Great moments in pedantry: Poisonous vs. Venomous

The key difference, writes blogger Jason Bittel, is in the biting. Venomous animals internally create a toxin and then inject it into prey or foes. Poisonous animals usually secrete their toxins on the outside.

So here's a rule of thumb: If you are dying because an animal has bitten you, chances are, it was a venomous animal. If you're dying because you touched an animal or (foolishly) put it in your mouth, that's poisonous.

And then, of course, there's the slow loris:

Because the loris manufactures toxin from specialized glands on its elbows, then transfers that liquid to small, curved teeth for injection, the loris is venomous. Alternately, mother lorises cover their offspring’s fur in the same potion, rendering them poisonous.

Read more about various poisonous and venomous animals at Jason Bittel's blog, Bittel Me This.

Image: Natural History Museum - London, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from nickstone333's photostream


  1.  Never heard of a loris before, in fact I  don’t think I’ve heard of any venomous or poisonous mammals before.  

    1. I love the internet! Wikipedia has a great definition: Venom = hunting , poison = don’t eat. Venom is intentional, however something may be poison for some, not all, to eat.  But there’s exceptions to that too. 

      SOME, NOT ALL:



      -The most unique, the African Crested Rat, eats poisonous bark then applies the mixture to a part of it’s fur that’s designed to soak up the poison. 

    2. Never heard of a loris before

      You are clearly not spending enough time at I Can Haz Cheezburger or Daily Squee.

  2. Now, if I touched or ate an animal, I am ‘poisoned’, but what if I got bitten, what am I then? ‘Venomised’? Is there an adjective for that?

      1. You really want to try to get yourself bitten by creatures in whom envenomation is voluntary. Nothing says relief like a dry bite.

        Also, odd that this doesn’t mention stings, which account for many, if not most, envenomations.

      1.  agree in spirit, but something tells me if you ran into an ER exclaiming “I’ve been fucked by a slow loris!” you might get sent to the psych ward rather than the poison ward.

  3. I know Wikipedia isn’t always right, but it purports that the reaction to loris “poison” is actually an allergic reaction and the animal doesn’t actually produce poison/venom. Anyone know for sure?

    1. I think if the vile crap needs specialized glands its poison or toxin, otherwise (like the Komodo Dragon IFAIK) it’s just vile crap that harms/kills you.

    2. A venom that kills you by directly attacking your tissues and a venom that kills you by getting your own body to attack your tissues are separated only by level of fanciness in the design.

      The reaction to “poison” oak and ivy is also immune-system based, but it’s still a defensive chemical.

      People who are actually allergic to lorises (and that includes most people alergic to cats) suffer from a distance and from airborn particles. Most humans only suffer from contact.

  4. sometimes Latin ain’t yer friend:

    Sola dosis facit venenum

    translated for time immemorial as:  “The dose makes the poison”
    (“venenum”? “poison”?)

    1. The beauty of English is that we have taken an enormous array of what would otherwise be synonyms from other languages, then assigned shades of meaning to them to differentiate them, e.g. house (haus) vs. mansion (maison).

      1. Totally correct statement, only your example is not an example at all. 

        Maison : from Old French maisun, from Latin mansiō (“ abode, home, dwelling”)
        Mansion : from O.Fr. mansion

        House/Haus/Hus is what Angles, Saxons and Jutes called their abodes even before they moved to those islands.

        1. That is what I intended my example to mean.
          Maison is French for “abode”.
          Haus is German for “abode”.

          Mansion != house in English.

          1. Yeah, I got what you meant to mean. 
            And I liked it. 

            But the word “Mansion” is an example of French appropriating Latin and English also appropriating Latin. 
            House/Haus is an example of a word continuously in use by those that would become the English and those that stayed on the continent. 
            The inhabitants of what is now England, and what was part of the Roman imperial province Britannia, already knew the Latin word before the English peoples arrived.  
            Why are you mentioning French at all? 

            Look up what a mansion is. 
            The Wikipedia article begins with: “A mansion is a very large dwelling house.” 

            Maison != mansion in English.
            Was that your point?
            That the French assigned a different meaning to the Latin word than the English did?

      2. I quite like the bit in Ivanhoe about how Saxon animals go to France when they die.

        Swine (German Schwein) become pork (French porc)
        Cows and oxen (German Kuh and Ochs) become beef (French boeuf)
        Calves (German Kalb) become veal (French veau)
        Sheep (German Schaff) become mutton (French Mouton)

        1. Saxon animals go to France when they die

          I was taught that during Norman rule in England, French was the language of the nobility, and English the language of the common people- and so French speakers would be unlikely to meet animals except when served as food.

          (I have no idea whether this is actually true, or just one of the many urban legends regurgitated by my school teachers).

          1. Yeah, that’s the setup there – the people who get to follow the animals around pastures and shovel their poo are English speaking Saxons, the people who get to eat them once they’ve been conveniently roasted are French speaking Normans.

  5. And there’s “allergens” and “toxins”. Are they different or the same? I’ve heard “toxic” used a lot, especially in marine life.

    What about “allergic reactions”, those kill too, probably more than poison and venom combined, like asthma. In the United States, 9 people die daily. 

    My point is, “poison” is very subjective, it’s usually in place of “toxic”, and many things can be “toxic”, like relationships. 

    I guess the Loris is the Platypus in the poison/venom debate.

      1. Are there different classes and sub-classes? I’m not a chemist. 

        I did learn something interesting from a Park Ranger here in Phoenix AZ. Most older venomous snakes DON”T use venom when they strike at things they have no intention of eating, they’re conserving it for food. She said the snake has learned through the years that their strike is enough and venom isn’t needed. It’s the young ones who don’t know better and some die because they don’t have enough venom stored for their next meal. 

        I don’t know why rattle snakes get such a bad rap, what other creature warns you with audible sounds warning unsuspecting wanderers not to step on them. The snake knows you’re too big to eat, they’re just being courteous. Pretty ingenious.

  6. like, duh? Come on BoingBoing, please say that we knew the difference between poisonous and venomous already.

  7. If we’re getting into pedantry, the loris doesn’t manufacture poison at all. There was a great BBC nature documentary on loris population and why so many were dying when released into the wild after being bred or rehabilitated in captivity. The findings were that they actually derive the poison from the things it eats (insects IIRC), which they then concentrate in their glands. They also coat their fur with it to deter predators and parasites.

    Here’s a link to the BBC page for the documentary: 

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