Snakes in the woods

The snake encounters I am writing about happened in the Deccan Plateau of India and in a forest in Germany.

That’s where snakes belong, in woods and forests, and not on planes, where one of the most contrived movies in recent times put them. The ones I am writing about were in the jungles of India, and in a beautiful forest close to Hamburg, Germany. They were fairly dangerous encounters.

As I mentioned in a previous article I spent much of my early childhood in Lonavala, on the slopes of the Western Ghats, India. The town was a favourite of the erstwhile British colonialists, and we had a very nice house there. My father was a German who during the War had been interned in a snake-infested prisoner-of-war camp in Ahmednagar, India, and become an expert on snakes. After the war he set up a lab on the farm of my Uncle Paul and Aunt Trudy, who had an agricultural research facility some distance outside Lonavala, in the middle of the jungle. I was there very often in my childhood, roaming the jungles, Mowgli style, getting into all kinds of trouble and out of it. One of my duties was to collect small animals — reptiles and rodents — for the cages of snakes in my father’s lab.

In another story, Dipalee — the girl in the jungle, I described how, half a century later, we found the Steins’ house, and how we got to know a very bright young girl living there. She was a student and had to walk for an hour and a half to reach her college in Lonavala, which meant three hours every day trekking through the jungle. “Isn’t that dangerous?” I asked her. “Yes,” she replied. “Once I was bitten by a poisonous snake and spent a week in hospital.” This is how the conversation continued:

Me: “Was it a saw-scaled viper?”
Dipalee: “A what?”
Me: “A phoorsa?” (That is the Marathi name, फुरसं)
Dipalee: “Yes, exactly! How did you know??”
Me: “Because I was bitten by the same snake right here, sixty years ago!”

Well, by the same kind of snake. It is called saw-scaled viper or “little Indian viper,” Echis carinatus. I need to give a little zoological background:

As I learned from my father, who had worked with an eminent expert on Indian snakes, and actually helped develop the anti-venom for them, there were four poisonous snakes I could encounter on my excursions in the jungle:

  • The common krait (Bungarus caeruleus — yes, I knew the biological names as a child). This snake has a very powerful neurotoxin that causes muscle paralysis. Fortunately it is a nocturnal species which you very rarely encounter, and it also has bite inhibition during the day.
  • The Indian cobra (Naja naja), a spectacularly beautiful snake. Its venom is also neurotoxic, paralysing muscles and often causing respiratory failure or cardiac arrest. There was little chance I would encounter one — they are very alert and difficult for even professionals to catch. I told the story of how Indian “snake charmers” handle these creatures.
  • The Russell’s viper (Vipera russelii), a fat, noisy snake with a very loud warning hiss. I encountered two during my walks in the jungle, and in both cases I heard and saw them from some distance. No danger of inadvertently getting close, during daytime. This was good: they inject powerful haemotoxins (which attack red blood cells), causing intense pain, bleeding and coagulation. The damage is profound and long-lasting. I have seen the rotting hands or feet that result from a Russell’s viper bite.
  • The saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus), which is particularly dangerous, not because it is the most venomous, but because it is easy to encounter and always ready to strike. The venom is likewise haemotoxic and causes haemorrhage and coagulation, much like russelii. I will describe the symptoms presently, from first hand.
Addendum: a few months after publishing this article I discovered this film by an old friend, Romulus Whitaker, describing the four snakes with wonderful visual impressions. Thanks, Rom!

As a child I was fairly competent on my jungle jaunts. Apart from the snake fodder I would sometimes bring home a snake I had managed to catch.

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Once I pulled the one shown on the left (Wiki photo by David Raju) from my satchel, to the initial shock of my father. It looked like a krait, but was simply a harmless mimic, a snake that protects itself by pretending to be a highly venomous creature. My father praised me for my reliably identifying Lycodon aulicus, the Indian Wolf Snake, and recognising its Batesian mimicry. Yes, I had learned what that is from a dishonest German lepidopterist. You can read the sad story here.

So now we come to my encounters with Echis. I was seven or eight years old, and out in the jungle alone, in shorts and an under-shirt. To find lizards and rodents I would turn over rocks the way my father had shown me: always pulling them towards me, never forwards, when a snake could strike out at me. Unfortunately below one rock was a saw-scaled viper and in spite of my caution it bit me in my left hand, between index and middle finger. It was the worst place to get bitten — you cannot suck out poison from there easily. I tried to press it out, but very little blood came from the two puncture holes.

I started walking back home, genuinely frightened. The hand was swelling and hurt like the devil. I began to feel faint and soon had to sit down. Then I became semi unconscious, lying on the ground, thinking “Okay, so that was it?!” A short life. But after an hour or two the clouds in my mind slowly dissipated and I was able to get up and walk back to the Stein’s house.

