How to avoid Mother Nature’s deadly defenses
Nature is unquestionably beautiful. From luscious forests to flowing streams to abundant and diverse wildlife, the outdoors offers majestic and breathtaking vistas. However, underneath the seemingly endless facade of colors, scents and panoramic views lies a dark side.
Nature doesn’t exist solely for humans’ pleasure. The natives found in any environment have a tri-part objective: to survive, thrive and replicate. To accomplish this, Mother Nature has endowed many of her denizens with the means to do so in the form of venom, poisons and other toxic substances. To the uneducated, these dangers are either well-hidden or totally unknown, which creates potential problems for hikers, hunters, anglers or any outdoorsperson.
Dangers await unsuspecting victims, but there are ways to avoid them, and there are steps to take if you become afflicted by one of nature’s toxic elements.
No matter what environment you choose to explore, the odds that you’ll encounter venomous or poisonous animals are better than average. But first, what’s the difference? Thought to be interchangeable by most, the terms “venomous” and “poisonous” have distinctly different meanings. A venomous animal delivers its toxins using specialized body features. The venom glands and fangs of a snake, or the pincers or stingers of insects, are two examples. In this case, eating a venomous snake’s meat (which, by the way, is very lean and full of protein) won’t cause you to get sick or suffer from any other toxic symptoms. A poisonous animal, on the other hand, is characterized by having deadly toxins flowing throughout its entire body. Eating its meat or even touching its outer surface can cause you to become violently sick or worse.
Venomous snakes can be found throughout the world and aren’t always easy to spot. Like most other snakes, they often blend into their surroundings and attack when startled or disturbed. They can also appear in your campsite and nestle into your gear or sleeping bag.
A direct strike from a venomous snake can have diverse affects upon a human depending upon the species. From pain at the bite site to nausea and vomiting to extreme symptoms such as numbness of the face and
limbs and drop in blood pressure, snakebite must be tended to quickly. If not, severe, lifechanging results may occur.
The cane toad, a poisonous amphibian found throughout North and South America, secretes milky venom through its skin. Anything that bites or touches it will succumb to its harmful toxins. Avoid brightly colored amphibians; their color usually indicates that they’re dangerous to touch, let alone eat, due to toxins found within their outer skin.
Other animals dangerous to man include the platypus (found in Australia and neighboring regions) and the puffer fish (located in warm waters throughout the world). A puncture from a platypus’ spur causes excruciating pain, yet is rarely fatal, while the puffer fish has enough toxins to easily kill an adult human.
Insects, bugs, creepy crawlies, whatever you call them not only can be a nuisance, but also a hazard to your overall health. Although technically in different scientific categories, for the sake of keeping it simple and familiar to most people, insects, spiders, scorpions and centipedes will all be grouped together as “bugs.”
Although there are thousands of spider species in North America, only about four are considered incredibly dangerous to humans, but even then, deaths are rare. The recluse and widow varieties are two spider groups that you should always avoid. The bite, or more specifically the venom, of a black widow is widely known to cause searing, intense pain. A black widow’s neurotoxin is up to 15 times greater than a rattlesnake’s, and attacks an unlucky victim’s nervous system, causing nausea, vomiting, headaches
and hypertension. The brown recluse, on the other hand, destroys tissue and causes cutaneous injuries. Both bites can be treated with antivenin to counteract the venom.
When hunger strikes, bugs can be a source of protein (in fact, pound for pound, insects offer more protein than red meat). However, there are a few guidelines to follow to avoid a nasty reaction from eating the wrong type of bug. Hairy or brightly colored bugs should be ignored. Like amphibians, their colors warn that they shouldn’t be consumed. Eating such an organism may cause minor symptoms like nausea, vomiting and stomach cramps.
Also, avoid ticks, moths, flies and mosquitoes. They may not directly affect you with toxins, but they might be carriers for many diseases that can take you out of the fight fast and sometimes permanently. Diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, Zika virus and encephalitis are a few mosquitotransmitted diseases. Due to their size compared to humans, most poisonous insects do little harm if ingested, but if you’re alone in the wild, you don’t need added stress or irritating ailments slowing you down.
“Avoid brightly colored amphibians; their color usually indicates that they’re dangerous to touch, let alone eat ...”
Vegetation falls into two distinct categories when discussing toxins and how they affect the human body. The first category is the danger of ingesting a poisonous plant, and the other is your body’s reaction to touching, holding or even brushing up against a poisonous plant’s stem, leaves or flowers.
