Poisons, Toxungens, and Venoms: Redefining and Classifying Toxic Biological Secretions and the Organisms That Employ Them

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2014 May;89(2):450-65. doi: 10.1111/brv.12062. Epub 2013 Sep 17.


Despite extensive study of poisonous and venomous organisms and the toxins they produce, a review of the literature reveals inconsistency and ambiguity in the definitions of 'poison' and 'venom'. These two terms are frequently conflated with one another, and with the more general term, 'toxin.' We therefore clarify distinctions among three major classes of toxins (biological, environmental, and anthropogenic or man-made), evaluate prior definitions of venom which differentiate it from poison, and propose more rigorous definitions for poison and venom based on differences in mechanism of delivery. We also introduce a new term, 'toxungen', thereby partitioning toxic biological secretions into three categories: poisons lacking a delivery mechanism, i.e. ingested, inhaled, or absorbed across the body surface; toxungens delivered to the body surface without an accompanying wound; and venoms, delivered to internal tissues via creation of a wound. We further propose a system to classify toxic organisms with respect to delivery mechanism (absent versus present), source (autogenous versus heterogenous), and storage of toxins (aglandular versus glandular). As examples, a frog that acquires toxins from its diet, stores the secretion within cutaneous glands, and transfers the secretion upon contact or ingestion would be heteroglandular-poisonous; an ant that produces its own toxins, stores the secretion in a gland, and sprays it for defence would be autoglandular-toxungenous; and an anemone that produces its own toxins within specialized cells that deliver the secretion via a penetrating wound would be autoaglandular-venomous. Adoption of our scheme should benefit our understanding of both proximate and ultimate causes in the evolution of these toxins.

Keywords: classification; definition; poison; toxin; toxungen; venom.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Poisons / chemistry*
  • Poisons / classification
  • Poisons / metabolism
  • Poisons / toxicity*
  • Terminology as Topic
  • Toxins, Biological / chemistry*
  • Toxins, Biological / classification
  • Toxins, Biological / metabolism
  • Venoms / chemistry*
  • Venoms / classification
  • Venoms / metabolism
  • Venoms / toxicity*


  • Poisons
  • Toxins, Biological
  • Venoms