On 15 August 2020, the Young Scientists Network-Academy of Sciences Malaysia (YSN-ASM) organised a Science Café Session titled Lurking Snakes on the Run. The session was moderated by Shawn Keng and featured Dr Tan Choo Hock, Senior Medical Lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya. Dr Tan leads the Venom Research and Toxicology Lab (Vetox Lab) at UM’s Department of Pharmacology.
Are Snakebites Becoming More Common?
According to Dr Tan, snakebites are becoming more common. It is increasingly common to encounter snakes around the house – they could be hiding in shoes and popping up in the oddest of places such as the toilet bowl, air-conditioning vents, or even in car engines. Apart from land snakes, cases of attacks involving sea snakes were also recorded.
The factors leading to an increase in snakebite occurrences are as follows:
- Human activities: recreational (e.g.reptile shows) and occupational (e.g. firefighter handling cases of snakes found in human settlements)
- Climate change: meteorological impact e.g. heat waves and floods
- Sprawling suburbs: urbanisation leads to encroachment and destruction of snakes’ natural habitats.
In his presentation, Dr Tan illustrated the effect of urban sprawl that destroys natural habitats for the sake of urban development. This leads to animals such as snakes to be cornered and having nowhere to go, finding their way into human dwellings to find shelter and to search for food.
Dr Tan also showed climate change to have contributed to the increase in snake encounters and snakebites. Rising global temperatures and events such as floods, wildfires, drought, heatwaves, and cold spells have made snakes’ natural territories uninhabitable. The snakes either die out or they adapt by moving away, notably into human settlements, thus increasing its encounter with humans, pets, and livestock. The snakes’ migration also disturbs the ecology of the surrounding area. Dr Tan gives an example of the rise in the population of Burmese pythons in North America, thanks to its demand in the entertainment industry. Having been let loose in the wild once the owners are no longer able to care for them, these snakes were released into the wild. Having no natural predators, they are considered an invasive species, currently posing a threat to the local alligator population by preying on them.
Human and Snakes’ Relationship in Civilisation
Throughout history, snakes have played a prominent part in human civilisation. Snakes have been prominent in recorded histories and mythology. Snakes are also part of the economy, having been used for entertainment purposes and for exotic massage sessions. Snake by-products are also highly sought after; snakeskin in are in high demand to make luxury outfits shoes and bags, and snake secretions form its organs are sought after in traditional medicine as well as the cosmetics industry. Humans have also traditionally used snakes as a natural pest control for rodents. From a medical perspective, snakes have been extensively used in the discovery of novel molecules and compounds that can be medically beneficial. Dr Tan mentioned an important anti-hypertensive medication that comes from snake venom. Snake venom has also been engineered into various types of drugs such as anticoagulants to treat stroke and cardiovascular diseases.
Global View on Snakebites