Hunger can make people do things they normally wouldn’t, and vigorously eating plant material as if it’s a crisp salad may initially seem OK. While some forest greens are safe to consume, eating one or two poisonous varieties in your mix could be highly detrimental, causing various
dangerous symptoms including cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches and hallucinations. More serious symptoms include depressed heartbeat and respiration, unconsciousness, coma and even death.
Identifying such plants isn’t easy and requires much study and field experience. If you’re not 100% sure, don’t take chances! Additionally, when you spot wild mushrooms for a possible meal, keep walking. Mushrooms can be incredibly poisonous and are extremely difficult to identify, so unless you’re carrying a guide or are an expert, don’t eat wild mushrooms.
As a form of self-defense, some plant contact can cause your skin to blush, itch unbearably and burn as if on fire. Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac are examples of these incredibly irritating toxic plants. Their oils, if not washed out of your clothes, can remain active for years, causing future outbreaks when you least expect them. The stinging nettle, commonly found throughout North America, uses tiny hypodermicneedle-like hairs along its stem and leaves to transmit its chemicals into your skin, causing a very distinct and painful burning sensation. It’s very important to cover bare skin while trekking through thick vegetation. Even though you may be able to identify these toxic plants on their own, when they’re intertwined with vines, low-hanging tree branches or thick grasses, they become virtually invisible.
Dehydration is a top concern for outdoorspeople. Carry your own water supply as your first line of defense when fighting thirst. However, your stock can never be limitless. Abnormally high temperatures, unexpected traveling companions or unforeseen accidents can cause your supply to dwindle quickly. When supplies run low, a human’s natural instinct is to turn to nature’s sources: lakes, rivers and streams.
Crisp, fresh-looking running water should be thirst-quenching and safe to drink, correct? Wrong! Although you cannot physically see the harmful components in an outdoor water source, they are there and ready to transform your outing into a gastronomic nightmare. Microorganisms, viruses, fungi and bacteria all can be present in flowing water that looks safe to drink. Flowing doesn’t equal fresh. A dead animal carcass could be located just upstream, allowing decaying materials to flow into your waiting drinking bottle. Fecal matter from animals, unseen by you, could also be scattered nearby, contaminating the water and causing you to ingest harmful bacteria.
Microorganisms can wreak havoc on your gastrointestinal system, causing diarrhea, vomiting, high fever and abdominal pain. Losing fluid will further dehydrate you,
“While some forest greens are safe to consume, eating one or two poisonous varieties in your mix could be highly detrimental …”
creating a vicious cycle that, if left untreated, could cause full organ shutdown and ultimately death. From cholera and E. coli to cyclosporiasis and giardiasis to hepatitis A and poliomyelitis, the list of waterborne pathogens is long.
The simplest way to avoid being affected by tainted water is to boil it. A rolling boil maintained for five minutes will kill harmful pathogens and allow you to sip safely. Filtering straws, purification tablets and ultraviolet light devices can be carried and used for water purification, too. Remember, only when you’re facing certain death from dehydration should you even consider drinking untreated water. All other times, purify it.
Know Some Basics
Not everyone who ventures into the backcountry is an expert on survival, edible plants or animal identification. The weekend warrior, the family out on a camping trip or schoolchildren on a field trip all can contact unseen toxins. But, with some basic knowledge of both your surroundings and some what-if scenario precautions, you can enjoy the outdoors less fearfully.
(top) Poisonous mushrooms can cause severe harm if ingested. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramps will take you out of action until the irritant is expelled.
(right) Puffer fish, to put it lightly, are extremely poisonous, containing enough toxin to kill 30 adult humans, and there is no known antidote.
(opposite) Cane toads (named because they were used to eradicate pests from sugarcane fields) secrete a milky white toxin in their skin used to defend against predators. PHOTOS BY BIGSTOCK
(above) Rhubarb is delicious if you only eat the stems. The large green leaves contain poison that could cause a burning sensation in your mouth, eye pain, nausea, stomach pain and vomiting; however, death is extremely rare. (opposite, top) Brightly colored furry insects should be avoided at all costs. Their unique appearance is a warning sign that you and any other predators should stay away. (opposite, below) Walking through the woods can startle snakes resting in the sun. Exposed ankles are prime spots for toxic snakebites. PHOTOS BY BIGSTOCK