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Learning more about venom

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the first-annual Venomous Herpetology Symposium in Miami. What is the Venomous Herpetology Symposium, and why would anyone want to go?

There were 169 people travelling from 13 different countries and several different US states to attend. Everyone there was a snake enthusiast. There were herpetologists talking about all things venomous snake, ranging from the King Cobra Conservancy in the Eastern Ghats, India, to a project from Jekyll Island, Georgia, studying eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. There were herpetologists from Kenya who are working on making antivenom more accessible to local people. There was a fascinating talk walking us through a king cobra bite from the medical perspective. It was great seeing everyone come together with like-minded conservation goals, interests, and an overall passion for some of my favorite animals!

There were also talks about improving conditions for animals in human care, including enrichment. Reptiles need enrichment just like other animals. However, reptiles require enrichment in different ways than the things we usually think of for primates and other mammals. Sometimes a very small change can do a lot for a reptile. For example, a fresh pile of leaves is stimulating for a snake. Moving around logs in a snake’s habitat, different color lighting, using different scents, and even puzzles can be used to stimulate snakes’ natural behaviors.

Most of the time when you hear the word “venom,” you think of a toxic liquid that is “bad” or something that will lead to death. So, these types of reptiles can sometimes be thought of as ‘second-class citizens’ in the animal world. Why should you care? There is so much potential for the use of venom in medical treatments. Snake venoms are made up of very complex proteins. Scientists are constantly discovering new ways to break down and use these compounds to improve human health. There are many different snake venoms being studied right now for combating cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, pain disorders, and diabetes. “Captopril,” a medication used to treat high blood pressure, is made with a protein found within a South American viper’s (Bothrops jararaca) venom. Did you know this drug has been widely in use for over 30 years now?

Even though there are many positive things that are being done with snake venom, some people are still taught from a young age to dislike snakes. There are many other reasons to appreciate snakes, even the venomous ones. They are some of our most effective sources of pest control and can even help limit occurrence of human diseases like Lyme’s disease. And so many of them are beautiful and lead complex lives. So, they are definitely worth having around!

I had a great time at the symposium learning about venomous snakes. Have you ever taken the time to appreciate how beautiful our venomous snakes are here at Zoo Atlanta? We currently have a pair of Chinese mountain vipers (Protobothrops mangshanensis) in a habitat at Scaly Slimy Spectacular. They come from high elevations in parts of mountain ranges in Hunan, China, and are critically endangered. Come see them next time you’re at the Zoo! They live near the (also very beautiful) king cobra habitat. Hopefully some will come to admire these amazing reptiles a little bit more next time!
Ashley Taylor
Keeper I, Herpetology

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl