Archive for the ‘Reptile’ Category

 

Wow, what a poorly run blog this is turning out to be. It turns out that doing a PhD does, on occasion, require me to actually do some work, and this, coupled with my other time commitments of pretending to have a social life, weeping in terror at the sure and certain knowledge that one day every single one of Man’s accomplishments will be eroded and forgotten by the unstoppable march of time and finally trying to make good on certain rash promises involving uranium and rocketry I made to a certain leader of a certain country, means that I kind of forgot about updating this blog.

 

So sorry about that.

 

And sorry to His Supreme Majestic Imperial Excellency General Secretary Marshal too. It turns out designing an ICBM is not, as it turns out, one of those ‘make it up as you go along’ things, which explains why half the capital is now a large, smoking hole in the ground.

 

On the plus side, he now has a nice ‘fission hole’. Geddit? Geddit? Also, the CIA is now after him.

Anyway, the Creature Feature this week is all about the Gila Monster, which is to lethally venomous animals what this blog is to regular updates.

 

As in, it promises a lot, but then fails to deliver.

 

Living in the southern United States and Northern Mexico, the Gila Monster, or Helodermum suspecta, is about two feet long, weighs about two kilograms and has a curious, mottled skin colouration consisting of black and yellow bands. It is a pretty big animal, in other words, although perhaps not quite deserving of the title ‘monster’ and it appears to spend much of its time underground, much like the purely civilian and innocent construction projects of His Excellency.

Gila monsters hide from the harsh glare of the sun, in much the same way as illegal refining facilities hide from the harsh glare of NRO spy satellites.

 

Feeding mostly on carrion, small animals and eggs, it has an eggcellent (hahahah -sorry, moving on) sense of smell, able to track the path of an egg which has been rolled along the floor, or sniff out a nest buried 15cm deep. As a result, it has thick, muscular legs and long claws, allowing it to dig out and devour eggs, and also allows them to climb trees and cacti in search of food. Whilst larger food is crushed to death before ingestion, the Gila monster can simply swallow smaller prey whole, which is a pretty nasty way to go; being digested alive in the stomach acids of a stinking reptile. They feed fairly irregularly (less than ten times a year) but when they do eat, they binge eat, sometimes eating as much as a third of their body-weight in one sitting, a feat only previously matched by PhD students at a free buffet. Unlike most PhD students, or indeed desert animals for that matter, they need to drink water to maintain water levels inside their body, so they are highly active on those rare occasions in the American deserts when it rains and hibernate for the rest of the time.

 

So, we’ve got a fairly large, exceptionally ugly lizard which spends most of its time lurking underground, with a good sense of smell and, presumably due to its lack of regular meals, a constant, ravenous hunger. Just to make things better, it has a venomous bite.

 

Luckily, this bite is a bit pathetic. The lizard lacks the muscles needed to actually, y’know, inject the venom, meaning it basically has to chew it into your body. Whilst this is undoubtedly painful, this does reduce the mortality rate – indeed, in 30% of cases no venom is injected at all (http://www.herpetology.com/helobite.txt). The bite is apparently rather forceful, and sometimes you need either a set of pliers or a lit match to prise the lizard’s jaw open and persuade it to let go. The venom itself is rather toxic – indeed, the LD50 required to kill a mice when injected is considerably less than that for some rattlesnakes. However, due to the rather inefficient delivery mechanism, the Gila Monster is far less likely to kill you. One doctor in 1899 mentioned he had never had to attend a case of Gila Monster envenomation, and more to the point thought that anyone fool enough to get bitten by one ought to die, which does seem a tad harsh. We’d hate to see his approach to any injury actually accidentally self inflicted. He’d probably want to burn the affected limb off with kerosene whilst quoting Darwin at you or something.

 

We have no evidence he actually looked like this, and yet we are certain he did. His patients were too scared of him to get sick, or bitten.

