Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Wednesday's Book

Dear Blogger Friends: If you don't feel like reading/commenting on this week's book, I understand perfectly.

The Snake Charmer
A life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge
A True Story by Jamie James

This book is about Dr. Joe Slowinski a scientist, herpetologist, and adventurer who spent his life collecting. As a young boy, he collected all kinds of animals, but later in life he focused on snakes. Joe grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and after graduate school he was a postdoc at LSU and later taught there. In 1997, he was offered an assistant curator position at the California Academy of Sciences that he was excited to accept because they had a budget for fieldwork. Joe had become interested in Burma, an understudied country as far as biology and zoology goes. He went there several times and one of the snakes he discovered was the Burmese spitting cobra, a species not previously known.

Joe planned a large expedition to Burma for quite some time and it finally took off in late August 2001. Upon arrival the expedition was met by extremely harsh conditions with lots of rain and the scientists were not able to do much collecting. Things looked much improved when they arrived in Rat Baw, the largest town they had camped in since they began their trek. It was also the most promising site for collecting snakes so far.

Reading the book, I learned that the krait is a small but deadly snake, one of the most lethal on earth. I also learned that non-venomous snakes often evolve to look like dangerous venomous snakes to ward off predators. In Burma there is a harmless snake, called a Dinodon, that mimics the krait.

One night at the camp the scientists were studying the snakes they had caught that day. A Dinodon had been misidentified as a many-banded krait earlier, so they studied them carefully. While handling the snakes, one of the scientists was bitten. He said he was sure it was by the Dinodon, and when no symptoms appeared, he was sure he was right.

The following morning Joe wanted to take a look at the snakes and asked his colleague about them. The guy held out the bag and said he thought it was a Dinodon in there. The light was bad, still, inexplicably, and carelessly, Joe stuck his hand in the bag and pulled out a little snake, less than 10 inches long, that had sunk its fangs into his hand. The snake was a krait one of the most lethal snakes on the planet.

Long story short, after several days and heroic efforts by the other scientists, including mouth-to-mouth respiration for several days, as well as trying to get help from the US Embassy, the Burmese government, helicopter assistance, all hampered by bad weather, a doctor finally arrived and all he could do was pronounce Joe Slowinski dead. Dr. Slowinski was only 38 years old.

The book is well written and, if you like snakes, extremely informative.

What I really liked about the book was the way it was set up. In the first part leading up to the final expedition, the author picks a different snake as an introduction to each chapter.There is a fine drawing of the snake and he gives a short description of it, where it can be found, and if it is venomous or a constrictor.

Here are a few examples:

Black Rat Snake: Eastern US from New England to Oklahoma. A large and powerful constrictor able to climb up to 40 feet in trees.

Boa Constrictor: Central and South America. They use thermal-sensitive facial scales to locate prey. They prefer bats that they catch right out of the air while hanging in trees or at the mouths of caves.

American Copperhead: Most common venomous snake in North America, but with relatively weak venom that seldom kills humans.

Monocled Cobra: A cobra always hoods before it strikes. It is a defensive display to ward off predators.

Pygmy Rattlesnake: South Eastern United States. Rarely exceeds two feet in length. Extremely painful bite that can result in the loss of a digit. No record of human death.

Mojave Rattlesnake: The venom of the Mojave rattlesnake is as lethal as that of an Indian cobra.

I also learned that Pythons get their name from the dragon Pythos that Apollo slew at Delphi, according to Greek mythology. Apollo then established his oracle at Delphi on the spot where he killed the dragon Pythos, who is always represented as a large snake in ancient vase paintings.

One main difference between the large constrictor snakes, the Boa and the Python, is that the Boa gives birth to live young while the Python lays eggs.

Most Interesting Piece of Information:

Scientists are finding that rattlesnakes are learning that in their encounters with humans, rattling, which they normally use to scare off large predators, such as coyotes, does not work. Instead, it more likely than not will get them killed. So guess what, they are learning to not rattle around us. Quiet rattlesnakes usually go unnoticed by humans. This was the most interesting and relevant piece of information that I gained from the book.

Finally, at the end of the book, the author has a chapter called A Note On Place Names: Burma versus Myanmar. There is controversy over this, of course, and I really shouldn't address it in my blog, I don't think. Suffice it to say that the author of the book I'm describing here calls the country Burma. He points out that so does most of the world, except the government there, the United States, Canada and the United Nations. Oh, well, I'm staying out of that one.

