Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Dr. Bryan Grieg Fry, Venom, A Useless Pickup Line & A Long Recovery

 Dr. Grieg Fry is one of the World's leading Venom experts. His research ranges from the most venomous sea creatures through to the only known venomous primate. Read on to get a glimpse of his world and the dangers involved.
© Chris Carille Photography

How did you first become interested in reptiles/amphibians and biochemistry?

Dr. Greig Fry: I've long had an intimate relationship with toxins.  My first memory is at age 20 months, strapped to a hospital bed, tubes surgically inserted into my legs, arms and skull, heavily medicated to dull the searing pain from spinal meningitis.  At that time, a significant percentage of babies died and of those that survived, many had severe neurological damage.  All I was left with in the way of permanent damage was the erasing of almost all the hearing in my right ear.  Its pretty much good for hanging sunglasses off of but not much more than that.  I have a random spike of perfect hearing in a narrow mid-frequency bandwidth but pretty much nothing else.  Its like all the other neurons were photoshopped away.  Audiologists all my life have been amazed by it, they've never seen the like.  It is, however, a daily reminder of the power of toxins and also my own mortality.  So it not only seeded my intellectual interest, but also spurred my quest to live each day to its fullest.

I guess I am simply obeying the inscrutabe exhortations of the innermost soul.... and my mandate also includes weird bugs :)  I have always had a deep and abiding interest in all things venomous, with snakes being a particular fascination.  I was four years old when I grandly announced that I was going to make this my life's work.

            Did anyone think you were crazy wanting to spend your time researching deadly creatures?

'Hey, I keep snakes' will never be an effective pickup line ;)  Yes, my career choice was viewed as not just unconventional but downright weird and to some eyes a death-wish.

            Yeah, I haven't seen that pickup line work yet. Where is your favorite herping spot in the world?

Favorite herping spot is the Komodo Dragon mecca called Rinca Island. 

             Oh, how I wish I could visit! Is there any herp that still gives you chills and sends your excitement levels through the roof when you find it in the wild?

Playing with Komodo Dragons never gets old, ditto with King Cobras and Taipans.
King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah), Borneo
© Chris Carille Photography

             What herp is at the top of your list to find in the wild?

Inland taipan, the world's most toxic snake, even that above all sea snakes.

            Is there any country/area that is at the top of your list to visit still? Why?

Sri Lanka due to the staggering snake bite toll in that country.

            Aside from the venomous animals you work with, do you keep any herps as personal pets? If so, what species and any favorites?

Since I only work on the animals that I love, every research animal effectively becomes a pet :) 

            That must make for one interesting collection! haha What has been the worst bite/sting you’ve ever had?

Horned sea snake, it took nine months to recover from.

Talk about a hard lesson learned. Could you share any crazy/memorable herping stories?

Easily the worst field injury was falling off a four meter termite mound, landing on another one a meter above the ground and breaking my back.  Four months in bed recovering. Luckily a mate of a mate is a world-leading neurosurgeon in Beverly Hills and did a magnificent job repairing it.  If it had been done in Australia, they would have just laid down the concrete and fused multiple vertebrate.  Thus ruining my fieldwork forever.  However, he did a procedure not done in Australia, whereby he put titanium endcaps on three of the vertebrate, with artificial discs in between. The same procedure that was filmed for a documentary done on Schwarzenegger's stunt-double. Within two days I was able to stand while leaning on a walker and was able to relearn how to walk. This was extremely painful as I not only had neurons firing that hadn't been for months but also had wasted, atrophied leg muscles that needed to be rebuilt and restretched. Being a former competitive swimmer, I was used to having to suck it up for training, but taking those first few steps were some of the most grueling workouts I've ever had to suffer through. So I now have a spinal Xray that looks like Wolverines and set off metal detectors. But I am able to do, at full-speed, all the extreme activities I was doing doing before the sudden gust of gravity.   Going off of the painkillers was brutal.  I was on massive doses of hydromorphone (synthetic heroin) for four months.  Even that was not enough to stop the pain at times.  There were occasions where the pain was so great that I tasted madness.  I was absolutely insensible with pain.  For up to a half hour I would be completely insane from the suffering.  This was also when my legs would fail as this was when the pressure was greatest on the S1 nerve.  The surgery fixed all of this properly.  But then I was faced with the looming withdrawal.  Heroin is the hardest drug to come off of. Junkies always talk about how they keep taking it to avoid 'the sickness'.  Now I know what they mean.  I went off it fast.  Perhaps too fast. I made a judgement call as to when I thought I could deal with the physical pain without the pills.  So one day I took the same 100% dose I had been on for four months.  Next day 75%.  Next day 50%. Next day 25%. Then nothing.  I experienced agony and sickness like nothing I have ever felt and hope to never feel again.  Biting down on shirts to keep from screaming.  My bones felt like they were rubbing together.  Even my hair hurt.  Every neuron fresh, raw and firing uncontrollably.  I sweated through the mattress.  All the while knowing I could end it with one of the pretty white pills.  But I got through it.  Threw the pills away and haven't looked back.
Reticulate Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum suspectum), Arizona
© Chris Carille Photography

