Lies, Damned Lies, and Venom Hunter Contracts: Reality Bites Part II

By Christie Wilcox | June 22, 2016 8:00 am

This is Part II of a four-part series on the Discovery Channel show Venom Hunters and the apparent bad behavior of the network, production company, and cast members involved. In Part I, I revealed how the show failed to get actual venom producers as stars due to their commitment to an inaccurate premise. Now I examine what seems to be flagrant falsification, something Discovery promised they weren’t going to do anymore.

Perhaps in part to reinforce the idea that the cast members were professionals who collect venom as their “day job,” in every episode of Venom Hunters, the audience is told that the hunters are out to “fill an order” or a “contract” for the venom from a certain number of snakes (or the snakes themselves, for one team). For example, we are first introduced to Ed Chapman and Justin Bottrell in Dead Lakes, Florida, where Ed tells the camera: “I got a call from one of the labs that they need three cottonmouths. I don’t like collecting cottonmouths; they’re feisty, they’re aggressive, and if you’re in the water and they go down, you don’t know where they’re at. But the lab needs these snakes for antivenom. Ultimately, if the end result can be saving a life, we’re gonna give it our best shot.”

Screen shots of the show's claims for how the venom collected could save thousands of lives—except that none of it went to producing antivenom.

Screen shots of the show’s claims for how the venom collected could save thousands of lives—except that it’s likely none of it went to producing antivenom.

In each episode, once the snakes are caught, we get a quick reminder of the numbers: how much venom the snake(s) produced, how many doses of antivenom that amount makes, and how many lives will be supposedly saved. But to those who work in the venom industry, the idea that the teams were fulfilling orders for the venoms from three individuals of local, abundant species, especially if the venom was “for antivenom,” is simply ludicrous. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts

Venom Hunters Receives Venomous Backlash: Reality Bites Part I

By Christie Wilcox | June 21, 2016 8:00 am

This is Part I of a four-part series on the Discovery Channel show Venom Hunters and the apparent bad behavior of the network, production company, and cast members involved. Stay tuned for more.

“I think the excuse that it’s just TV is bullshit. It’s just TV that hurts the animals, hurts people, and dumbs down science,” Jim Harrison said with quiet anger. It was clear he’s no fan of one of Discovery Channel’s newest reality shows, Venom Hunters. Jim Harrison, the director of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, has collected venoms for scientific research and antivenom development for decades. He’s one of the most experienced and well-known professionals in the venom business, and he, like many who work with venomous animals for a living, has spoken out on social media against the show.

Jim and I were sitting at a table during one of the breaks on the last full day of Venom Week, joined by several other distinguished members of the venomous reptile community. Carl Barden, director of the Reptile Discovery Center in Florida, sat to my left, his lips slightly pursed as Jim explained his objections. “People are going to go and over-collect, and they have no husbandry skills, so snakes are going to die. And then there are going to be bites, because they don’t know what they’re doing,” Jim said.

“You think it’s going to go that far?” Carl asked, crossing his arms and leaning back in his chair.

“I do,” Jim replied sternly. “They’re already doing it. We’re already getting calls and emails, people trying to sell us venom, trying to sell us snakes.”

Several nodded and voiced their agreement with Jim. Carl frowned.  “I really didn’t think much about it.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts

Watch: How Mosquitoes Drill Into Your Flesh With Six Needles

By Christie Wilcox | June 8, 2016 9:32 pm

Mosquitoes are one of my favorite venomous animals. These natural phlebotomists have efficient venoms which allow them to effortlessly violate our most precious tissue—our blood—while manipulating our immune system to remain under the radar. You can just imagine  how hard that venom has to work to hide the invading mouthparts, which poke around in search of a suitable capillary, as this awesome video from KQED’s Deep Look shows:

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MORE ABOUT: Mosquitoes, Venomous

When you’ve been stung more than 1,000 times, it’s only sensible to write a book about stinging insects.

