Building Beyond: Toxicity

• 9 min read

Pick your poison.

Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.


Half of all animals on earth are venomous now. The other half of all animals are toxic.


Laura Kojima is a Master’s student at the University of Georgia and her research is focused on alligator ecotoxicology and movement behavior at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. She is studying the frequency with which alligators on the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site move on and off the site to public hunting grounds and whether this puts hunters at risk of harvesting alligators that contain high contaminant body burdens, particularly mercury. In addition, she is assessing the relationship between environmental conditions, contaminant body burden levels, and alligator movement behavior to look at the effects of neurotoxic contaminants on alligator movement ecology.

Gailey: Which half of the animal kingdom is venomous, and which is toxic?

Background: A toxic/poisonous organism is an organism that possesses toxins within its tissue that can have negative effects on a predator when ingested. In contrast, a venomous organism can produce a toxin in specialized glands or cells and can deliver this venom by biting, stinging, or spitting. Toxic/poisonous animals tend to be toxic as a form of population predator defense. If one toxic individual in the population is consumed, a predator will likely avoid eating that prey item (and prey items like it) again. Whereas venomous animals not only can use their venom to ward off and defeat a predator, but it works to their advantage when the animal is also a predator and wants to subdue their prey.

So, in this case evolution has worked on hyperdrive. Makes sense, animals are under more threat than ever with a rise in anthropogenic activity and interference, they need to protect themselves and ensure they have accessibility to resources to survive. Therefore, the animal kingdom experiences a shift where half the animals become toxic (i.e. poisonous) and the other half venomous.

Toxic Venomous
Generalists Specialists
Primarily plant eaters (herbivores and omnivores) Primarily meat eaters (carnivores)

Generalist animals can live in a wide variety of environments and typically feast on a wide variety of foods. In many cases they are also primarily plant eaters, getting their nutrition from a wide range of food items. Generalists who are herbivores and omnivores are successful at thriving in a variety of environments, however they tend to be lower on the food chain thus making them susceptible to predation. And because they can thrive in most places, they are practically predator popcorn when their populations are abundant. Therefore they would be the toxic animals because the necessity of defense would be much higher and more beneficial compared to their specialist carnivorous counterparts.

Specialist species, in contrast, are more particular than their generalist counterparts in respect to having specific habitat needs and specific prey needs. Ultimately these species have evolved to fit a very specific niche which can be problematic when environmental disruptions occur. Therefore, they not only need any defense they can get, but they would also require an advantage to secure a prey item. On top of that, a carnivorous animal would benefit from venom to ensure the capture of their prey if the prey is properly envenomated.

Gailey: How does this change the way we interact with animals?

Like most natural resources, humans like to find use in animals. Whether it is for a food product, an attraction, or even as a companion. If the animals became both poisonous and venomous this would drastically change the dynamic between humans and animals, particularly because the attraction toward animals would shift. Overall, humans would be wary of animals. Just because an animal is poisonous doesn’t mean it is only toxic when it is eaten. Some poisonous animals secrete their toxin and can poison a potential predator from even a touch. It is a natural reaction to want to avoid venomous animals. Humans also prefer eating organisms at lower trophic levels; it provides more energy to us and is overall healthier. However, if an organism is toxic that will not be plausible unless scientists begin directing efforts towards counteracting toxins. A more worthwhile effort for humans would be cultivating a vegan and/or vegetarian diet, given that eggs do not retain toxins from maternal off-loading.

Gailey: What does this do to the environment?

Because humans are driven by use and necessity this can either end up very positively for wildlife as humans begin to keep their distance and respect wildlife from afar. Or it can become a negative where humans feel threatened by animals and feel the need to control populations and limit any intrusion to urban areas.

If humans cannot cope with a plant-based diet, this shift in animals developing toxins can be detrimental as humans look for alternatives for food. Factory made food products or the exploitation of agricultural land to produce high protein produce can occur, causing severe damage to the ozone and to natural landscapes. The production of farmed produce can be done correctly but given a high human population density this can be problematic when people want food now, rather than seasonally. Furthermore, the implications for developing countries that rely on the consumption of what would become poisonous animals can be super consequential if alternatives are not produced.

Ultimately, this could be a positive for the environment if humans work with the goal of sustainable harvest. People could learn to harvest their own food rather than relying on mass commercial production and we can coexist with nature in a way that allows us to not interfere with them or put them at risk with direct contact since the goal would be to avoid animals going forward. Humans may lose their appreciation for fauna in the natural world, but a new appreciation for the flora and the natural beauty besides mobile organisms would grow.


Viola E. Helmers is a 26-year-old writing enthusiast and PhD student from the Ruhrgebiet in Germany. She has dabbled in a few literary endeavors like storytelling, theater, and short story writing, but has not gotten to share her favorite art form, slam poetry, for more than a year now. This is, admittedly, a bit of a drag because she only writes with looming deadlines. Other than that her hobbies are cooking new favorite recipes until she hates them, and thinking about what she would like to write while never getting around to any of it.