Wow, quite possibly one of the most extraordinary stories I've ever heard. Congrats on making it back from something that seems like it would have ruined any else's life!
A lot of arguments are made as to which herp species are deadliest based on venom toxicity, occurrence, aggression, amount of venom/toxin produced – which herp species would you consider the deadliest (or are several clearly not survivable)?

It is a combination of different variables
- how toxic is the venom?  The inland taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidotus) is far and away the most toxic, much more so than even sea snakes.
- how much venom is injected?  The biggest yeilders are the Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica), Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) and Mulga snake (Pseudechis australis), all of which can deliver over a gram of venom protein in a single bite.
- is there an effective antivenom?  For many venomous snakes there are no effective antivenoms so bites from these snakes are catastrophic.
© Chris Carille Photography

             What herp, venom, or toxin do you find the most fascinating & why? (I personally like batrachotoxins because of how they are assimilated into dart frogs)

We are currently finding some extraordinarily cool things in the venom of the Fea's viper (Azemiops feae).
Green-and-Black Poison Arrow Frog (Dendrobates auratus), Costa Rica
© Chris Carille Photography

             What do you think about the people who inject small amounts of venom into themselves to gradually build up a resistance to venomous snake bites? Crazy or completely sane?

They are public relations nightmares. There is absolutely no medical benefit for doing this, they should have the proper antivenom on hand if they are keeping the snakes. Further, there is no proven therapeutic benefit.

So completely insane. I couldn't see risking your life in each injection. Putting that effort towards not getting bit would probably be a better idea.
Some venomous snake owners think owning their own anti-venom is a great thing – potentially life-saving or life-threatening idea?

Neotropical Rattlesnake (Crotalus durissus), Costa Rica
© Chris Carille Photography

I’m always backpacking days out into the wilderness and I am always looking for snakes, which can be troublesome. There is a lot of bad information out there on how to handle a snake bite, could you set the record straight?

Essential for any first aid kit is a satellite phone.  As for immediate first aid, never ever cut the bite.  This has no benefit and only makes things worse. Last thing you want with unclottable blood is to create new wounds.  Similarly, the suction kits are less than useless, they actually worsen local damage.

Thanks for that info.
Any advice for students looking to get into the herpetological field?

Use your passion as your fuel.

Handling venomous snakes?

Get experience from a credible mentor.

If you weren’t dealing with venom for a living, what would you be doing?

Probably on an over-pass with a rifle ;)  Seriously though, I could not imagine doing anything else that would give me such a feeling of deep satisfaction.

            Since you have an interest in crocs as well, have you had the pleasure of visiting the Madras Crocodile Bank?

Yes, I have. Amazing place staffed full of great people.

            Where are your current research focuses?