By Christie Wilcox | May 31, 2016 11:39 pm
Schmidt and I have very different definitions of "gentle giant".

Schmidt and I have very different definitions of “gentle giant”.

You can tell a lot about an book by the author’s photo. My author photo for Venomous, for example, paints me as the intrepid explorer; I look adventurous and daring as I smile unabashedly through the legs of a large tailless whip scorpion (amblypygid). But while the photo is startling, it’s not as bold as it seems. It’s a facade of bravado, not real bravery, as the menacing-looking animal on my cheek is actually harmless. Meanwhile, in his author photo for Sting of the Wild, Justin Schmidt shows that he’s far more daring: on his nose crawls a large Dinoponera ant.

Schmidt probably would laugh at my assessment of the image; after all, he refers to the Dinoponera, the largest ants on Earth, as the “gentle giants of the ant world.” But I went with a non-stinging amblypigid rather than an ant for a reason. According to Schmidt’s own colorful and cheeky index detailing the pain of insect stings, the ant crawling across his face possesses “A pulsing sting with some flavor.” Sure, it only scores a 1.5 out of 4.0 on his pain scale—but that’s 1.5 more painful than any species I would place on my snout.

schmidt_sting_of_the_wildIt’s a photo befitting the book of a man who has been stung by more than 1000 times by some 80+ different species. As an entomologist who studies the Hymenoptera—bees, wasps and ants—Schmidt has a lifetime of experiences to draw upon for Sting of the Wild, his first book, which which hit shelves May 15th. Read More

The Summer One Third of the Great Barrier Reef Died

By Christie Wilcox | May 29, 2016 11:25 pm
Researchers survey bleached corals in the shallow water in Cygnet Bay, Western Australia, during current bleaching event. Photo Credit: Chris Cornwall

Researchers survey bleached corals in the shallow water in Cygnet Bay, Western Australia, during current bleaching event. Photo Credit: Chris Cornwall

April marked the twelfth consecutive month of record-breaking temperatures. That’s an entire year of our planet, on land and in the sea, being hotter-than-ever-recorded since record keeping began in 1880. Such extraordinary warmth is affecting ecosystems globally, but perhaps the hardest hit are coral reefs, whose fundamental organisms are incredibly sensitive to the heat.

Earlier this year, authorities in Australia reported that the Great Barrier Reef was in the midst of its worst bleaching event ever. Surveys above and below the water estimated that over 90% of the reefs were affected by bleaching. Now, as the summer wanes down under, scientists are finally able to begin to assess the lasting damage caused by this event. Their findings are heartbreaking. Read More

Powerful Short Video Highlights The Global Burden of Snakebite

By Christie Wilcox | May 28, 2016 7:43 pm

The global problem of snakebite goes unnoticed by most of us in developed countries. We have good access to medical care, abundant antivenom to treat what few dangerous bites occur, and snake species whose venoms are often manageable. In the U.S., for example, bees and wasps kill over ten times as many people as snakes do. But in other countries, snakebite is a real and neglected problem. Worldwide, snakes claim more than one hundred thousands lives annually, and leave countless more disabled and disfigured. This powerful, heartbreaking seven and a half-minute video is one that everyone should see:

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MORE ABOUT: Snakebite, Snakes, Venom

Reef “Cat Scans” Reveal Another Way Acidification Speeds Erosion

By Christie Wilcox | April 30, 2016 7:48 pm
Reefs are built by so much more than coral! Photo by

The stunning biodiversity of a “coral” reef. Photo by Laura D

Rising carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere are changing Earth’s climate at an unprecedented rate. Not only is our planet getting warmer on average—in the oceans, a chemical reaction spurred by dissolved CO2 is altering water chemistry, causing a decrease in pH. This effect of climate change, called ocean acidification, can dissolve the calcium carbonate foundations of coral reefs and other calcifying organisms, making it impossible to build and maintain healthy reefs. Luckily, recent studies on how corals react to lower pHs has given scientists hope that they may be more resilient than previously thought. However, to truly understand how reefs will respond to climate change, we have to look at more than just corals.

