The Poison Sommelier

Bryan Fry has suffered 26 venomous snakebites -all in the name of science!

(Image credit: VenomDoc)

Bryan Fry can still hear the dit-dit-dit of the lizard's teeth scraping across the bones of his hand. The lace monitor -a formidable reptile that grows up to nearly 7 feet long- was one of more then 250 lizards and venomous snakes living at his mountainside property near Melbourne. The bite split the knuckles of Fry's first two fingers, severing tendons and nerve bundles. On the ambulance ride to the hospital, it took two towels to stop the bleeding. "I had to explain why, at 7AM on a cold rainy morning, I was presenting with a monitor lizard bite," he recalls.

Fry, a zoologist at the University of Queensland, Australia, is obsessed with the world's most venomous animals, and he's not afraid to risk his life to study the evolution of their chemical weapons -including acting as landlord to hundreds of dangerous creatures. When the university ran out of space to house the animals, Fry built enclosures fort the lizards and snakes on his own property. After all, a monitor bite or two is nothing for a man who talks about venom and stings as easily as an oenophile describes wine.

(Image credit: VenomDoc)

The bite of a horned sea snake? That's "the feeling you get from an intense workout magnified a hundred times and lasting for a month." Getting stung by an estuary stingray? "Truly beyond belief, like hot metal dipped in acid." What about a Stephen's banded snake, whose venom depletes the body of fibrinogen, a protein that's essential for clotting? "There's nothing quite like bleeding out of your nose, mouth, and ass from an anticoagulant snakebite and being terrified that the same thing is happening in your brain," says Fry. "That's a unique experience that I don't recommend."

(Image credit: VenomDoc)

His daredevil approach may put his own life at risk, but he does it because it has the potential to save others. Venomous animals have a history of inspiring important medicines, including viper-derived treatments for high blood pressure and minor heart attacks. And Fry is proving that there's still much to learn from those creatures. Scientists used to believe that there were only two venomous lizards -the Gila monster and the Mexican bearded lizard- whose toxins evolved separately from those of snakes. But Fry has located venom glands and proteins in many supposedly nonvenomous species, including monitor lizards, Komodo dragons, and some frequently kept as pets, including bearded dragons and Asian rat snakes. His discovery, published in Nature in 2005, showed that an early ancestor of all snakes and some lizards was venomous. But over the years, the trait has been modified or lost in different lineages.

For Fry, the discovery was "a career maker," and he used the momentum to test more theories. Before long, he was sticking a Komodo dragon's head in a medical scanner, and the results were groundbreaking. Although it had been thought that the giant lizard's bite was simply bacteria-ridden, Fry discovered that it's also venomous. But Fry's contributions to the field hardly stop there. Since the Komodo discovery, he has found three new species of sea snake and traveled to Antarctica to study the freeze-resistant venom of deep-sea octopuses. And he's about to announce the discovery of a new neurotoxin in vampire bat saliva.

(Image credit: VenomDoc)

Of course, those breakthroughs didn't come easy. Along the way, Fry has been bitten by 26 venomous snakes and stung by stonefish, centipedes, scorpions, and box jellyfish. He maintains the physique of a former competitive swimmer, but his body is a walking inventory of injuries. He has no feeling in his right index finger after the monitor bite ("As if my handwriting wasn't bad enough!"). And three of his vertebrae are capped with metal, after a backbreaking fall from a termite mound caused by "a sudden gust of gravity."

But beneath the daredevil exterior and jovial tales of near-fatalities, Fry takes both safety and his research very seriously, railing against the "carnival" attitude of celebrity wranglers of dangerous animals, who often inadvertently terrify animals into defensive behavior. "These animals have killed countless people," he says, "but more lives have been saved than lost because of the drugs developed through their venom." As for whether the swashbuckling scientist will ever switch his research focus to something less dangerous, don't count on it. "Most conservation effort is targeted toward cute-and-cuddlies, but I've never seen a single useful compound that's come out of a panda."

(YouTube link)

Visit Bryan Fry at his website, VenomDoc.


The article above, written by Ed Yong, is reprinted with permission from the May 2013 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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