A wide diversity of animals ranging from deep sea Antarctic venomous octopuses through to slow lorises (the only venomous primate) and even including vampire bats :)
Bornean Slow Loris (Nycticebus menagensis)
© Rob Colgan Taken at Danau Girang Field Centre, Borneo

Tarantula in Borneo
© Chris Carille Photography

Dr. Grieg Fry's Personal Site: VenomDoc
Australian Venom Research Unit: AVRU
Natural Toxins Research Center: NNTRC
For information on Slow Lorises: Slow Loris Site

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Photoshoot @ Jerry "The Snakeman" Hillard's House

A friend of mine has a business performing educational shows with various snake species at events around the area. He can be booked to headline or run small shows. I put out a feeler two weeks ago, looking for anyone that possessed hybrid herps (interspecific, intra-specific, or intergeneric). I was invited over to shoot some of the species he works with. Here is a small selection of the many shots I took of his collection within two hours time. (note: a post/Q&A with Jerry about his business will be up shortly)

If you like the work, I can come and take photos of your collection for your business or personal use. Please inquire for pricing/contract at:

Monday, April 23, 2012

Dr. Michael Tyler & Australian Herps

Dr. Michael Tyler is a well-known Australian amphibian specialist, an author of numerous books and papers, and has had the distinct honor of hosting the Second World Congress of Herpetology. Here are a few words with that host.
What sparked your interest in reptiles/amphibians?
Dr. Michael Tyler: A childhood interest in natural history which led to a fascination with entomology at first, and then to frogs.
Hypsiboas rosenbergi - Gladiator Tree Frog (Costa Rica)
© Chris Carille Photography
Were your parents or friends influential in your decision to go into herpetology as a profession?

     No one influenced me! I was an amateur in the early days until I was appointed lecturer in Zoology and was able to devote all my research interests to frog topics.

What led your interests towards amphibians specifically?

    Working at the British Museum with an Emeritus Curator who regretted being too old to travel to Australia and New Guinea, where he anticipated there must be a large number of undescribed frogs new to science.

If you were not into herpetology, what would you be doing?

© Chris Carille Photography
    Selling old and antiquarian books!

That is definitely a different profession! Where is your favorite herping spot in the world?

   The Kimberley, in NW Australia because so much of it is still unexplored.

Litoria spledida - Magnificent Green Tree Frog
Photo courtesy of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy
What herp in the wild still sends your excitement levels through the roof?

    Litoria splendida (The Magnificent Tree Frog which I found and first described!)

I think I'd still be pretty excited to find a herp I had discovered. 
Do you keep a life list?

    No I don’t.

Is there any country/area that is at the top of your list to visit/herp still? Why?

   New Guinea because there is still so much to be discovered there.

Rhacophorus dulitensis - Jade Tree Frog (Borneo)
I had a graduate professor perform his research in New Guinea - he would tell all sorts of stories about how remote field sites were. 
You set a precedent at the second World Congress of Herpetology by keeping it out of the red and turning a profit. How important was that standard you set towards the WCH reaching its goals?

                     It was important to me as it needed to be successful if WCH was to have a great future.  However, I don’t think too many people realised just what a challenge it was!
Agalychnis callidryas - Red-eyed Tree Frog (Costa Rica)
A favorite among amphibian enthusiasts.
© Chris Carille Photography

Do you keep any herps as personal pets? If so, what species and any favorites?
I have a variety of frogs as “pets” and my favourites are Litoria splendida and Litoria caerulea.

Any crazy herping stories (I had a snapper almost bite through my finger once while trying to photograph it)?

Not that I can recall although most field trips have had their moments!

8 species of frog have gone extinct in the last 25 years in Australia, which species do you feel are currently of most concern?

This is incorrect!  Only three have become extinct and I can’t prioritise the others.

Some misinformation on my part. I'm glad you corrected that. 
What is the number one conservation threat to Australia’s endangered species? (invasives, pollution, collection, habitat destruction, Bd fungus)

Bufo (Rhinella) marinus - Cane Toad (Costa Rica)
An destructive invasive in Australia.
© Chris Carille Photography
Probably Bd fungus.

Bd fungus seems to be a huge threat to all amphibian populations. Hopefully, a cure can be found.
In 2003 and 2004, you performed research on odors produced by frogs – I’d imagine smelling frogs had to be the hardest time spent in a lab?

