Bitten by a Beaked Snake

Nevit Dilmen/Creative Commons

by guest writer James Smith


My last name—Smith—is, according to at least one study, the most common in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia (and the fifth most common in Ireland, apparently, even if you don’t count MacGowan or MacGovan, the Gaelic equivalent.) No doubt this was due to the fact that smiths were in demand in early communities, and to be known as a smith was a mark of honor—they made weapons, jewelry, cookware, horse tack, all those things you couldn’t live without in the old days. And just as Smith was popular in English-speaking lands, so its German analogue, Schmidt, caught on like wildfire in German-speaking countries.

In other words, Dr. Karl P. Schmidt, may he rest in peace, and yours truly are connected at least in so far as we share, to all intents and purposes, a surname. That proved a trifle disconcerting to me one summer evening about ten years ago, for, during the course of maintaining my reptile collection, I found myself in eerily similar circumstances to those which brought the good doctor’s career to an unpleasant and untimely halt in the year 1957.

Look through a book of snakes and you’ll find some with weird names—yamakagashi, mamba, cribo, mussurana, daboia. But my favorite is the boomslang. This word is taken from the Afrikaans for “tree snake” and that’s just what the boomslang is, a medium-sized arboreal snake that feeds on small mammals, lizards and birds in the savanna woodlands of its native Africa. Boomslangs are rear-fanged snakes, snakes with enlarged, grooved rear teeth instead of the needle-like front fangs of vipers and cobras. (Purists dislike “rear-fanged” as a nonscientific, artificial catch-all, but since it provides a ready illustration and when you say “opistoglyphous” people tend to say “Gesundheit!” by way of reply, rear-fanged it is.) To deliver a significant dose of venom, most rear-fangs have to really clamp on and work their jaws, almost chewing, to ensure the toxin runs down the grooves into the wound.

Due to this somewhat crude means of venom delivery, the majority of rear-fanged snakes are basically harmless. Many are small reptiles about the size of the garter snakes commonly found throughout North America, and their mouths too small to bring their awkwardly-placed fangs into play. Even with some of the big ones, such as the beautiful mangrove snake from Thailand and Indonesia, their venom is generally negligible with regard to its effect on anything much larger than the animals they feed on—lizards, birds, mice, other snakes—and sometimes not especially effective even on these, stunning or sedating rather than killing outright.

To be sure, even these snakes should be treated with utmost care and respect, since much depends on the chemistry of the person bitten, and it’s a poor way to find out that you’re hypersensitive to this or that protein or enzyme. But in general, rear-fanged snakes are not in a league with their front-fanged counterparts—atractaspids, elapids and viperids—either in delivery or weapons-grade venom.

The boomslang is a very unpleasant exception.

In 1957, Karl P. Schmidt, curator of reptiles at the Field Museum in Chicago, was bitten by a juvenile boomslang he was identifying for a colleague and succumbed to internal bleeding twenty-eight hours later. Death by boomslang bite, incidentally, is a horrible way to die: the haemotoxic component acts as an anticoagulant, and in acute cases the victim may bleed from every bodily orifice—mouth, nose, eyes, anus and privates.

Nobody had taken the boomslang seriously because of its allegedly low toxicity and inefficient venom delivery, and so no antivenin existed for its bite, and it would be years in the making. Thankfully, in the wild boomslangs are shy and hardly ever bite humans, though it has happened since Dr. Schmidt’s death, usually when someone is climbing a tree and not watching where they put their hands.  

In 1975, the African twig snake, another supposedly harmless rear-fang, bit Robert Mertens, a German herpetologist, and killed him. Now at least two rear-fanged snakes were proven menaces, albeit not in the wild as much as in captivity when being handled or examined. (Mertens was hand-feeding his twig snake when the bite took place.)

A Japanese snake called the yamakagashi, a distant cousin of the garter snakes and only about three or four feet long, killed a young man in the early 1980’s. While I can’t substantiate any other fatalities, numerous other people bitten by this snake report fever, nausea and severe pain in the joints near the bitten area. It seems prudent, then, to not dismiss the young man’s death as a fluke and to regard the yamakagashi with the respect due a potentially deadly snake.

Current studies suggest that quite a few snakes commonly thought of as nonvenomous, like the garter snakes, actually have proteins in their saliva, which aid in sedating or stunning struggling prey such as frogs and lizards. Technically, one could argue that this means they bear at least the evolutionary beginnings of venom. However, these snakes really pose no threat to human safety. Indeed, most rear-fangs don’t even legally qualify as venomous snakes—that is, they are not prohibited in areas where the ownership of truly venomous ones, such as vipers and cobras, is restricted to licensed owners. This is presumably because their venom is not of medical significance. (The hognose, for instance, is a popular pet snake that happens to be rear-fanged.)

I had worked with hognoses, and kept golden tree snakes (an Asian rear-fang that belongs to the group known as “flying snakes” due to its ability to flatten out and parasail, as it were, from one perch to another) but my Karl Schmidt moment arose at the fangs of a rufous beaked snake, acquired in the summer of 2002.

