The Mysterious World of Snakes: Venom Extraction

Posted by Jonathan Twining on Jan 13, 2016 5:39:28 PM

IMG_6542.jpgDuring our Winter Break, I had the opportunity to travel to Central Florida with my family and some friends.  While the rest were off doing the theme park experience, I decided to go to some places where I could learn more about nature and the species with which we share this planet.  One of the places I went was Reptile World Serpentarium in Saint Cloud.  This facility has been open since 1972 and houses over 80 species of snakes and other reptiles.  This facility interested me because it houses a variety of venomous snake species with the purpose of extracting the venom to produce antivenin for snakebite victims.  The venom is also used in biomedical research, being used to make such medications as anticoagulants.

The facility has an observation area where the public can see how the venom is extracted twice every day, behind protective glass.  At this particular event, venom was extracted from cottonmouths, coral snakes, eastern diamond-back rattlesnakes, and monocled cobras.  As I watched, the two snake handlers would use special tongs and hooks to manipulate the snake’s body, pin the head down, and then grasp the snake behind the head.  The snake was then moved over to a glass or vial with a latex membrane across the top, and the snake would bite through the membrane.  The handler would press on the parotid glands behind the eyes to squeeze out as much venom as possible.  The venom is shipped to places like Australia where laboratories develop the antivenin needed for snakebite victims.

IMG_7234.jpgIt is estimated that around 2.5 million people are bitten by venomous snakes each year, and of these around 100,000 people die.  Most of the deadly snakebites occur in India, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.  One of the reasons that so many die is the lack of antivenin, which is expensive to produce, and those that most need it can’t afford it.  Instead, they turn to traditional medicines, which are mostly ineffective and may ultimately result in death or loss of limbs.  

Of course people aren’t the only ones that suffer: so do the snakes.  In fact, in some parts of the world, people are so afraid of being bitten by a venomous snake that they will kill ANY snake they happen to see because they have not learned how to recognize those that are truly harmful.  And contrary to the opinion of many, snakes are beneficial; they actually play an important role in Earth’s ecosystems as predators on rodent populations.  Their venom is also useful for the production of medicines that help sick people.  My wife works in a hospital in Rhode Island, and she has told me that some important medicines they use come from snake venom.

One organization that is doing something about human-snake conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa is the Antivenom Swazi Foundation in Swaziland, run by Clifton and Thea Litschka-Koen.  Clifton and Thea are called in to remove unwanted snakes, especially black mambas.  They relocate the snakes to a preserve away from human habitation.  The organization also raises money to provide antivenin for local hospitals and clinics.  Vials of antivenin cost around $75 each, and it takes at least 5 vials to treat one snakebite.  This is very expensive for the people of Swaziland.  You can learn more about this organization, including how to help, at antivenomswazi.org.  

I would encourage everyone to learn to respect snakes without fearing them.  If you see one, just give it space and it will leave you alone, venomous or not.  You can learn more and see the venom extraction process by watching my video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erLYTjAioFA

Malama honua!
Pura vida!

Jonathan E. Twining, Assistant Professor of Biology
Eastern Nazarene College, 23 E. Elm Avenue, Quincy, MA
Phone: 617-745-3552
Email: Jonathan.Twining@enc.edu
Twitter: @VernalPoolGuy
Web Pages: www.enc.edu/environmental_science; jonathantwining.wix.com/vernalpoolchronicles

Written by Jonathan Twining

Jonathan Twining teaches the ecology and environmental science courses for the Biology Department and is the advisor for the Animal Caretakers Team (ACT). Twining worked for a number of years as an environmental scientist and project manager with consulting firms in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. He has been very active in the greater community, partnering ENC students with organizations like the Quincy DPW, Wildlands Trust of Southeastern Massachusetts, Massachusetts Audubon, the South Shore Natural Science Center, and the Department of Conservation and Recreation. His passion and primary research interest is the ecology and conservation of vernal pool habitats. He has written numerous articles for NCM Magazine, and has been a speaker in local congregations about the care of creation (environmental stewardship).

Topics: Education, Environmental Science, Biology