No, it wasn’t at all difficult! I had known for a long time that I had a keen sense of smell and often identified frogs by their odors. I had a PhD student who also had an excellent sense of smell so we both enjoyed the work which led to the award of the IgNobel Prize at Harvard!
Hyla arenicolor - Canyon Tree Frog (Arizona)

Impressive! I'm not sure I could stomach smelling so many frogs.
What’s the best avenue people from outside Australia can help protect Australia’s amphibians?

To encourage captive breeding.

Has there been anyone you’ve really enjoyed collaborating with in your research? Why?

Ben Smith, the PhD student mentioned earlier who had a truly brilliant mind and was great to work with because he had so many ideas that we developed together.  He was the most outstanding student I have ever met and we achieved a great deal together because he was head-hunted and went to Europe!!

Who would win in a herp id’ing contest, you or [Australian herpetologist] Hal Cogger?
I have no idea!

Haha. Probably an unfair question putting you on the spot.
Australia has pretty strict importation and exportation laws regarding its wildlife. Do you think the increase of interest in the herp-keeping hobby has helped or hindered reptile &  amphibian conservation?

Rheobatrachus silus - Gastric Brooding Frog
Cares for its young in its stomach.
I doubt whether herp-keeping has had much of an impact in Australia, with the possible exception of Rheobatrachus which is so popular that over-collecting is a real threat to its existence in the world.

Anything else you’d like to share?

 No, apart from the fact that herpetology has given me a wonderful life and I could not imagine anything better if I had my life starting all over again!

The threatened species and ecological communities in Australia: Threatened Species
The amphibian research center for Australia: ARC
Western Australia Museum's Frog Watch: Frog Watch

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Ashok Captain, Herp Photography, & his Love for India

Ashok Captain is a world renowned herp photographer and Indian snake enthusiast. Read on to learn about some of favorite spots, hear some photography advice, and get a peek into his favorite herping trips.
Viridovipera (Trimeresurus) medoensis - Medo Pit Viper  A. Captain/ Adu Ile Me/ The Lisus

How did you first become interested in reptiles/amphibians (particularly snakes) and photography?

A. Captain: In the 90's, we used to go on a lot of jungle trips - initially in the Western Ghats - places close to Pune (where I live). Most trips were during the monsoons (our rainy season) and we'd see a lotta creepies. Initially I tried to 'study' everything - monsoon plants, spiders, solifuges, amblypygids, scorpions, frogs, caecilians, lizards and snakes. I photographed all of these and needed captions for my slides (now digital images)! I soon gave up trying to 'id' everything and drifted towards snakes 'cos it was possible to do a lot (but not all) of the identification without killing 'em/ collecting 'em/ dissecting bits and pieces. This wasn't possible with several of the other animals.

Was anyone influential in your decision to go into herpetology as a profession?

Umm, nope. Snake taxonomy isn't a profession for me. Pros get funded to do this kinda thing. I spend most of my own money doing this stuff! Three guys who were extremely helpful (when I was a newbie) were Anil and Neelimkumar Khaire (brothers who run both the snake parks in Pune) and Rom Whitaker (he needs no introduction)! (Drum roll as Rom takes a bow).

Where is your favorite herping spot in the world?

Pretty much anywhere in India (I have a distinct Indian bias) though I have spent most of my 'field time' in the northern Western Ghats and eastern Arunachal Pradesh. 

Do you have any favorite herps to find in the wild? Anything that still gets you excited to find?

No favorite spots as such. Finding any herp is exciting for me! 
Oreocryptophis porphyraceus (formerly Elaphe porphyracea) - Red Mountain Rat Snake A. Captain/ The Lisus

Do you have a life list? If so, what herp is at the top of your list to find in the wild?

No life list as such, but I would love to see Indian Trimeresurus (Peltopelor) macrolepis; the Sri Lankan Trimeresurus (Craspedocephalus) trigonocephalus and the African Bitis gabonica (all in the wild).

Is there any country/area that is at the top of your list to visit still?

Injun bias again! In India, there are still so many places left to visit - the deserts, southern Western Ghats, Eastern Ghats, the Andamans, Nicobar Islands . . .

