Science

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Russ Johnson, president of the Phoenix
Herpetological Society, holds a Western
Diamondback Rattlesnake (AP).

Are Snakes Becoming More Poisonous?

June 02, 2008 06:00 AM
by Cara McDonough
A surge of deadly symptoms resulting from rattlesnake bites in Arizona has researchers wondering what’s going on.

30-Second Summary

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The numbers remain small, but are undoubtedly growing. Five people have died from rattlesnake bites in Arizona since 2002, which is approximately the same number of such deaths during the previous two decades, according to the Banner Poison Control Center in Phoenix.

In addition, rattlesnake bite victims are showing life-threatening symptoms more quickly. Some scientists theorize that the snakes’ venom is actually becoming more poisonous.

Others wonder if there’s a simpler explanation: humans are getting more adventurous.

Jeff Landry, a researcher at Utah’s Hogle Zoo, says people may be encroaching upon areas where a sub-type of potentially more dangerous rattlesnakes reside: “they’re moving out, hiking more, a lot more outdoor activity. Maybe they’re encountering this separate population, if that's what it is.”

Russ Johnson, president of the Phoenix Herpetological Society, dismisses the idea outright that the snakes’ poison is “evolving” as some researchers have put it, into deadlier venom.

“I talked to four experts, and none of them has given any credibility to this issue at all,” he said in a recent interview with NPR. He believes, instead, that many bite victims are older retirees who are unfamiliar with rattlesnake safety, and therefore, more at risk, when they are hiking and gardening.

Also, because they are older, and more frail, “They're at a higher risk [of dying] than other demographics,” he said.

Headline Links: Snakes more venomous or humans more adventurous?

Video: ‘Rattlesnake Bites Seem To Be More Toxic’

Related Link: Warmer months mean more snake encounters

Reference: How to treat a snakebite and the importance of snakes

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