What It Feels Like To Die of a Boomslang Bite

By Christie Wilcox | November 2, 2015 4:13 pm
The deadly boomslang, the snake fingered in the death of Karl Patterson Schmidt. Photo by William Warby

The deadly boomslang, the species of snake fingered in the death of Karl Patterson Schmidt.
Photo by William Warby

It’s estimated that somewhere between one and five million people are bitten by snakes every year, with around 1/5 of those resulting in death. That number is a lot lower than it once was — several decades ago, antivenoms for deadly snakes were few and far between, so people frequently succumbed to bites. One such victim was American herpetologist Karl P. Schmidt.

Schmidt worked for the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum in Chicago during his scientific career, and even was president of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists from 1942 to 1946. He had handled countless deadly snakes. But in 1957, he made the mistake of underestimating a juvenile boomslang that Marlin Perkins, then the director of the Lincoln Park Zoo, had sent him for identification. He didn’t believe the snake could inject a lethal dose, so he didn’t seek medical treatment until it was too late. Ever the scientist, Schmidt documented the last 15 hours of his life in his diary, which  Science Friday has made into a harrowing video.

Warning: video contains graphic descriptions

Boomslangs are one of few deadly members of the snake family Colubridae, often referred to as the rear-fanged snakes for their uniquely-positioned dentition. Unlike the other two major venomous groups — the Viperidae, or vipers, and the Elapidae, or elapids — the colubrids’ fangs are located at the rear of the jaw, and in most species, the fangs are too small and their venom too weak to cause much damage in people. But the boomslang defies colubrid convention: it can open its mouth to almost a 180° angle when biting, thus allowing it to sink its fangs deep into our flesh, and is armed with a blood-curdling venom more deadly than the venoms of cobras or even the notorious black mamba when injected into mouse veins.

If Schmidt had rushed to the hospital, it’s possible that medical intervention could have saved his life — so his pride and belief that the small snake simply couldn’t kill him may have contributed to his death. But without boomslang antivenom — which, at the time, was only available in Africa — doctors would have been fighting an uphill battle from the get go. Nowadays, zoos and other facilities which keep venomous snakes always have a stock of antivenom at the ready, just in case.

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  • Shane Wegner

    I may need to go wikipedia how “anti-venoms” really work. I seem to recall milking the snake for the “posi-venom” was a factor.

    But it’s weird to think one can anti-anything. “Dude, I’ve been shot.” “No problem, just take an anti-bullet.”

    • Anita Mitchell

      Toxins have hemodynamic effects which can be countered. You are talking about acceleration wound in flesh a different dynamic altogether. Your bullet analogy more like trying to unboil a hard boiled egg dropped from 4th floor.

      • Emkay

        the toxins/venoms most suredly have greater neurological effects… the dropped egg hit you on the head,,right!

    • Tania L. Moore

      It is anti-VENIN, not anti- veNOM. The article got it wrong.

      • Steve Gibson

        No, actually you got it wrong on 2 accounts. Either term is generally acceptable in the herpetology field. In the US, we tend to use the term antivenin more, but in virtually every other nation the accepted and much more commonly used term is antivenom.

        And in either case, no one uses a hyphen with either term today.

  • ZeonChar

    This video really needs a better narrator. I enjoyed the contents, but the guy’s voice was killing me.

  • nik

    If the venom causes coagulation, would it be possible for an anti-coagulant to be used to slow or halt the effects?

    • Anita Mitchell

      Excess coag is the beginning of the venom process and when all platelets have been exhausted every organ begins to hemorrhage so tricky application of anti coag medicines. Probably…but since you die of hemorrhage timing and dose and monitoring everything. Like rabies, once bitten, you need vaccine, or in this case anti venom or just supportive care to help you survive a process designed over millions of years to be lethal.

      • nik

        I suppose that ultimately the real solution, is not to get bitten in the first place. Familiarity breeds contempt is a well known saying, and couldnt be more appropriate than in this case.
        My son, once got bitten by a horse fly, when he was in his twenties. I offered to put some antiseptic cream on it, but he was much too macho to accept. The next day his arm has swollen to twice its size, and he then accepted the cream. [better late than never I suppose]
        I then lectured him on the millions of people that die annually from just insect bites, and how it wasn’t the bite, but the crap that was injected into it that killed.
        He had to learn the hard way I suppose, but at least, he will probably remember the lesson, I hope!
        My time in the military in the tropics taught me a lot.

  • Emkay

    RESPECT… the lowly snake…

  • Lucyfur Feralcat

    You are correct.

  • archer52

    I hate all snakes. Lost two dogs- one saved my young life by stepping between me and the snake- and got bit once by a moccasin (lucky I had snake leggings on). Hate them…all!

    If I know for a fact it is non poisonous I’ll let it go. If I think it is poisonous, I’ll whack it. I know, bad bad human, but I figure for the few I find and kill I’m not changing the world’s population- but I may save some hapless man or dog who comes along behind me.

    • Kurt S

      Yes you are right “bad human”. I find there is a flaw in your logic when you say “for the few I find and kill”. When you add up all the people that indiscriminately kill snakes, that can decimate a population.

  • Steve Gibson

    Either term is correct. In the US more will tend to refer to it as antivenin, however in virtually every other western nation it is much more commonly referred to as antivenom. The truth is either term is acceptable, and neither is more correct or incorrect than the other.

  • http://www.ilovesamfordwater.com.au/ John Greydanus

    so he died doing what he loved

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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer and postdoctoral scholar at the University of Hawaii. She freelances for major media outlets including The New York Times and Popular Science. Her debut book, Venomous, releases August 2016 (Scientific American/FSG Books). To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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