Last updated: July 18, 2018
I would like to, once and for all, clear the air about the definitions of poisonous and venomous. Most folks think these terms are synonymous, but they really are not! Before I got into the wildlife science business, I was confused about these two terms, but it’s actually pretty simple:
Poisonous: it’s when you ingest the toxin – and this is probably less common. Like, for example, you lick or eat a poison dart frog. Please don’t do it. Poison is a toxin that gets into the body by inhaling, swallowing, or absorption through the skin.
Venomous: it’s when the toxin is injected into you. Examples of this would be a cobra that uses its fangs to inject venom, or a scorpion with its stinger. Venom is a toxin that gets into the body by being injected, usually by a bite or a sting.
NPS Photo/Stephanie Root - Here’s an easy way to remember the two terms. It’s all in the way that the toxic substance is delivered.
Now that we have that out of the way, did you know that there are only a few animals that are both venomous AND poisonous!? Yes, that means that it can deliver toxins both ways. One example is the Asian Tiger snake (“Yamakagashi,” Rhabdophis tigrinus) from Japan. From its diet of poisonous toads, it can then use these toxins as a defense mechanism. It has special glands in the back of its neck that can expose the toxins to ward of predators. It can also deliver venom through small fangs located at the rear of the mouth. Another cool fact: the mother snake can pass the poisons on to their offspring, so that the little guys have a way to defend themselves when they’re young.