Bloats like a pufferfish, stings like a bee

Teh Jen Lee, The New Paper 5 Aug 09;

THINK that Singapore is safe because there are no lions, tigers or bears on the prowl?

Think again.

Though much of the country is developed, there are still pockets of tropical rainforest and coastal areas that are home to wildlife.

And some of these inhabitants can be deadly.

With the help of an expert from the National University of Singapore School of Medicine, Professor P Gopalakrishnakone, we identify Singapore's most deadly.

1 KING COBRA: This is the largest venomous snake in the world, and can kill with a single bite. The adult, which can grow up to 6m long, is uniformly brown above with an greyish-brown belly.

An orange-yellow throat with irregular black markings can be seen when the hood is spread. Found in a wide variety of habitats, especially along streams.

2 SEA SNAKES: They swim with their flat tails. They have no gills so they must rise to the surface for air, but can remain underwater for hours. They can grow up to 2.7m long, and are found mostly in warm coastal waters and near estuaries.

3 BLACK SPITTING COBRA: Though not aggressive by nature, these snakes can accurately spit a powerful neurotoxic venom into the eyes, causing temporary blindness. The bite, however, can be fatal. It preys on rats and frogs, and can grow up to 1.6m long.

Found in forested areas.

What to do to avoid being bitten or stung:

- Wear tall boots when walking in the jungle. Be alert and do not put your hands into holes or your foot into pits. Do not overturn stones or logs.

- Take extra care when walking at night, when most snakes are active.

- If you see a snake, do not go near it but allow it to move away. Snakes bite defensively or when agitated.

What to do if bitten:

Apply a broad and firm tourniquet above the wound. Release it for half a minute every half hour.

- Wipe the wound and cover it with dressing.

- Ask for help and go to the hospital immediately.

4 CONE SNAIL: Unlike most snails, the cone snail is a carnivorous predator. Although the snail moves slowly, it has a harpoon-like appendage with hollow sharp teeth containing venom that can paralyse small fish almost instantly.

The cone snail's bite is similar to a bee sting, but the larger species have been responsible for 15 deaths worldwide. Found in mangroves, rocky areas and areas with sandy bottoms.

What to do if bitten:

- Immobilise and raise the limb.

- Apply tourniquet above the wound, release pressure for one minute every 10 minutes.

- Start cardiopulmonary resuscitation if respiratory paralysis and heart failure set in.

- If patient is in shock, lie patient flat and raise both feet.

- Head to the hospital immediately.

5 STONE FISH: Stone fishes can grow to about 30-40cm long. They have tough dorsal fin spines that can act like hypodermic needles and penetrate thick soled shoes. These inject a neurotoxin venom that can kill.

There have been a few documented cases of deaths in Australia Africa and Japan.

The fishes use their spines in self-defence and not for hunting prey.

Found in tide pools and shallow waters of tropical seas.

What to do to avoid them:

- Shuffle your feet when walking in shallow water to give the fish time to escape.

- Wear rubber boots for protection.

What to do if stung:

- Apply a tourniquet above the site of the sting and raise the affected area.

- Remove any broken spines, clean the wound, encourage bleeding.

- Dipping the affected area in warm water can help relieve the pain.

- Seek medical attention.

6 MALAYAN KRAIT: It has a black body with about 30 white cross-bands. The white bands in adults are speckled with brown. It can grow up to 1.6m long.

Found in lowland forests & moist areas.

- See advice given for snakes above.

7 PUFFERFISH: Many pufferfish are highly poisonous as they harbour tetrodotoxin. This potent toxin may be concentrated in the intestines, reproductive organs or skin. Cooking by any means will not deactivate the toxin.

Found near shore in shallow seas from the Atlantic to the Pacific.


- Those who want to taste pufferfish, or fugu, should do so in Japan's certified restaurants who employ licensed puffer chefs.

- Symptoms of poisoning can appear within 10minutes to three hours of ingestion. Early signs include numbness around the mouth, tiredness, giddiness, headache, nausea, diarrhoea and abdominal pains.

- Induce vomiting if patient is conscious and collect the vomit as it may contain fish remnants which would be important for identification.

- Seek medical attention.

8 BLUE-RINGED OCTOPUS: Blue-ringed octopus are not aggressive and tend to avoid confrontation. When the threat is unavoidable, it ejects a neuromuscular venom that causes paralysis. It has caused at least one death in Singapore.

Found in shallow reefs, in coral rock pools and in tidal pools ranging.


- Victims can be saved if artificial respiration begins quickly. But there is no known antidote and the only treatment is ongoing artificial respiration until the poison dissipates (usually in 24 hours).

- Symptoms include nausea, vision loss and blindness, loss of senses, loss of motor skills, respiratory arrest.

9 HORNETS: Unlike bees, which can only sting once before they die, hornets can sting multiple times.

The venom from the sting causes the victim's tissues to release histamines which can cause death.

Three species in Singapore. Two of them build their nests on trees, while the third builds nests inside enclosed spaces and old buildings.


- Do not disturb any nests.

- When in vegetated areas, do not wear bright colours or perfumes as this will attract the insects.

- If you encounter hornets, do not swat. Retreat as fast as possible, into a pool of water or an enclosure if this is available. If not possible, lie face down and cover head with arms.

See a doctor if you are stung.

10 POISONOUS CRABS: Their toxins cannot be destroyed by cooking, and are extremely potent. The toxins are in the flesh and cannot be transmitted if one is pinched by the claws.


- Most of poisonous crabs have very bright warning colours, and it is good practice to avoid eating them.

- Any food coming into contact with toxic crabs should be discarded.

# Prof Gopalakrishnakone, who has been researching dangerous animals for over 25 years, will be giving a talk at the Science Centre on Thursday at 7pm on some of these animals.

Admission is free, please e-mail to register.