When we think of poisonous things, our mind goes to the Amazon where something multicoloured and deadly lurks behind every leaf. However even in boring, urban Singapore, many poisonous creatures can be found in your neighbourhood.
SLITHERING IN SINGAPORE
Singapore is home to both the king cobra and the black spitting cobra, which makes for double trouble if you’re in forested areas. As befits its name, the king cobra can grow to a length of 6m, and kill with a single venomous bite. While much smaller (up to 1.6m), the black spitting cobra can attack from a distance of up to 1.5m by shooting neurotoxic venom into your eyes, causing temporary blindness.
Paradise tree snake
Now this snake should have been on a plane. This colourful climber loves to hang around the tops of coconut trees (watch out coconut pickers). Growing up to 1.2m in length, it mainly hunts small arboreal lizards by paralysing them with its weak venom.
Most significantly, when it wants to go somewhere in a hurry, it can “fly” by gliding through the air from tree to tree – by flattening its stomach to increase air resistance. Although this reptile’s distance is amazing (up to 100m), it still crash lands when it reaches a branch, the ground, or a coconut picker’s face.
How to avoid a snake bite: Wear high boots when in the jungle, be careful at night when snakes are out, and don’t disturb logs and pits. And beware of flying snakes.
UNDER THE SEA
Speed be damned, this snail sniper harpoons its prey and swallows them whole. You might have seen their pretty conical shells along the beach, but don’t be fooled, their occupants are expert hunters. Slowly but surely they sniff out prey with their breathing tubes before launching a barbed “harpoon” into them. The poison in the hollow points paralyses fish, allowing the mollusc to slowly gobble them up.
For humans, while the sting of smaller species (around 10 cm long) may feel more like a bee sting, an encounter with larger species (around 15 cm long) can prove fatal.
How to avoid: be careful around mangroves, rocky areas, and places with sandy bottoms.
Mosaic reef crab
Image: Ria Tan
Normal chilli crab may kill your taste buds, but trying to eat this crab will kill you, period. The most poisonous crab in Singapore, the beautiful mosaic reef crab has flesh with toxins as strong as those of a pufferfish – even cooking doesn’t make it safe. The 8-10cm wide crab is believed to acquire its deadly body thanks to the stuff it eats, including a kind of poisonous sea cucumber.
Keluak Black Nut
Image: Jonathan Lin
This savoury black nut is the highlight of the Peranakan Ayam Buak Keluak dish, and is loved for its dark tender flesh. Less well-known is its highly poisonous nature: when raw it’s extremely toxic, containing a natural compound that can be converted into cyanide.
Other than death, consuming small quantities of cyanide can lead to physical weakness, confusion, headaches, and seizures. Thus before the seeds can be eaten, they are first soaked, boiled and buried in ash to flush out the water-soluble poison.
How to play safe: Soak the nuts you get from the market in a large tub of water for at least 4-5 days, changing the water twice a day. This helps get rid of any poison that’s left, besides removing the taste of mud and weakening the shells for easier dining.
Lesser Brown Scorpion
This nocturnal arachnid hunts with large pincers and a stinging tail it can jab repeatedly into its prey, such as spiders, millipedes and even small rodents. In humans the sting produces pain and swelling.
A strange feature of this small (up to 5 cm) but dangerous creature: it’s also glow-in-the-dark. When UV light is shone on it, a part of its shell called the hyaline layer reacts and gives off blue light. Even scorpion fossils from millions of years ago retain that glow under UV.
Yellow Sac Spider
Image: Richard Bartz
Despite its miniscule size (about 6mm), this arachnid’s strong jaws pierce human skin fairly easily and can feel as sharp as a bee sting. Its venom is mildly toxic, leading to redness, swelling and itching, and even small lesions in rare cases.
How to avoid: Shake your clothes before wearing them.
Flying snakes, killer snails, poison crabs and “cyanide” stew – as unnerving as all these are, there’s something cool about them that can make a person proud to be in Singapore.
By Vincent Tan