Do you keep any herps as personal pets? If so, what species and any favorites?

Nope. 'Tis illegal in India. We have a 'Wildlife Prevention Act' that does just that! Did not know that!

I know when I’m behind the camera I get pretty focused, have you had any “close calls”?

Nope, again. Yup, I get pretty focused too, but I usually have several folks I trust helping [me] with the snake and photography. If it's a hot 'un, there are usually two guys (with their mobiles switched off) with snake sticks between me (camera, tripod and flashes) and the model. Most of my pics are posed. There may be another 2-3 guys holding the flashes and/ or umbrellas. Sometimes its not possible to get a pic. That's okay. 

Elachistodon westermanni - Indian Egg Eater
       A. Captain/ S. Deshmukh/ R. Nande
What’s more exciting, winning a cycling competition, discovering a new herp species, or getting that perfect photo published on a cover?

All three are equally exciting! : )

What has been your favorite/most memorable herping trip you’ve ever made?

Actually 4 of 'em! 1. I once spent 8 months in Arunachal. It was to be a year, but I had to meet my landlord in Pune! Anyways, I saw 26 Trimeresurus (Viridovipera) medoensis and several other beautiful snakes in the wild. One of the Medo Pit Vipers made the cover of a Christmas supplement of Geo (Germany)! Impressive! 2. On another trip to Arunachal, with the help of the villagers, we found a Protobothrops kaulbackii. 3. In Maharashtra (the state I live in), some young herp enthusiasts found a snake they couldn't identify - I took a bus there and the snake turned out to be Elachistodon westermanni (previously thought to be extinct)! This was like finding a live dinosaur. 4. A professor who studies fish, found a snake in Trivandrum (it was netted by some fishermen). I went there and it was a Homalopsinae - Enhydris dussumierii. The only place in the world its found in is Kerala state, India. So its not always in the deep dark jungles (as seen on telly)!

Of the new species you’ve described and helped to describe, has there been a favorite?

Ahaetulla c.f. nasuta - Green Vine Snake           A. Captain/ R. Whitaker/ A.R.R.S.
I've not described any new species yet! New records for India, several - Sinonatrix percarinata; Trimeresurus medoensis; Lytorhynchus paradoxus, Protobothrops kaulbackii, Amphiesma venningii. . . . No favorites! I apologize for my mistake, as I had read some false information that stated otherwise.

For those of us that know nothing of Indian herp culture, is it a developing hobby to keep snakes as pets there?

In a bad (according to me) way. Though illegal in India, there are several 'sarp mitras' (snake friends) who keep snakes in the name of 'educating' folks. Let's be honest - its a man against dangerous 'beast' adrenalin rush. My opinion is that this is extremely uncool. We've so few wild spaces left in India that preserving our wild populations is way more important than having 'em in (usually) smelly bags/ boxes/ jars. This is very different [compared] to the herp culture elsewhere in the world.

A lot of people have a negative outlook of snake charmers in India, do you have an opinion you could share?

Chrysopelea ornata - Ornate Flying Snake
           A. Captain/ R. Whitaker/ A.R.R.S.
               (Agumbe Rainforest Research Station)
For me its kinda complicated. Sure, I'd rather see snakes in the wild, sure, but these guys are making a living 'using' snakes and have been for generations. Unless they get an equally profitable/ more lucrative means of getting cash, I doubt they're gonna quit (even if a few snakes are 'seized' by the authorities). In fact I think taking away their snakes is bad for the wild population. They'll go get some more (and deplete the wild population still further). Besides this, we misguidedly release the rescued snakes. This is daft 'cos we've no idea where the snakes originally came from; they'll most probably die in new territories/ ranges and if they're infected with mites or something worse, they could wipe out an entire wild population. 

I also see an amusing double standard - guys in the US catching snakes/ herps for profit are no different (from the snake's point of view) to Injun snake charmers. (Whoops, they got me! There goes my 'wild' life). Yet these folks are called snake wranglers! I'm not dissing 'em, nor am I pro-snake charmer (I am not). 

You’ve worked with several other herpetologists – anyone you’d like to work with again?