Some Snakes I Know or Have Encountered:

Rachael's Ball Python -- Cleopatra

A very full Rattlesnake

Rachael's California King Snake -- Pocahontas

Rachael's Albino Burmese Python -- Sahara

Another Rattlesnake -- Northern Pacific, I believe

If you got this far: Thank you for staying with me. I hope you learned something of interest.

Have a great day, I'm off to some Physical Therapy -- ouch!


  1. Interesting, but, you know what? I think I'll pass on that book.

  2. sounds like an interesting book! yes, last week i put a post up on my blog as i ran across an unknown snake close to my house where my dogs and i always like to play. took a picture, looked it up and discovered it was the mojave rattlesnake, aka, mojave green! i went back out to kill it and it was gone... most likely under the wood pile. yikes. i think i'll check this book out. tragic ending, though!

  3. I have nothing against snakes. I would rather see/touch a million snakes than one single solitary s-p-i-d-e-r.
    I read a book recently (fiction)about a serial killer who used the krait to murder her victims-it was very interesting.
    We very often see 5-6 ft long oak snakes in our neck of the woods, there are also rattle snakes(never seen one), lots of black racers, rat snakes, king snakes.
    We stop on the road to let them cross(especially the king snakes) just like we do for turtles. We have nursed a few back to health...mostly those small rat snakes that the cats like to catch.

  4. I have no problem with snakes, it actually sounds like a good book, but I will have to read it someplace where family won't see it. Both my husband, and my mom dislike snakes, and would probably not like to see it on the end table... I, on the other hand, find snakes fastenating, and was one of the assistants that helped with a boa in one of my biology classes.


  5. Sorry, Inger, I got so far and "EW" hit, I did try though! I hope your PT went well!

  6. Can't deny it, Inger, this was not easy for me. Just not used to dealing with snakes, just not part of the environment here. Yes, there are some but no poisonous ones.
    I am sure snake lovers will love and appreciate the book.

  7. Again. I'm not recommending the books I write about. They are only the books I read since May. Not my favorites, although some, like Angela's Ashes became favorites and recommended.

    Louise: You are kind to read all this.

    Hopeful: You know they are very dangerous, right. I hope it is long gone by now. Please be careful.

    Polly: You are such a kind soul. I agree on the spiders.

    Cat: My husband doesn't like them either.

    Sharon: What's EW?

    Jabacue: I have a feeling a lot of guys, including my husband, really don't like snakes much.

  8. Wow. What a story!
    The photo of the full rattlesnake is amazing.

  9. EW = YUK! What they eat, stuff about fangs... just not my thing. I think snakes can be very pretty, but that's all I care to know. Sorry ;(

  10. Wow Inger - thanks for a VERY interesting post - I'm sure my friend Stretch would love to read it (and so would I) - The Rattlesnakes in the pics look so much like our highly venomous Puff Adder (a few years back Stretch took a hit from a puffy, I've got some pics which I'll post sometime)

    I generally leave snakes alone - I used to handle them but after I got nailed by one I realized that my reflexes are not what they used to be.

    Great Post

  11. Terry: Thank you, the full rattler was under some boards by our shed. If it had been quiet we would not have found it. We moved it up the mountain, so no harm done to it, except maybe to his digestion.

    Sharon: Don't be sorry -- I told you you didn't have to read it!

    OneStonedCrow: I move the snakes when I can on a shovel away from the house and dogs. I would love to learn about African snakes. I'm glad you liked my post.

  12. Sounds like an interesting book though, but I am so scared of snakes....I mean I touched some before and they don't feel anything like you expect but well not my fav. kind of animal.

  13. Inger - Thanks for sharing info about snakes. In my opinion, it is ignorance that causes fear with anything in life. Empowerment comes from knowledge. Snakes are such an important part of our ecosystem and without them, we (humans) would be overrun by rodents and disease. As you know, I love snakes:) And, that is coming from someone who had a lifelong fear of snakes until about 5 years ago, when I started working with them. I know from personal experience that once you interact with them, your perspective completely changes. Great book review!

  14. Tina: As Rachael says below your comment, snakes are an important part of the ecosystem and it's too bad they are misunderstood and cause such fear.

    Rachael: Thanks for this great comment. I wish it had been here earlier for everyone else who commented to read.

  15. I am not sure if it is ignorance or what, but I just prefer furry animals over scaly ones lol....I do know the importance of every living being in the ecosystem, everything has it's function and job in it. Too where I live it's not like I come across a snake that often, a common garter snake maybe, but that's about the extent of it unless I visit a zoo, and yes I agree with Rachael exposure and interaction does change a lot of perceptions.


Thanks for leaving a comment.. ~~ Inger


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