Naturally I told nobody what had happened — young boys, me specifically, tend to do that. There were some problems, though. I started bleeding. I could not brush my teeth, as the gums would bleed profusely; my eyes were blood-shot, and there was blood in all excretions. Such an insidious little snake! I had received a pair of sun glasses from my uncle Paul, and now wore them all the time. People found that “cute” — in reality I was hiding the deep red eyeballs. Fortunately the symptoms started to disappear, and in a few days I was back to normal.

Well, a year or two later I was out collecting reptiles and rodents. I turned over a rock, pulling it towards me, and felt a sting in my hand. Sound familiar? It was an Echis, and it had delivered a full bite. Again I was able to press out very little blood, and started walking home, preparing for the pain, swelling and collapse. But it didn’t come. I arrived home without any adverse symptoms. This time I told my father about the two incidents, and he surmised I might have become immune to Echis venom. He also gave me a little pouch with a razor blade and some potassium permanganate to disinfect the cut I would have to make in case I got bitten by one of the other Big Four snakes.

There is one more chapter to the story. Some years later, in my late teens, I moved to Germany, where most of my relatives lived. I was walking through the Sachsenwald, a beautiful forest on the outskirts of Hamburg, originally owned by Otto von Bismarck. With me was my girlfriend Ingrid and a visiting friend, Sheila. Suddenly the latter cried out in horror: Snake, snake!

The above picture is of me doing my thing as the son of a snake expert. In this case it is with a Ringelnatter or grass snake (Natrix natrix), the most common species found in Europe. It is completely harmless and docile, but it has a stink organ that exudes a vile-smelling substance. It also tends to play dead, going completely limp and even bleeding from its mouth. All pure defence.

But the snake Sheila had spotted was a “Kreuzotter”, Vipera berus, in English known as the common European adder (picture below left by Benny Trapp for Wiki). I did my usual thing, just like with the grass snake above.

Unfortunately this malevolent little creature managed to turn its upper jaw around and bite me, with a single fang, in the finger. The picture on the right shows an adder doing exactly what it did to me.

Vipera berus is not very venomous and deaths from its bite are rare. But Ingrid insisted we rush to hospital to make sure. We arrived at the University clinic and a pair of doctors listened to the story. Their first question: are you sure it wasn’t a legless lizard (which are quite common in German forests)? Yes, I was sure, and described the morphology of the snake that had bitten me. Okay, this is genuine, they conceded, and started conversing in medical Latin. I heard the word “Inzision”, and asked them: “Are you planning to cut open the finger?” — “Yes, but don’t worry,” they replied, “we will anaesthetise it first.” No way, I told them, that is effective treatment in the first minute after a bite. Now, 40 minutes later, it is completely pointless — any venom has spread throughout my body. They understood the reasoning and told me to immediately go to the Hafenkrankenhaus, the Harbour Clinic, where the doctors specialize in exotic diseases. They even offered to transport me in an ambulance, with flashing lights. But I decided to drive over in our car.

At the Harbour Clinic I told the doctor, who had been informed by phone and was waiting for me, that it was a false alarm — I was feeling fine and did not want to waste anybody’s time. But he was adamant: I must get an anti-venom shot and spend the night in the hospital. He was so persistent that I agreed. It was a completely uneventful night.

The next morning I understood why he wanted me to stay. The professor of the toxicology department came in with a group of students to examine this once-in-a-decade patient: a real, honest-to-goodness poisonous snake bite! He told them that I had flawlessly identified the snake, and showed them the little puncture wound on my finger. “Do you feel any pain in the digit?” he asked. No, none at all. The elbow, the shoulder? No pain. “The lymph nodes,” he said, feeling them, “are… not swollen. Any pain there?” The answer was again no. So it was a bit of a disappointment for them, but still the professor came in with two more groups. It was a chance that couldn’t be missed.

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The venom delivery apparatus of Vipera berus, on display at the University History Museum, University of Pavia (photo by Hectonichus for Wiki)

I thought about the incident, and came up with three possible reasons for my good fortune: on the one hand the snake could have just bitten an animal of prey and depleted its poison sacs. Or the delivery mechanism for injecting poison had not worked at the unusual angle. Or finally: I could be still immune to the venom of this kind of snake. That could be confirmed by provoking another bite by Vipera berus, but for some reason I have balked at doing so.

Addendum: I recently (January 2020) shared this story with snake expert Romulus Whitaker. He said that probably my second conjecture was right. Immunity would not last that long and is fairly snake-specific.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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