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Venomous Snakebites – My Experiences and Notes on Well-Known Victims

Indian CobraTV personality Mark O’Shea’s recent King Cobra bite brought to mind the many experiences I’ve had as a snakebite responder for the Bronx Zoo.  Mr. O’Shea survived, but venomous snakes claim a surprising number of lives worldwide (4.5 million bites, possibly 100,000 deaths; please see article below).  Some bites, as you’ll see, occur in a most unlikely place –New York City!  As is fitting for my fair city, few were “routine” – guns, odd characters, suicides, and drug dealers all made appearances.

Zoos and Snakebite Emergencies

The Bronx Zoo cooperates with health authorities in the treatment of venomous snakebites.  Antivenin is typically stored at the zoo, not in hospitals.  A doctor called upon to treat a bite might not be able to identify the snake involved, and hence would be unable to administer the correct antivenin.  In the event of a bite, Bronx Zoo reptile keepers and other staff are summoned by zoo security, a hospital, or the NYPD. Usually, NYPD transports us to the hospital. Read More »

Venomous Snakebite – a New Study, and my own Experiences

Viper FangsAs a career herpetologist, I’ve had several opportunities to study venomous snakes in the field, and have spoken with many people who live in areas where they are common.  My experiences led me to believe that venomous snakebite is a far more serious problem than is typically reported.  Recently, two important studies have established that at least 4.5 million people are bitten annually – 1.5 million in Sub-Saharan Africa alone.  Yet snakebite was only recently included on the World Health Organization’s list of Neglected Tropical Conditions, and in many countries few victims receive appropriate treatment.


The most intensive study to date, published in the journal Toxicon (V.57, N.4; see abstract below), reviewed 40 years’ worth of African medical reports and surveys. The authors concluded that at least 1.5 million people, 95% of whom live in rural regions, are bitten in Sub-Saharan Africa annually.  At least 7,000 people die as a result, and up to 14,000 require limb amputations.  Antivenin, the most effective snakebite treatment, is administered to only 10% of those bitten in Africa. Read More »

Recent Field Research – Unusual Snake and Frog Feeding Observations

Many interesting field research reports are published in professional journals such as Copeia, Herpetologica and Herpetological Review, and are not available on the internet.  From time to time I’ll provide summaries of some of the fascinating articles that I come across.  Today’s report, drawn from Autumn, 2010 publications, covers a favorite topic of mine – feeding records.  As theses reports show, snakes and frogs often do battle – and the results are hard to predict!

Fer-de-lance and Smoky Jungle Frogs: Venom vs. Poison

In Costa Rica, a Fer-de-lance partially swallowed and regurgitated a Smoky Jungle Frog.  The snake was rendered lethargic incapable of defending itself for at least 45 minutes (and would likely not repeat the experience!).  Smoky Jungle Frogs produce Leptotoxin, a powerful chemical that causes rapid death from cardiac arrest when administered to rats.  People have reported experiencing “tingling” sensations after handling Smoky Jungle Frogs. Read More »

Reputation Redeemed – Asp Cleared of Responsibility for Cleopatra’s Death

Egyptian CobraA 2,000 year-old-legend holds that Cleopatra, famed last Queen of Egypt, committed suicide by allowing an Asp, or Egyptian Cobra (Naja haje), to bite her.  A recent study at Germany’s University of Trier, however, has now called this story into question.

Plant Poison or Snake Toxin?

By analyzing ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls and a Roman historian’s account of Cleopatra’s demise, German toxicologists have concluded that a lethal mixture of plant poisons, and not a venomous snake bite, was the more likely suicide agent.  Read More »

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