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although bites are rare in the United States, some Amazonian Amerindians suffer injury
rates exceeding those of python attacks on the Philippine Agta. An astonishing 95 per-
cent of Ecuadorian Waorani males had been bitten at least once by vipers or cor-
alsnakes, almost half of them more often; equally surprising, bites caused only 4 per-
cent of deaths in that population, compared to 7 percent from infanticide, 10 percent
from illness, and 45 percent from “speared by other Waorani.” 2 Snakes understandably
terrify forest dwellers and rural people, the more so for their having watched loved ones
endure cruel deaths. The tables do get turned, of course: prehistoric middens contain
bones of eastern diamond-backed and Middle American rattlesnakes, and worldwide we
consume millions of serpents annually.
Given such tumultuous history, it's no surprise that herpetologists are often asked,
what's the deadliest snake? Judged by drop for drop toxicity, Australia's inland taipan
beats all others hands down, with enough toxins in one bite to dispatch two hundred
thousand mice. That species, however, rarely bites anyone. Which species killsthemost
people depends on toxicity, amount injected, and snake abundance multiplied by snap-
piness, victim's size and health, and medical care—such that each year a few species
of vipers and cobras fatally bite tens of thousands of Africans and Asians. In the United
States, about eight thousand are bitten annually, 70 percent by rattlesnakes, 20 percent
by copperheads, 9 percent by cottonmouths, and 1 percent by coralsnakes; fewer than
a dozen die, usually bit by rattlers that were purposely handled. Were he bitten today,
John D. Sweeten would likely recover without permanent injury, but in some countries
snakebite remains as much a threat as it likely was for early anthropoids.
Statistics, of course, don't matter when the snake materializes next to your hand or
foot, poised to defend itself. And if it does strike? Viper bites typically destroy tissue,
sometimes causing loss of digits or even limbs, and in severe cases massive blood leak-
age leads to fatal shock. Neurotoxic cobras, kraits, and their relatives are another mat-
ter, because although local symptoms usually aren't as dramatic, without treatment res-
piratory failure is likely. Most formerly recommended snakebite first-aid measures are
useless or worse—as a Boy Scout I dreaded carving Xs over fang marks—and because
antivenin works well, prompt transport to a clinic is typically the preferred option. One
of the world's premier snakebite experts told me, however, that if bitten by a large
rattlesnake and needing more than a couple of hours to reach help, “I'll deny this if
quoted, but I'd apply an arterial tourniquet.” When I recalled learning to use that risky
measure only for severe bleeding, he countered, “Quite so, but you see, I'd be trad-
ing limb loss for death from shock.” And I once met a Russian zoo curator who, having
no gaboon adder antivenin, immediately removed his bitten thumb with a hatchet kept
nearby for just that purpose.
Epidemiologists label bites illegitimate for folks who purposely interact with snakes,
and these occur more frequently than legitimate accidents. Scars and missing fingers
were traits of the “herpetologist handshake” when I first attended scientific meetings
in the 1970s, and professional deaths were well known. By the mid-twentieth century a
terciopelo had killed Douglas March at his Honduran serpentarium, a spectacled cobra
fatally bit zoo curator Grace Olive Wiley during a magazine interview, and physician-nat-
uralist Fred Shannon lapsed into irreversible shock from a Mohave rattler bite. In 1958,
the boomslang that Field Museum's Karl Schmidt was asked to identify ended his life,
and after a 1975 bite from his pet savanna twigsnake, Senckenberg Museum's Robert
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