The full monte on pythons

The Encyclopaedia of Snakes
November 3, 1995

The Dangerous Snakes of Africa: natural history, species directory, venoms and snakebite, by Stephen Spawls and Bill Branch, Blandford Press, 192pp, £20.00, ISBN 0 7137 2394 7

There's a snake! Quick! Kill it!" is a cry heard all too often where I live, just 13.04 degrees north of the equator, in urban Madras. This apparently instinctive terror of snakes makes me wonder whether Chris Mattison's impressive work will have sales sufficient to support its production. Perhaps it is not intended for herpetologists, general biologists or even the educated layman, since the author begins with elementaries such as that vertebrates are animals with backbones.

But the book is beautifully and lucidly written, the layout and typography modest but impressive. And the book may be worth buying for the photography alone. The pictures are absolutely stunning, taking full advantage of advanced technology in colour, lighting and macrolens optics.

Mattison's scholarship is outstanding too, giving us, for example, all the little that is known of the curious ropeltinae of the hills of southern India and Sri Lanka. (One field worker claims there is a different species of Uropeltid on each of the many hills of the Nilgiris.) And the tiny, termite-eating Typhlops, which you will swear is an earthworm uncovered when you are digging in the garden, until you pick it up, take a glass to it and see its tiny scales and the two black, subcutaneous spots which are the best it can do for eyes. From tiny Typhlops to the giant pig and deer-eating boas and pythons-they are all present in this splendid compendium.

On the management of venomous snakebite Mattison is sound, short though he must be in a work principally concerned with identification. He might have been a little more emphatic on how to distinguish between "dry bites" and life-threatening envenomation and on the importance of substantial and continuous administration of antivenom until symptoms abate. In tropical countries, where rural areas are only lightly policed, where there are no coroners' courts and disposal of the dead often takes place within hours of death, statistics of death by snakebite should not be readily accepted, since many believe that "snakebite" often covers murder or suicide. And deaths from snakebite are always "instantaneous", of course.

Serpents are so universally reviled that Mattison's splendid book may not be too popular with the public, yet perhaps the beauty and wonder of a form of life he has so impressively revealed will move younger and more open minds to reject the superstitions about these intriguing animals. There certainly should be no library without this important work of reference.

It is true of all snakes that they must - without benefit of paws or limbs of any kind - swallow their prey whole; they must pull themselves over it, very like pulling on a glove, for no snake can crush, dismember, chew or in any other way reduce its food to pieces. The big constrictors devour even deer or pigs. I have watched the long process of a python swallowing a whole spotted deer. It might therefore alarm some readers to be informed in The Dangerous Snakes of Africa that the rock python, on reaching its maximum size, sometimes considers people edible - though the authors do not quote case histories - thus making it one of only three notable predators on this planet for whom we remain legitimate prey, (the other two being the great white shark and the estuarine crocodile).

This book confines itself, as its title suggests, to snakes, though it is surely time for a work that would include other venomous forms of life including insects and arachnids such as the arafad beetle Holotrichius innesi and the multitude of scorpions. Stephen Spawls and Bill Branch give sound advice on the treatment of venomous snakebite, though unfortunately antivenoms are not available for all such dangerous species. The authors also invariably advise "antibiotic cover" but they do not exclude, as they should, the use of tetracycline, which may aggravate renal failure.

Whereas only four of the more than 200 species of snakes on the Indian subcontinent are recognised as medically important, the situation is vastly different in Africa, where Spawls and Branch tell us that of nearly 400 species, "90 have venoms that cause medical symptoms, though only a few are clinically significant and the bites of only about 30 are known to have caused death".

This statement is typical of a book I found interesting but often confusing. The title word "dangerous" is itself ambiguous. What exactly is meant by dangerous? Crossing the road can be dangerous; and if the water cobras "I do not seem to be at all aggressive and seem to pose little threat to people", why include them at all in a book on dangerous snakes? Much is made of colours and markings, but on snakes these are a notoriously unreliable means of identification, since they vary considerably between individuals of the same species and with age, condition, habitat and whether they have recently "shed" or are about to. The book itself would be improved with the shedding of its many tautologies: most of us know, for example, that brown is a quality of colour.

There was certainly room for such a comprehensive and otherwise fascinating book, but with such a vast land area as Africa to cover and so many species, I would have preferred a number of geographically distinct volumes. As the authors admit, there are a great many African snakes "whose taxonomic groups are still unresolved". For military reasons, they are unlikely to be in the foreseeable future. Even the most dedicated herpetologist, or scientist of any discipline, is likely to be discouraged by the prospect of pouncing on a plastic landmine beneath a promising specimen.

Harry Miller is a herpetologist and fellow of the Zoological Society.

The Encyclopaedia of Snakes

Author - Chris Mattison
ISBN - 0 7137 2380 7
Publisher - Blandford
Price - £25.00
Pages - 256

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