Rufous beaked snakes are long, slim brownish snakes with a black mask on their eyes, almost like a raccoon’s. Very alert and responsive animals (for snakes), they are almost birdlike in the way they move their heads while taking notice of everything outside their cages, and perform a curious self-anointing ritual involving nasal secretions—known as “scale polishing” and still poorly understood, perhaps an adaptation designed to guard against losing moisture—that is downright comical to watch. Found in semi-arid to almost desert regions of southern Africa, they make engaging captives, and are extremely reluctant to bite in self-defense.

So how, then, did I get bitten?

I violated a fundamental snake-keeper’s rule: don’t interfere with a snake when he’s having dinner.

I was feeding my specimen a frozen-thawed mouse. I usually do not offer live prey due to the risk of a mouse or rat getting off one last lucky shot with those long teeth, so frozen is easier on the snake, more convenient for me, and—while the rodent is still dead (carbon dioxide gas)—it is spared the sensation of being stalked by a predator. The snake appeared not to notice the inert mouse. I went to reach for my feeding tongs, which normally hung on a peg beside this snake’s terrarium.

They weren’t there.

I was impatient and didn’t want to bother looking around. Reaching into the cage with fingers that smelled of mouse and were moving, I went to jiggle the dead rodent with my bare hand. There was a sudden flash of brown and the snake clamped his jaws on my right ring finger at the second knuckle. Because beaked snakes rely primarily on constriction to kill and their bite as more or less of a sedative, a secondary measure, he threw a coil around my wrist and anchored himself.

Now, a few things are necessary to explain here. Like the boomslang, the beaked snake can open its jaws quite wide—perhaps not as far as the one hundred seventy-degree gape of the boomslang, but wide enough. Due to its short head, those rear fangs are rear in name only: while they are certainly not at the front of the mouth, like those of a viper or cobra, and they are the crude, grooved back teeth, not the precision hypodermics of the front-fanged species, they are decent-sized and forward-directed.

And “not dangerous” does not equate to “not painful.” A single white-faced hornet is not dangerous, unless you are one of those unfortunate folks who suffer from allergies to their stings—but anyone who has ever experienced a white-face on the attack, where the insect darts like a guided missile to turn at impact and strike sting-first—and how she can sting!—will tell you that the pain inflicted is excruciating.

Almost as soon as the snake’s jaws closed, I became aware of a stabbing, burning pain in my finger. I’ve been bitten by tarantulas and wolf spiders, stung by hornets, bees and harvester ants, jabbed by the spines of catfish—the best comparison I could make was to a pair of acid-coated thorns being shoved into my flesh.

At this point the snake became aware that he’d grabbed me instead of a mouse, and that I was too big to swallow. Unsettled by the whole thing, he released his hold and slipped into his cave at the end of the tank, to the accompaniment of some very blasphemous language.

My finger was burning, reddening, and starting to swell. I sat down to take stock of the situation. On the one hand, if beaked snakes couldn’t even kill a mouse with their bite, and required constriction to kill their prey, I was probably safe.

On the other hand, poisons are funny—the toxic agent in the beaked snake’s bite, rufoxin, certainly did incapacitate prey, I had seen that with my own eyes before getting this one conditioned to take dead mice. (I was later to learn that it induces hypotension and circulatory shock, in fact, doubtless rendering the mouse easier to constrict.)

And of course, some irrational part of my mind gibbered, the boomslang had been thought harmless…until Dr. Schmidt went to that giant reptile house in the sky.

Realistically, I was pretty much screwed if I turned out to be the first case of serious beaked snake envenomation. Since they were theoretically harmless, there would have been no serum to treat the bite and you can’t, for example, inject someone with rattlesnake antivenin and hope for the best (you can kill someone by using the wrong antivenin—and some people cannot process it anyway, so doctors who truly know snakebite tend to see it as one option among others, although if it can be administered safely, a good one.) When it became apparent that my gums had not started to bleed after twenty minutes, and a quick check of my jockeys established that I was not leaking blood anywhere else, I decided I wasn’t going to die and turned in for the night, leaving the thawed mouse in the terrarium.

It was gone in the morning, and since I’m writing this, you know I obviously wasn’t. Apart from the spot where the snake’s teeth had actually gone in, I was perfectly normal and had no complaints. My finger did remain stiff, sore and difficult to fully straighten for a couple of months. Eventually it returned to normal, however.

From my later studies on the topic, I appear to simply have an unusual degree of sensitivity to rufoxin, as other people who have been bitten report no pain or swelling, not even locally. I still maintain my rufous beaked snakes, and due to their extreme reluctance to bite, continue to handle them when lecturing with them, or moving them from cage to cage. But when feeding time rolls around, I accord them the respect due a western diamondback in shedding time, and don’t try to rush them over their dinners.


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