 

The venom contains a whole cocktail of proteins and peptides of various effects (for a full list, see the link above), but which can cause a burning pain, sweating, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhoea, weakness or difficulty moving, difficulty breathing, shock and in some rare cases kidney or heart problems. One, horridum, causes internal haemorrhaging and bulging of the eyes. Despite this mixture of unpleasant effects, treatment beyond painkilling and bed rest is not normally needed. There is not record of an actual death since 1939 due to Gila Monster bite; and many of those before this point are thought to be more down to the medical technology of the day, which probably boiled down, more or less, to “rusty hacksaw and a slug of whiskey (for the doctor)”. Curiously, components of their venom have been shown to be potentially useful in treating lung cancer (Maruno and Said 1993), diabetes (Bond 2006) and dementia (Perry et al 2002). It has even been shown to reduce food cravings in rats (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120515165405.htm), making this lizard more beneficial than, and almost certainly less dangerous than, most fad diets (fad diets unnamed because their makers can afford good lawyers).

Pictured: A better source of dieting help than most bestsellers. (Pic credit: Cameron Rognan)

 

So there you have it. Hooray for Gila Monsters!

 

 

 

 

Here at Horrific Animals of the World, we don’t like getting things wrong.

In fact, to be more accurate, we don’t like being told we got things wrong, and our response is usually less ‘apologise, rectify the error and make sure it never happens again’ than ‘organise a poorly orchestrated smear campaign against our critics’. However, in some cases, we are forced to apologise; partially because it is evident we got it wrong and no sensible, clear minded person could deny we need to publicly show our repentance, but more so because otherwise it could well be that severe legal, financial and other penalties may be brought against us.

So, to the pupils, teachers and governors of St Saddam’s School we offer the following apology.

Firstly, I apologise for accepting your invitation to speak at your ‘animals of the world’ assembly.

In fairness, we feel that this is less a case of ‘we were wrong’ than ‘we were both in the wrong’, but judging by how that excuse went down with the Judge, we won’t go futher into that. All we will say is that fact that you thought bringing someone in from some barely read blog to talk about animals shows either a terrible lack of judgement, or that Micheal Gove’s reforms to the education system are far, far more damaging than previously suspected. Without wanting to appear as if we want to shift the blame, we really feel that this whole affair is wholly his fault.

Secondly, I apologise for thinking that a deadly venomous snake was a suitable exhibit for the assembly.

In retrospect, we would have to conclude that perhaps exhibiting the Common Krait (Bangarus caeruleus) at a children’s event was a poor decision. This snake, whilst looking undeniably cool with its black and white striped body, and 1.75 metres of length, is also incredibly venemous, and is known as one of the ‘Big Four’ in South Asia, as it responsible for so many bites there. In 2011, 2000 official deaths were reported from snakebites generally (although another report indicated the true figure was nearer 50,000 (http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-12-06/india/30481201_1_anti-venom-krait-snake-bites )), and krait bites accounted for 11% of snakebites in Sri Lanka (Ariaratnam et al 2008). So yes, in retrospect it was a poor choice.

 

There is literally no way this can go wrong. (Imagecredit: Wikimedia Commons)

Thirdly, we apologise for getting confused over who actually owned the Krait.

Again, there was some confusion over this; as it turns out you can’t just ‘borrow’ a snake from the Zoo whenever you feel like it. However, we would like to add that zoo officials and armed police storming into the hall just as the snake was being handled by children hardly helped matters.

Fourthly, we apologise for letting the children handle the snake.

Seeing as the snake really is quite venomous, we accept this was irresponsible.1mg of the toxin will kill around seventy mice ( http://www.seanthomas.net/oldsite/ld50tot.html ). . Given that the average bite will inject between 8-20mg of toxin (http://toxinology.com/fusebox.cfm?fuseaction=main.snakes.display&id=SN0015 ), and that generally the bite is pretty much painless and has an 80% mortality rate if left untreated (http://toxicology.ucsd.edu/Snakebite%20Protocols/Bungarus.htm ) this may not have been the most sensible course of action. If the snake handling had been performed by anyone other than our level headed and not easily panicked interns, there could have been a catastrophe.

