I love snakes. They are amazing predators which are great at keeping rodent populations in check. They can climb trees, strike with incredible speed, slither and even jump — all without arms or legs. They never blink, they can swallow animals bigger than their head in one piece and they often go weeks and even months without eating. All of this is fantastic and enough (I would think) to win anyone over, but for those of you who need a little more wowing, read on.
During a recent trip to Albuquerque, N.M., I met a man who loves snakes even more than I do. He is the curator of herpetology at the Rio Grande Zoo and he is responsible for the largest collection of venomous snakes in the United States. As he led us through rooms full of snakes of every shape and size, we made it to the copperhead room and this is when he shared a piece of information that I hope will intrigue you as much as it did me: Copperhead venom can save your life.
Every species of venomous snake has a unique combination of proteins and enzymes that are designed to kill prey animals so they can be eaten. Scientists have found that medical breakthroughs can often be discovered in the individual components of snake venom. Copperhead venom is being researched as a treatment for breast cancer. A copperhead's venom works by destroying tissue which — if you're a mouse — leads to death. By isolating the protein responsible for this action and focusing it at the site of cancerous tissue, it has been shown to stop the growth of certain tumors.
Another group of scientists is studying the venom of the Asian sand viper for a different approach to cancer. This snake's venom contains a protein called eristostatin which may be used to convince the human body to attack melanoma cells. A component of a South American rattlesnake's venom may even be able to convince cancer cells to kill themselves. Laboratory and clinical trials are still under way, but if these treatments prove as effective as early research indicates, it may be a step toward a cure for cancer.
Cancer research isn't the only place snake venom can be useful. People with angina and heart trouble may receive treatment in the form of African saw-scaled viper venom — an anticoagulant. The Brazilian arrowhead viper may be of help if you suffer from high blood pressure due to a relaxing agent present in its venom. And back in the 1940s, cobra venom was being researched as a cure for polio. While the polio cure proved unnecessary after the vaccine was developed, king cobra venom may still have a use. It will soon enter trials as an oral pain reliever more effective than morphine.
Before you write off snakes as gross or scary or worthless, remember, they may just save your life. Visit Lee Richardson Zoo to see some of our own native Kansas snakes in the Finnup Center for Conservation Education or meet our green tree python in the nocturnal building in Wild Asia.
Visit our website at www.leerichardsonzoo.org.