Reefs are complex ecosystems, the bases of which are comprised of so much more than corals. There are other species which act as calcifiers, adding to the carbonate foundation (such as crustose coralline algae). The contribution of these non-coral species to reef growth, called secondary accretion, helps shape the surface and guide the settlement of larval corals. There are also species that eat away at the reef, including many worms and sponges. These bioeroders can weaken reef structures until they crumble apart. Whether a reef grows or shrinks over time depends on the interplay between its corals, other reef-builders, and the burrowing organisms which eat their way through the reef’s carbonate foundation. Read More

Watch: Hognose Snake Fakes Death In Most Overacted Way

By Christie Wilcox | April 29, 2016 3:55 pm
Who's the cutest wittle snakey-wakey? Photo by Borhuah Chen

Who’s the cutest wittle snakey-wakey? This Western hognose, that’s who. Photo by Borhuah Chen

When you look one of these little snakes in its adorable little face, it’s not hard to see how the hognose got its name. Their upturned snoots give the snakes a porcine appearance.

But hognoses don’t just have adorable nasal features—they are also the drama queens of the serpent world. If you thought William Shatner wins the prize for worst over-actor on the planet, think again:

The end in particular just slays me: “No, I’m dead. See? I’m dead. So dead. Belly up dead.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Ecology, More Science, select, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Hognose Snake, Snakes, Venom

Attacking DNA to Save Snakebitten Limbs

By Christie Wilcox | April 19, 2016 2:06 pm
The saw-scaled viper, Echis carinatus, on display in Geneva. Photo c/o Wikimedia

The saw-scaled viper, Echis carinatus, on display in Geneva. Photo from Wikimedia

The moment a viper’s venom enters the body, its enzymatic components set about their nefarious work. Metalloproteases begin the assault by mowing down structurally essential components of blood vessels and tissues, weakening walls and making holes that leech fluid. Capillaries hemmorrhage and the area swells while the proteases keep at their attack, taking out skeletal muscle through mechanisms poorly understood. Phospholipases join in, with their sights set on cell membranes. Some cut apart membrane lipids making lethal holes, while others seem to be just as destructive without enzymatic activity. The end result: muscle tissue dies. Hyaluronidases and serine proteases aid in the efforts, and the helpless tissue succumbs to the venom’s siege.

And that’s not even the worst part. The metalloproteases and phospholipases have other tricks up their sleeves. They don’t just fight their own war on our flesh: they enlist our own immune system to help them do it. The liberation of tumor necrosis factor and immune-stimulating cytokines by metalloproteases and the release of bioactive lipids by phospholipases cause immune cells to rush to the wound. Our body’s forces are trained to kill, usually setting their sights on bacteria and viruses. But without those clear targets, the body’s army gets confused. They can’t tell friend from foe, yet the immune cells fire anyway, blindly attacking an unseen danger. Valiant volleys act as friendly fire, adding to the death toll of innocent tissues.

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Another Reason To Act Now On Climate Change: Snakes

By Christie Wilcox | March 31, 2016 10:00 pm


Though scientists have been warning about the disastrous impacts that climate change will have on our planet for decades, we are now starting to feel those predictions manifest. As Eric Holthaus pointed out, the “worst nightmare” scenarios are already happening. Droughts, storms, fires, you name it—the world as we knew it is under siege. Heck, we just had the most abnormally hot month on record; February 2016 was 1.35 degrees Celsius warmer than the average, making it two-tenths of a degree more unusually warm than the previous record month: January 2016.

And as water supplies dwindle, rainforests burn, and corals bleach, we may have yet another thing to worry about: frickin’ snakes.

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MORE ABOUT: Climate Change, Snakes

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