We’ll add ‘incredibly poisonous snakes’ to our list of things not to let children near. Its Health and Safety gone mad, really. (Imagecredit: Wikimedia Commons)

 

We apologise for immediately panicking

When the police burst through the door, a number of our employees thought that they were wanted on a number of charges, not all relating to snakenapping. In the ensuring confusion, we also apologise that the snake was dropped. However, I believe that I do deserve some credit for quick thinking for immediately turning off the lights in the hope that the snake would be afraid of the dark.

I apologise for not remembering that Kraits are both nocturnal and far more bite-y in the dark.

Yes, this really does speak for itself. I furthermore admit that switching off the lights when a venomous snake was escaping through a sea of screaming children, shouting and trigger happy police and weeping teachers probably added to rather than detracted from the confusion. However, in fairness I must say many of the pupils acted like five year olds, although this criticism obviously does not apply to the five year olds.

I apologise for continuing my talk.

I had hoped that pretending that nothing was wrong might calm the children. However, telling them that Kraits tend to live near humans, that most of their bites occur as their victims are sleeping, that their babies cannibalise each other and that the toxin is a mixture of powerful neurotoxins that cause painful abdominal cramps and respiratory paralysis; meaning that artificial ventilation for several hours or even days, is needed to keep the victim breathing as their bodies metabolise the poison, did not help. (We also apologise for the length of that sentence. Ed.). But I had made a vow to teach those children about animals, and I would not abandon them or their education!

I apologise for escaping through a window and abandoning the children.

In fairness, the police were closing in on me, and I thought that an explanation would be best provided after everyone had calmed down, and stopped screaming about ‘sueing’ this, ‘liability’ that and ‘dangerously stupid’ the other.

I apologise for not helping you capture the snake

Somehow, I never really got round to retrieving the snake, so as far as I know it is still in your school. They prefer areas close to water, preferably with a ready supply of mice, rats, toads, frogs and other small animals to eat. In South Asia, they are commonly found in house roofs and rubbish heaps. In your school I would suggest being careful around the storage cupboard and the staffroom; at least until the snake is found.

Unless it laid eggs of course.

Incredibly, this blog is now back; which I’m sure is a massive relief to the literally dozens of people, and thousands of spambots, that read this.

 

In fairness, I do have an excuse for not updating since before the Ordovician (ten points to who can tell what period came before, and after, this). Firstly, I was busy with my project, the dark fruit of which shall shortly ripen and cause Man to gnash his teeth and curse the uncaring God that rules over the universe, and hopefully also get me a 2:1. Secondly, and partially as a result of the first reason, I was somewhat…distracted after I handed the project in. I have little idea what actually happened, but the police, CPS and indeed myself would welcome clarifications on my whereabouts and actions over the past month; although on the plus side the 120 hour long alcoholic blackout I underwent at one point at least meant I spent much of the week sober.


But anyway, here we are again; and today we’ll be looking at a truly horrific lizard called the Komodo Dragon, which, as its name suggests, lives in Indonesia. (I’m sorry, but if you don’t know Komodo Island is in Indonesia, then I honestly cannot help you. Your parents obviously failed to educate you to a satisfactory standard). The term dragon, however, may be slightly misleading. ‘Dragon’ implies cunning reptiles, with a worrying amount of intelligence, and perhaps even the ability to breath fire and fly. However, these ‘dragons’ are really just big, exceptionally ugly and rather unhygienic lizards [we’ve heard of ‘scientific dispassion’, and want no part of it. Ed.]

 The Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis) is an example of the monitor lizards, and is the largest (living) lizard in the world, reaching lengths of up to three metres and weighing in at a decidedly hefty seventy or so kilograms. As such, they do, on occasion, attack humans, and the habit of burying bodies very deeply on the islands where the dragons live, and covering them with stones, is probably a response to the slightly nauseating habit these reptiles have of digging up a buried corpse and chowing down.

