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!


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