The snake of paralysing beauty

By Karl Gruber 3 November 2016
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The blue coral snake can shock every nerve in your body with a single bite. A new study reveals how its venom works, and could lead to new pain management treatment.

If you are ever hiking through the forests of Thailand or Malaysia you might get lucky and come across a snake with electric blue stripes and a neon red head, tail and belly.

The blue coral snake (Calliophis bivirgatus) is a rare species native to South-East Asia and a major attraction for reptile enthusiasts and nature photographers from around the world.

This species is also of interest to researchers of the evolution of venom systems – it has one of the world’s largest venom glands, extending over a quarter of the snake’s body length and a rare and very effective paralysing venom, used to prey on other snakes.

“Their blazingly fast venom does not kill immediately,” explained Dr Bryan Fry, a biochemist and molecular biologist from the University of Queensland. “Instead, it turns on all the nerves of their fast-moving prey – who are also potential predators – at one time, almost instantly resulting in a frozen state.” 

Now, a new study published in the journal Toxins reveals how the venom of this rare snake, dubbed the ‘killer of killers’, works.

blue coral snake
A dissected blue coral snake (Calliophis bivirgatus) as a preserved specimen from the Raffles Museum in Singapore. Image credit: Bryan Fry

“We examined the venom using a battery of assays, from neuromuscular tissue preparations through to high-tech robotics using isolated nerve channels,” said Bryan, who is a co-author on the new paper.

“The mechanism of action was thus determined to be the same as that of cone snail and scorpion venoms. This was the first time such an action had ever been shown for a snake venom,” he said.

The results of these analyses revealed that the venom of the blue coral snake works by preventing nerves from turning off their sodium channels, keeping the nerves firing continuously.

One important implication of this new findings concerns the potential of designing new painkillers, said Bryan.

“Venoms with this kind of action are actually incredibly painful because the sodium channel sends a message to the brain for pain,” he said. “By learning what turns it on, we immediately learn a lot more on how to turn it off.”