Biophysics of snakebites: How do venomous snakes inject venom into victim’s wound?

Like a drop on a wine glass, a snake venom "tear" runs down the groove of the fang. The surface tension acting on the venom is the dominant physical force underlying envenomation. And venom is a non-Newtonian fluid. It sticks when necessary while waiting for prey, whereas any break in the prey's skin acts as a venom attractant and soaks the venom into the deeper tissues. (Credit: Bruce A. Young, University of Massachusetts, Lowell)

Most snakes do not inject venom into their victims bodies using hollow fangs, contrary to common misconceptions. The fact is that most snakes and many other venomous reptiles have no hollow fangs. Physicists have now uncovered the tricks these animals use to force their venom under the skin of their victims.

For years Professor Leo von Hemmen, a biophysicist at the TU Muenchen, and Professor Bruce Young, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, have been researching the sense of hearing in snakes. While discussing the toxicity of their snakes, it dawned on them that only few snakes inject their venom into their victims’ bodies using hollow fangs. Yet, even though the vast majority of venomous reptiles lack hollow fangs, they are effective predators.

Only around one seventh of all venomous snakes, like the rattlesnake, rely on the trick with the hollow fang. The vast majority has developed another system. A typical representative of this class is the mangrove pit viper, Boiga dendrophila. Using its twin fangs, it punches holes into the skin of its victims. The venom flows into the wound between the teeth and the tissue. But there is an even easier way: many fangs simply have a groove the venom flows along to enter the wound.

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