Imogen and Me

Endless plains. And on them, herds of cows, galloping away. The rainforest is visible as an emerald band on the horizon, and the drone soars higher, the seam of the forest expanding into the picture. The deep and shallow greens of the trees are mesmerizing, slowly filling most of the frame. A bright red line appears. “And here, in Bahia state, Brazil, only 25 years later, nature has regained space. But not just here, the rainforests in the Congo, India, Australia, all over the world have experienced miraculous growth…..”

The microwave pings. Groaning, I heft myself off of the couch. Very un-majestically, I limp over to the microwave, which sits on a little wobbly stand next to the shelf of stock-piled dry goods, and push the button. A hearty-smelling, but not unpleasant cloud of hot air wafts up. Chili con mushroom, an ancient recipe, passed down through generations.

Well.

Two generations.

It used to be Chili con Carne, in 2036, and had to evolve. Along with everything else.

*

My grandfather’s friend Ezra once told me, chuckling quite inappropriately, that there had been a betting pool on celebrity and politician deaths back then. When news finally got out, about what it was that was making so many people sick, the prevalence of denial was almost more shocking. There was, paradoxically, a short-lived but explosive up-tick in all meat sales afterward, as everyone who was already wary of authority - and most likely already quite sick - doubled down hard. A number of people even documented their “search for truth,” weighing every pound, sighing with every bite of steak, their eyes becoming a little more bloodshot every day. They were all dead within three weeks.

Ezra showed me the videos back then, commenting in depth on the way the vertebrate Harkett36-enzyme degraded body tissue. He knew all the little details, pointing out snot colors and signs of bloody vomit. I was 10 at the time.

Needless to say, Grandpa never invited Ezra back. But the images stayed.

*

Instead of on those memories, I try to focus on balancing my bowl back to the TV, now playing my favorite part: European mixed forests.

“... and if one listens very closely, one can hear the trees whispering to each other. Meddling leaves, chatting, communing.”

I’ve always had a thing for forests, and those drone shots draw me in, every single time. They were taken not even 100 kilometers away, in a beautiful mixed forest sprawled over the hills. Once, I borrowed a car to go there. I wanted to walk around in it, feel the bark. But the shitty ventilator system in the rented suit didn’t even last until I was outside of the parking lot. That night in bed, I cried. The way I hadn’t cried ever since childhood. The way one only cries over broken dreams

*

A few weeks later, in a fit of desperation in the middle of my walk home from work, I had thrown off my shoes and spread my toes over the grass. It was heavenly. Until it wasn’t.

As if on cue, my itching leg reminds me of what came after. I grab the tube of ointment from the coffee table, hoist the leg up next to me, and get to work.

Under the bandage, I uncover more of an aubergine than a leg. Swollen and blueish-purple around a bright red puncture wound, oozing some sort of pus. While dabbing that off, disinfecting, and applying a new layer of cream, I grimly ponder the wonder of bee venom. It's one of the worst out there, even if you, like me, are lucky enough to get rushed to a hospital and injected with antivenom right away. Insects, out of all invertebrates, really have made the most out of their newfound gift. Even an ant can give you a nasty, oozing rash that lasts for weeks.

But hey, at least we can still eat them. Invertebrates might be a hassle to harvest now, but they make up half the mass of animals on earth, and as such, are as good a protein source as any. Now that we don't have the chickens anymore.

*

With a freshly wrapped leg and the itch toned down to a soft throbbing, I turn back to the TV, just in time for the grand finale.

"Nature, in its neverending creativity, has made the best possible use of this unprecedented situation. It has reconquered marshes, plains, and mountaintops." The camera pans over each achingly beautiful landscape, alongside Imogen Attenborough's soothing descriptions. "The Harrod-catastrophe of '36 is something humanity will not soon forget,” Attenborough says mournfully. “As fruitful and healing as it has been for nature, as devastating and sorrowful it has been for us. And we are now beginning to understand, once and for all, that nature is not only a well to be exploited, but as vital for a joyful existence as water to drink, and food to eat.

And one wonders if we will ever be able to reclaim this life that we have lost."

*

Credits roll.

One has to admit, I think, that this is kind of deserved.

Abuse Earth's ecosystems long enough, and it will find a way to strike back. Or, in this case, mutate aggressively enough to produce not one, but two biological defenses so effective it wipes out half of humanity in a year, and another quarter in the 5 years after.

*

We've adapted too, sure. Built houses with powerful filtering systems, straining out even the smallest insects. Restricted ourselves to a plant-based diet, reinvented medications. Developed mesh suits so light-weight you can't even feel them when you walk. But we've blown our chance of living with this planet instead of just on it, through arrogance and ignorance. And we're not even close to figuring out if there's any chance of reintegration, even after 40 years.

How does one say, so accurately?

We fucked around, and found out.


Both of these possibilities are just beginnings. Laura's world of dangerous fauna opens up a brilliant avenue for exploring multiple possible outcomes depending on how humans respond to a change in their surroundings. Viola's bunker is a lovely and intimate examination of how that change would impact people on an individual level, and how much isolation from nature can harm the psyche.

How would your world cope with the sudden shift in the animal kingdom? How would the animals adapt?

Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.

That’s amazing.


No matter what you do, please find ways to support Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, support Black people and communities, and participate in local mutual aid.

In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.

—Gailey

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