Yup lots of 'em actually! Rom (Whitaker), Kedar (Bhide), Varad (Giri), Aaron (Bauer), Mark (Wilkinson), David (Gower), Andreas (Gumprecht), Frank (Tillack), Patrick (David), Gernot (Vogel), others whom I've written to and would like to work with are Frederick (Wagner), Wolfgang (Wuster), Anita (Malhotra), Anslem (de Silva) and Van (Wallach).
Do you have any photography tips for shooting herps?

Be patient (be prepared to spend all day/ several days if necessary). Corny, but I think herps sense 'impatience' and one never gets a good picture if one is in this 'zone'. Use the best equipment one can afford. [It is] better to have a macro lens (as opposed to a zoom with a macro feature) than a 'fill up the memory card' fancy camera - 6 MP is fine. The lens is IMPORTANT. I use smart flashes off camera and a light tripod with an 'action head'. *Pelican cases (in plastic bags that are carried in rucksacs) also keep the camera gear alive in rain forests. I put a sock full of fresh silica gel into the case every time I open it (if I'm on a long trip). This keeps the inside relatively dry. *This sounds ridiculously unwieldy but read on . . . I wrap the cases in plastic bags 'cos we once crossed a river and, though the cases were watertight, I couldn't open them until water in the gutters had dried (this took ages in a rain forest). If you open them when wet, drops from the gutter actually enter the case and water is sealed into the case. I carry the cases in a rucsac, 'cos its impossible for me to carry a suitcase-type piece of luggage in rough terrain.

How did it feel to have a snake named after you in 2007 (Captain’s Wood Snake - Xylophis captaini)

Embarrassing actually, 'cos we didn't find it first. My mum dampened the mild euphoria (that came later) by saying something like - "It's dirty and brown like your room." Actually there are two snakes named after me (more embarassment). The other is Dendrelaphis ashokii.  

Here in the US, I hear a lot about how great the tropics are to herp – do you think India gets proper recognition for it’s herpetological diversity?

The tropics are different. Great to herp, I don't know. If one is out in the right season and at the right time, there is lots of 'stuff'. Off season (at least in our neck of the woods) everything disappears. Proper recognition? I don't know.

A school of herpetology at the North Orissa University has (or will be) opening this year in India, how do you think further herpetological education will influence the conservation of India’s herpetofauna? **Edit - I received some misinformation, corrected by Ashok. As it turns out, this school had been opened previously and was run more as a short course.

About 5 years back Dr Sushil Kumar Dutta got the Department of Science & Technology to part with some cash and arranged this 'school' once every year in different Universities/ institutions - the first was in northern Orissa (and the last from this grant), the others were at the Wildlife Institute of India (Dehra Dun), Guwahaty (Assam), and at SACON (Salim Ali Center for Ornithology and Natural History) close to Coimbatore. The 'school' lasts about 10-12 days and is pretty intense. Most of the 30 or so folks that attend are really sharp, and some of them have already started doing really good work, so it's helping. However, these efforts are all drops in the ocean till we sort out our problem of rapidly vanishing wild spaces. This issue is kinda political and ecological, and I'm gonna stick to taxonomy and not get stuck in conservation arguments.

Any herp publications in the works? A possible follow-up to 2004’s Snake of India, The Field Guide?

A few short notes. Rom wants 'at least 25 species additions' before we consider a follow up. Guess who has to go get 'em? Kidding. But yup, we'd definitely like to do another version. I'd like to add an annotated key as well, but Janaki (the editor) is of the firm opinion that no one will be able to lift the field guide if we keep adding stuff, so negotiations on point number two are still on.
Macropisthodon plumbicolor - Green Keelback
                     A. Captain/ S. Thakur/ J. Kadapatti/ S. Mukherjee/ A. Patel

Anything else you’d like to share?

Nope! Think I've yakked quite enough. Happy, safe herping to you all. 


Ashok's and Rom's field guide can be purchased here: Snakes of India: The Field Guide

The interview with Rom Whitaker can be found here: Dr. Rom Whitaker & the Madras Crocodile Bank