When one thinks about venomous or poisonous animals, one’s mind generally turns first and foremost to snakes. Although I have never, fortunately, come across any snakes while walking around the Maltese countryside, there are locally at least four types of snakes slithering and living in Malta and Gozo. Although any of these might cause one to jump in fright if spotted, rest assured that they cannot harm anyone, as none of them are actually venomous. Although, the indigenous Cat Snake does in fact have poisonous fangs, which are set well-back in its mouth, but the poison only works on rats and mice, since it’s too weak to harm larger mammals.
On the other hand, the fact that our local snakes are not venomous doesn’t mean that there aren’t any poisonous creatures on the Maltese Islands. In fact, there are at least six well-known animals which could be dangerous to humans due to their virulent or baleful nature, not including a number of poisonous fish as well.
Jellyfish (Bram) – More than 200 different types of jellyfish have been documented. Most of these, although poisonous, are only mildly so, generally causing swelling, irritation, stinging, and inflammation around the bitten spot. This is surely the case with the so-called Mauve Jellyfish, which is the type of jellyfish most common around the Maltese Islands. If stung by a jellyfish, remember to first wash the area with seawater, remove the tentacles or stings, and then immerse the area stung in warm or hot water. Rinsing it with vinegar or baking soda also helps. It’s important to get treatment immediately as, though not deadly, most stings can lead to infection and fever.
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The Bearded Bristleworm/Fireworm (Busuf) – This marine creature looks very much like a hairy centipede. This common seabed-dwelling organism lives on rocky bottoms and coastal environments. It’s pretty easy to spot one since it’s bright red in colour. The bristles on its body contain a venom which is transmitted to any person who touches it. The hairs or bristles stick to the skin and start to cause itching. One should never rub the affected area, as this would prod the venom even deeper into the skin. If stung, first wash the area in warm water and then in icy water. I once saw a fireworm while swimming at Wied iż-Żurrieq, but fortunately was quick enough to get out of its path.
The Mediterranean Recluse/Convict Spider – There are about 160 recorded species of spiders on the Maltese Islands. Although all are weakly venomous, only one species has been known to be of danger to humans. The Recluse or Convict spider, which is just a centimetre long, generally lives in the countryside but is also known to wander into buildings. These small brown spiders generally don’t affect humans lethally, however, their bite can lead to fever, fatigue, irritation, and permanent scarring of the stung area.
The Maltese Scorpion (Skorpjun/Għakreb) – Living mostly under stones in dark, damp places, scorpions can be found both in the countryside as well as within inhabited buildings. Scorpions, like spiders, are arachnids, but ones sporting relatively large segmented claws, and a segmented tail that is often arched over their back. The tip of the tail delivers the scorpion’s venomous sting. Generally, scorpions feed on small animals, especially insects. However, although there are 25 species of scorpions around the world that are known to be lethal to humans, the Maltese Scorpion is not one of them, as its poison is relatively weak.
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The Maltese Honey Bee (In-Naħla Maltija) – Although mostly dangerous to those who are allergic, one must also keep in mind that the sting of a bee generally contains a high number of different chemicals which could react in a venomous way, depending on the person and their medical condition. Since bees have a hive-mind, meaning that when angry or irritated, they react instantaneously and all together, you’ll probably not be facing only one bee-sting, but many. The best thing is simply to steer clear of hives.
The Blister Beetle (Dliela Żejtnija) – Also known as an Oil Beetle, this insect is normally found in humid areas. It feeds on vegetation and is quite big when compared to other indigenous local beetles, reaching 21–30mm in length. This beetle contains a toxic chemical called cantharidin which is highly poisonous when ingested and causes blisters if it comes in contact with skin. Therefore, one must be on constant guard with pets or young children who might put these beetles in their mouths. One must also keep in mind that there are at least nine other poisonous species of beetles belonging to the same family as the Blister Beetle on the Maltese Islands.
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