Reading this question, I wondered why is it that we associate vertebrate venoms so often with snakes and fish, and more rarely with lizards, amphibians, mammals, and birds (apparently never, in birds?).

Are venoms more advantageous for snakes and fish, or more expensive or dangerous to produce for the other taxa? Or is it connected to evolutionary history – is venom somehow more 'evolvable' for snake and fish lineages?

Or, perhaps, is it just chance?


3 Answers 3


This write up by Carl Zimmer basically covers anything I could have said. He links to a number of resources, in particular Casewell et. al. 2013, which at a cursory glance looks utterly fascinating and very well done. Zimmer recapitulates figure 1, which sums it all up, or to quote Carl:

"Each lineage of venomous animals became deadly on its own, independent of all the others. And yet, in the end, their venoms echo each other... These results show that there are a limited number of ways to kill your victim quickly. No matter what genes you borrow for the evolution of venom, they will end up very similar to other venoms."

Another Zimmer piece specifically points out research purporting to show that snake venom genes are much older than snakes, maybe 200 million years old. That gets around but doesn't quite answer your question. An older review tried to coalesce things (as best as he could in '92), spending time focusing on insectivora and dealing with mammals. The theory is that while venom is an excellent advantage, it requires a significant investment and is often slow-working. In a world with sharp teeth capable of tearing, venom may not be necessary. Mammals, for example, might evolve to not use venom, as it may not be suitable for their high daily energy demands. The pdf linked above briefly touches on the concept of "reverse recruitment," where venom genes may be usefully re-purposed for other biological processes.


Nicholas R. Casewell, Wolfgang Wüster, Freek J. Vonk, Robert A. Harrison, Bryan G. Fry. Complex cocktails: the evolutionary novelty of venoms. Trends in Ecology & Evolution Volume 28, Issue 4, April 2013, Pages 219-229


Old answer:

Venom production is a "hard" adaptation to achieve**. So it is conceivable that simpler organisms had enough evolutionary time to get the adequate mutations for this to happen, which would explain why venom is almost absent (I know only of a platypus as being poisonous) in mammals and birds, and seemingly abundant in fishes, amphibians (such dart frogs) or reptilians.

Also, as I understand there should be great selective pressure and mutation in simpler organisms is more likely to produce viable offspring than in more complex ones, which can be a contributing factor.


It has come to my attention that the answer I gave is not exactly correct. Upon investigating venomous mammals many more came up (not only platypus - male platypus to be more precise), such as vampire bats, solenodons, many types of shrews (thanks @releseabe), moles and even primates (the slow loris , being the possible single candidate)

There are no birds know to be venomous, but some (such as the pitohui, the ifrita and the roufous) can be toxic to eat.

My initial belief that toxicity is hard to achieve (this is hardly my area of expertise, and perhaps I should have refrained from answering something incomplete), does not seem to be really substantiated by literature, where lots of different organisms seem to have developed toxic/venomous adaptations.

Maybe it should be noted that many of these animals have evolved poisonous glands from salivary glands/sudoriferous glands and that they are described as presenting convergent evolution. Another caveat is also that most(all?) poisonous birds have Batrachotoxins that comes from their diet (which they concentrate on their skin and feathers), not something they produce themselves and are not as potent as the ones produced by dart-frogs. In this sense they are maybe less toxic than other animals, and the intensity of this effect may be related to co-evolution of those organisms and their prey/predators.

It's also worth mentioning that the slow loris, while considered venomous, has the poison from its gland that resembles a cat salivary allergen, and maybe would be better described as allergy inducing, rather than a poison, or perhaps cats could be considered venomous (my opinion, hardly worth anything). Another possibility is that the substances used in marking territory are the same and eliciting allergy is an unintended consequence (from the paper: "Rather than possessing a brachial gland like the loris, small cats directly add salivary allergen proteins to inanimate objects (... ) The idea that species recognition systems share a close relationship with immune recognition").

My opinions about toxic and venomous animals changed as I was reviewing this subject and, as I view it now, it is a property that is ubiquitous on many different branches of the tree of life .

Wikipedia link about venomous mammals. it is not very good to reference because people may change it at some point and the information to which I am refering would no longer be there, but it is strongly peer reviewed see here

shamelessly stolen from wikipedia about slow loris venom characterisation Talking Defensively: A Dual Usefor the Brachial Gland Exudate of Slowand Pygmy LorisesLee R. Hagey, Bryan G. Fry, and Helena Fitch-Snyder

pitohui: JP Dumbacher, BM Beehler, TF Spande, HM Garraffo, JW Daly. Homobatrachotoxin in the genus Pitohui: chemical defense in birds?

slow loris paper: Nekaris, K. Anne-Isola, Richard S. Moore, E. Johanna Rode, and Bryan G. Fry. 2013. “Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: The Biochemistry, Ecology and Evolution of Slow Loris Venom.” Journal of Venomous Animals and Toxins Including Tropical Diseases 19 (1): 21. https://doi.org/10.1186/1678-9199-19-21.

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    $\begingroup$ also shrew is a mammal with venom. $\endgroup$
    – releseabe
    Jul 10, 2020 at 4:55

I note that both fish and snakes lack limbs and in fact many venomous and poisonous creatures would be almost helpless without venom/being poisonous to eat or touch. There are cases of poisonous creatures whose sole defense is their coloration advertising their poisonous nature and the poison itself (and of course their are false advertisers); these creatures rely on predators choosing not to eat them, not any kind of active defense at all.

So I suggest lacking limbs and/or being slow and/or being small/fragile favors evolving toxins as a means of self-defense or for killing.


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