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