleased with having improved the scientific usefulness of the words thereby just as I imagine is the case for you and "venom." Academically speaking, I also like your definition of the term, so please don't think me either unsympathetic or in disagreement on those grounds. You're making a mistake if you think the non-scientific world should or shall now follow your lead, however. Words go where they go, and the best we can hope for is to sometimes manage to intelligently guide the process for a while.
TNWJackson wrote:Gerry, what you are proposing is that we change the traditional definition of venom to mean what people mistakenly think it means...
As I've laid out above, I don't believe this is true at all. I believe I am hewing more closely to both the original and current (non-scientific) meaning of the term "venom" than are you.

But even if you were right in that assertion, so what? The fact of the matter is that the definitions of words do indeed change sometimes to reflect what starts out as people's misuse of them. Words go where they go. I don't like it any more than you do, I assure you; I'm ordinarly extremely conservative about language, and have fought on the side you're now representing for many words. It's invariably a losing fight (there are simply too many more of them than there are of us), but I figure my time and effort are mine to spend as I see fit. Make no mistake, I would be solidly on your side of this debate right now but for one thing.

Here, unusually, genuine harm is occurring due to the misunderstanding stemming from your use of the term "venomous" to describe animals that are in actuality harmless. Despite your intent, you're feeding the fear that so many people unfortunately already have about snakes, encouraging them to see more or less every snake as dangerous, no doubt even lending support in many of their minds to the idea that the only good snake is a dead snake. Laypeople mistake (and religious fundamentalists deliberately mislead others about) the scientific community's use of the term "theory" all of the time, as you mentioned, and it certainly ticks me off. But although human ignorance persists a bit longer and stronger as a result of that confusion, that's not at all the same thing as pretty much a whole taxonomic group of animals being persecuted (too strong a word? I don't think so; people's fearful reactions to what they perceive to be dangerous are played out in many harmful, some downright violent, ways). That's why I'm arguing for practicality over scientific purity in this particular case.
TNWJackson wrote:... and then come up with several other terms to replace "venomous" in cases where that term was previously correct but is now rendered incorrect by our changed terminology...
As I've now pointed out numerous times above, this definitely isn't true. I've asked for one or at most a select few new terms to be created, and that's it. Remember that mine is a practical concern, not a scientific one, and given that fact the new terms need not and should not attempt to capture all the rich complexity of evolutionary paths and features you're dealing with. Simply having a new word pairing to use in place of "venom"/"venomous" when discussing species which pose no realistic threat to humans would likely suffice. I get that you don't want to do this, obviously, but please don't pretend that the reason is because I'm asking for something other than what is actually the case.

Gerry

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TNWJackson
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Re: Anyone see the National Geographic article on Python ven

Post by TNWJackson »

Hi Gerry,

I understand what you're saying, both about the etymology of the word "venom" and about your concerns relating to people misinterpreting the "technical" usage of the term. By the "traditional" definition, I was obviously referring to the "modern" scientific definition, not the meaning of the original Latin or Old French words. I'm not actually sure I agree with you that "most" people today think that "venomous" = "dangerous to humans". Obviously a substantial percentage of people think this, but most people also have no trouble accepting the fact that spiders, bees, wasps, centipedes etc etc are all "venomous" too. If we were to coin a new word for animals that are "venomous but not dangerous to humans", we would thereafter be using that word to refer to the vast majority of animals currently considered simply "venomous" (including many elapid snakes). Also, at what point would an animal be considered dangerous enough to be "venomous"? Would it be if the bite/sting just hurts a lot? If there are legitimate fatalities on record (rule out the inland taipan then)? If the LD50 is low enough (I assume the testing has to be done on humans then, because we're talking about danger to humans, not mice).....? I'm not merely trying to be clever here, I'm trying to illustrate the fact that what you propose is a lot more complicated than just making up some new words.

I have a lot of sympathy for most of what you've just said about language evolving, but I'm not sure that us (or anyone) suddenly coining a new word for "venomous-but-not-dangerous-to-humans" animals is feasible in the way you are suggesting. Are we coining a new scientific term, or a new vernacular term? How are we disseminating this new term widely enough and faithfully enough to avoid confusion?

I understand that reptile keepers are very concerned about being legislated against. I am as concerned as anyone about snakes being killed for no good reason - I am first and foremost a snake lover (that's why I'm doing what I do). I am not certain, however, that people killing snakes is an issue of language/terminology. Fear of snakes is a very complicated and deep-seated thing for a lot of people. Where I come from, the majority of snakes are venomous (in that they are front-fanged snakes with "high-pressure" venom systems, hollow fangs etc). A few of the most common species are dangerously venomous. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people have a "kill on sight" policy for dealing with snakes. This will always be the case. When I try to convince people that this isn't a good idea though, I can't rely on the "but they're harmless" argument. I have to use the "snakes don't want anything to do with you" and "you're more likely to get bitten by trying to kill a snake than you are if you leave them alone" style of arguments. This is very effective on some people....others will just go on killing snakes no matter what I (or anyone) say. People aren't killing snakes specifically because they are "venomous".....most people know that bees are venomous and a lot of people are very concerned about their survival at the moment. I think if you're trying to educate people not to kill snakes, you're better off sticking with the "leave them alone and they'll leave you alone" line of argument rather than the "they're not venomous anyway" line. That's just my opinion though. Unfortunately people are always going to kill snakes, I just don't think our use of venomous for certain non-front-fanged snakes (and not pythons) is a major influence on them.

Anyway, to cut a long story short. Whilst I do understand where you're coming from, I still think there is no more effective way of dealing with this issue than qualifying the fact that many (most) venomous species are "harmless to humans". These are words anyone can understand. If people choose to ignore the repeated statement that these animals are harmless and use the fact that they are "venomous" to justify killing them, I tend to think they were going to kill them anyway.

Have you read "A Scanner Darkly" by Philip K. Dick? There is an anecdote that is quite insightful and relevant to the discussion of people killing snakes because they are venomous. Briefly - a girl asks the protagonist and his friends to come around to kill a large insect in her house. When they arrive and see the insect in question, they say "Oh, that's harmless, and it kills mosquitoes, it's good to have around," the girl replies, "Oh.....if I had known it was harmless I would have killed it myself."

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