Therefore, never have a funeral performed by a Komodo Dragon priest. It will all end in tears. (Image from Wikimedia Commons).

Indeed, ‘nauseating’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘there is no God” are all common responses to some Komdo Dragon facts. For example, Komodo Dragon saliva is coloured red. This is not because of any special colouration, but rather because tissue covers almost all their teeth. Therefore, during feeding, this tissue gets lacerated; causing the saliva to have a blood red tinge. Additionally, adult Komodo Dragons are cannibalistic on their young; indeed 10% of the Komodo Dragon’s diet is made up of…other Komodo Dragons. When joining in group feeding, to prevent them being attacked and eaten, the young role themselves in faeces to prevent detection by adults. Finally, after eating, Komodo Dragons vomit up a mess of indigestible material, coated in stinking mucus.

Fun fact: The Komodo Dragon’s skin is covered in bony scales (osteoderms) that means you can’t make it into leather. So its not all bad. (Image credit Wikimedia Commons).

However, its feeding where the Komodo Dragon really stands out. Although they are not too proud to scavenge on carrion, they do actively hunt as well. They have a keen sense of smell; and can run at surprisingly fast speeds for short distances (up to 20 km/h) and have been observed standing up to catch out of reach prey.

 Even if a prey animal has escaped, if it is bitten it is still likely to succumb. For a long time it was thought this was due to sceptic shock; as Komodo Dragons have mouths filled with colonies of virulent and pathogenic bacteria. In one study, 57 varieties (much like Heinz beans) of bacteria were isolated from the saliva of Dragons, and mice infected with the saliva died from infection caused by one variety of bacteria, Pasteurella multocida (again, much like Heinz beans) (Montgomery et al 2002). However, recent research has cast doubt on this; pointing out that not every Dragon has this species of bacteria in its mouth; that these bacteria are likely transferred from prey to the mouths of the lizards during feeding, and that generally it is unlikely that such a mechanism would have evolved as an effective feeding strategy. However, it is now thought that Komodo Dragons are venomous to a degree; as their saliva contains various proteins that, among other things, stop the blood from coagulating; explaining why bites from these lizards bleed for a very long time (Fry et al 2009).

“You’ve got to admit that introducing bacteria into carrion is possibly not the safest method of eating”.

There was once a larger living lizard than the Komodo Dragon, and it was called Varanus Priscus, living, completely obviously, in Australia. There are plans to restore the outback to how it was before humans colonised Australia; and this would probably involve introducing Komodo Dragons as an apex predator; a policy we believe is possibly not the best one.

“My fellow Australians: I say we do not have enough venomous animals in our great nation. A great nation deserves thousands of great reptiles to roam our lands.”

Incredible as it may sound, Easter is nearly upon us. And whilst the Easter Bunny is probably, right now, simply a frozen lump of flesh surrounded by glove making material, we should still think about Easter; and reflect upon the nature of Faith.

Faith can be many things to many people. It can make a man spend his entire life helping the poor in some third world country, having not a care for his own wellbeing. Equally, it can make a man shoot a girl in the head for trying to get an education. It can make a woman stand up for justice for all, or make that woman walk onto a bus with a vest made of fertiliser, bleach and nails. Truly, the nature of Faith is manifold.

It can also make someone let a deadly venomous reptile crawl around on them, due to a distressingly literal interpretation of Mark 16-17 in the Bible, which is almost certainly meant to be interpreted metaphorically. Briefly, it says that the faithful  shall have the power to pick up snakes as well as drink poison without them being harmed. Whilst  most people would be content to take this on trust (it is the *Word of God*, after all) the Church of God with Signs Following have snake (usually rattlesnakes or copperheads, but sometimes even cobras are used)  handling as a key part of the service. If one is truly faithful, the argument goes, then the snakes will not harm the crazy people twirling them around. Whilst it is kind of beyond this blog’s remit to comment on theological matters, it should be noted that over sixty people have been killed, by snakebite, during these religious rites; although on the advice of our lawyers (these people are, somewhat unsurprisingly, mostly Americans (sorry American readers. Ed.))  we would like to stress that we have no evidence these bites occurred during the actual snake handling process. Maybe their churches are just really snake infested, or something. Another feature of these churches is that they usually prohibit alcohol, which is odd as the only possible way this ‘religion’ could have evolved is through some kind of drunken bet between rival groups of evangelicals.

