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Scientist Journals His Way Through Death By Snake Bite

When famed herpetologist Dr. Karl P. Schmidt was bitten by a boomslang snake in 1957, he didn’t think much of it. After all, only one of the juvenile snake’s three millimeter fangs punctured his skin. Ever the scientist, Schmidt decided to track his health as he began to feel the effects of the bite. He thought he’d recover, but when it comes to boomslangs, one nip is enough. Schmidt died just 24 hours later, but he left behind an invaluable record that has helped us map the progression of boomslang venom, and save countless lives.

In this video from ScienceFriday, we take a peak into Schmidt’s journals to learn more about “the man who died while he lived.”

If you were bitten by a venomous snake, your first instinct would likely be to seek medical attention. So, why wouldn’t an expert like Schmidt do the same? This has a lot to do with boomslang anatomy and behavior: they’re actually quite ill-suited to biting humans. For starters, the shy, Sub-Saharan snakes (Dispholidus typus), spend their days in the tree tops. They’re considered a non-aggressive species, and will likely opt for flight over fight.

“In fact, this is a snake that, once it detects your presence, will be long gone before you even knew it was there,” writes Paul Donovan, who has been working with venomous snakes for decades. “Problems arise when people – particularly children – see a boomslang and try to kill it.”

The snakes are also “rear-fanged,” or proteroglyphous, meaning that their fangs are positioned towards the back of the mouth, behind several smaller teeth. In order for a boomslang (pronounced “bwoorm-slung”) to bite something as thick as your thumb, it has to open its jaws wide – really wide – up to 170 degrees. While not impossible, you can imagine why this bit of oral acrobatics wouldn’t be the snake’s go-to response. At the time of Schmidt’s bite, not a single boomslang-related death existed on record, and the scientific community simply thought them harmless.

boomslang-2015114Source: Chantal Lyons/Flickr

Most rear-fanged snakes have relatively short fangs that channel venom through a groove along the outer edge. To transfer the deadly substance, they actually have to “chew” the venom into their prey, while remaining clamped down on the body. This delivery system is rather ineffective when compared to that employed by front-fanged snakes, like vipers. But unbeknownst to Schmidt, boomslangs’ abnormally-long fangs allow them to inflict a deadly bite without the chewing action.

The venom itself is hemotoxic, meaning it destroys red blood cells, and slows blood clotting. As you can see in the video, death by hemotoxin isn’t a pretty way to go. As the blood looses its ability to clot, it begins escaping by any means necessary. On the eve of the bite, Schmidt documented steady bleeding in his nose and mouth, as well as blood in his stool and urine, but by the following morning, he thought the worst had passed. What he didn’t know was what was happening to his brain and lungs. Left untreated, hemotoxic venom can also degenerate organs and tissue, causing cerebral hemorrhaging and respiratory arrest – the symptoms that killed him.

It’s a sad story, but you have to commend Schmidt’s dedication, as we arguably wouldn’t know so much about these amazing snakes had he not been so diligent in his final hours. Today, just seven fatal boomslang bites exist on record. Seven bites, some 60 years and five billion people later.

Featured Image: ScienceFriday

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