The Russell’s Viper is one of the deadliest snakes in all of Asia because it can give your blood the consistency of ketchup.
Take a look at the video below, and then stick around for the science.
As you can see, just a drop of Russel’s viper venom (RVV) can turn a whole cup of blood into Jello. If you get bit, you won’t exactly have this paste running through your veins, but the process can definitely kill you.
The fangs puncture your skin, the venom is squeezed from highly evolved glands in the snake’s head, and your blood immediately begins to clot. As the video above shows so clearly, RVV has incredible coagulating properties, or the ability to get your blood to stick together and form clots. This clotting process happens in your body naturally too, but RVV causes a widespread clotting, which your body has to deal with.
To trigger such clotting, RVV reacts with a protein in your blood called Factor X, which then reacts with other proteins in a coagulation cascade. Sometimes your blood does need to coagulate, but RVV doesn’t care. It reacts with more and more proteins until fibrin—an elastic and gummy protein–is created in spades, inducing the clotting you see in the video.
But the body has a response to this attack. When there is too much fibrin in the blood, the body releases another set of proteins called fibrinogen degradation products, which, as you may have guessed, degrade the excess fibrin.
Unfortunately for you, the snake’s evolution accounted for this contingency. Its venom creates so much fibrin in the blood that your kidneys get blocked with the stuff, causing kidney failure. Your blood begins to fill up with all the stuff the kidneys would normally filter out. Urea builds up in the blood. It contains nitrogen, the basis of ammonia, which too builds up in the blood to toxic levels. Without dialysis—using an artificial filter in place of your kidneys—kidney failure is typically fatal. In one study of RV patients in Asia, 30% of them had their kidneys fail. And even if your kidneys fail and you receive dialysis, that is no guaranty that you will live. In another group of 45 patients with blocked kidneys who got the treatment, 14 of them died.
The net effect of being bit is for the blood to become incoaguable. the blood on the left is normal and has formed a clot, and the blood on the right is incoaguable and will not clot.
But the snake’s venom is more sinister than just causing a failed kidney or two. The evolutionary arms race between the snake and its prey counted on a response to widespread clotting, and your body falls for it. Your body has to release so many fibrinogen degradation products in response to the RVV that your blood can no longer clot afterwards; it is incoaguable.
As your body tries to fight off the sudden coagulation cascade, it inadvertently makes your blood unable to clot, meaning that any cut or bite will bleed profusely and continuously. The evolution of the Russell’s viper’s venom has taken millions of years to be able to so cleverly destroy you, but you only have a few hours (or days if you are lucky) to react.
So what you see in the video above is certainly dramatic, but it is only the first step in the deadly process. Your body resists the Jello effect seen in the video, but in turn creates a serious problem if you happen to be bleeding (and the venom can cause systemic internal bleeding itself).
The viral video above shows a deadly bit of science, but like the snake who sheds its skin, there’s always more underneath.