However, although using rattlesnakes in Church services is, admittedly, a bit mad, it could be considerably more insane. One way to do this would be to use Black Mambas (Dendroaspis polylepis) in their Church services. This approach would have both advantages and disadvantages; the advantages being that Church services would be considerably shorter  and the disadvantages being that everyone would be killed.

The Westboro Baptist Church also base their entire belief system around a single Biblical verse; although a much less awesome one. Sadly, they have not yet taken up my suggestion of Black Mamba handling to test their faith.

Black Mambas are found all over sub-Saharan Africa, although there is considerable uncertainty about their exact range. This is slightly worrying, given what sort of snake the Black Mamba is, but still, according to Wikipedia, there is an area considerably larger than Western Europe where Black Mambas may or may not occur. Whilst we understand that scientists have many priorities, we cannot help but feel that finding out exactly which areas of Africa are infested with which lethally venomous snakes is fairly important.

Orange areas represent those places where Black Mambas are definitely present, green ares where they might be present. To be completely safe, avoid all grey, orange and green areas. White areas may contain sea-snakes, sharks and jellyfish. (Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Another interesting fact about the Black Mamba is that it is not so named for its skin (which starts off a light brown and gets darker with age) but rather for its mouth, which is apparently black. I stress the word ‘apparently’ here because there is literally no way I am going near enough a Black Mamba to check what colour its mouth is.

Black Mambas are well renowned for being the fastest snake on the planet; sometimes clocking in at around 20 kilometres per hour (Maina 1989) although it appears that in reality they don’t chase down and kill anyone they see. However, they are known for being very defensive of their homes (Haagner and Morgan 1993) and can be very aggressive if disturbed (http://www.zoocheck.com/Reportpdfs/Venomous%20snakes.pdf); and has a possibly deserved reputation for unprovoked attacks. This is not generally something one wants to hear about a venomous animal. Really, only “lives in beds” or “can take the form of a family member” could really be worse.

Although it looks as though it is smiling, this is actually the snakes defense posture. For some reason, the picture can’t be downsized, so scroll along to enjoy! (Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons).

The Black Mamba’s attack pattern consists of several very rapid strikes and bites; meaning it can defend itself against a group of predators or hunters.  Its estimated that each bite delivers around 100-120mg of venom (although in some cases 400mg has been measured); which is a good definition of the word ‘overkill’, since it takes only a tenth of this to kill an adult male (http://www.hikinginfo.co.za/DOCS/Snake%20Guide.pdf ); indeed before the discovery of antivenom a bite from a Black Mamba pretty much meant it was a good time to pick out a headstone. Assuming you were bitten in a gravestone shop, of course, because death almost always occurs less than  a few hours after biting.

The venom contains a whole cocktail of toxins. Dendrotoxins block potassium channels in the synapses (places where nerves join together) which promotes over-release of the neurotransmitter (a chemical which ‘transmits’ a nerve impulse) acetylcholine. This results in repetitive and spasmodic muscle movements (Harvey et al 2001). The venom also contains calcispetine, which relaxes smooth muscle tissue; leading to heart attack (Weille et al 1991). A person bitten by a Black Mamba will experience dizziness, difficulty breathing, severe abdominal pain, vomiting, nausea, loss of muscular control and, bizarrely enough, excessive drooling. Fortunately, the venom also contains a painkiller similar to morphine (Diochot et al 2012); although why the Black Mamba produces this is something of a mystery. Perhaps, deep in its black heart, the snake hopes that you will go out on a literal high, as painlessly as possible.

Nah (Picture from Wikimedia Commons – note the darkness of the inside mouth)