Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Petits Serpents Bruns

Asked to name fun things to do in Paris in the summer, chances are you won’t think of sitting down in the back room of a natural history museum with a large bucket of venomous snakes and measuring them.

But measuring snakes is just what undergraduate and budding herpetologist Khoa Nguyen (Whitman ‘12) found himself doing under the direction of herpetologist and leading expert on the snakes of Africa, Kate Jackson. The Whitman College biology professor brought Nguyen and classmate Claire Snyder (’12) to the Musée Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris to get some research under their belts. Whitman College encourages its biology faculty to take undergraduates into the field, except when the field is a part of Congo so remote that most herpetologists have never set foot in it and where Jackson not so long ago found herself on the wrong end of a forest cobra’s fang. (You can find out how that turned out in her 2008 book, Mean and Lowly Things: Snakes, Science, and Survival in the Congo.)

Jackson originally planned for all three to work together on the museum’s collection of forest cobras, only to be told that a researcher at the museum was already at work on their forest cobra holdings himself. Jackson quickly had to come up with another project, and so Nguyen and Snyder found themselves in the back rooms of the research collection of the MNHN-Paris, learning all about “little brown snakes.”

“Khoa was very disappointed that we couldn’t do the project on forest cobras,” Jackson reported in a recent conversation from Paris. “Instead I set them a project researching the museum’s collection of egg-eating snakes and file snakes—what Jackson calls ‘little brown snakes.’ Well, that just didn’t do it for poor Khoa. World expert on venomous snake systematics, Wolfgang Wüster, when I discussed this with him, said he would have felt the same way as Khoa if he had to work on egg-eating snakes instead of cobras."

Jackson found a way for Nguyen to work on a charismatic, venomous snake after all--the Musée had a large vat of uncatalogued snakes from Cameroon. Nguyen was tasked to work on the museum’s holdings of Dendroaspis jamesoni, an arboreal snake known as Jameson's mamba. “Green mambas are so well studied, it was unlikely a student could uncover anything new about them in three weeks,” Jackson tells me.  “So he’s photographing them and measuring them and collecting data that might yield insights into snakes more generally.”

Nguyen and Snyder's weeks at the Paris Museum are being funded by a Perry Award from Whitman College to fund faculty-student research. Their work is part of a larger, more ambitious project to revise The Snakes of Western and Central Africa by Jackson and her colleague, tropical medicine expert Jean-Philippe Chippaux. The much-needed book will cover half the continent and nearly 250 species--a vital resource for a region where snakebite is serious problem and one of the only resources available is a reprint of the account of a 1912 snake collecting expedition. Nguyen and Snyder's efforts are contributing to a project that may help reduce some of the 20,000 deaths from snakebite in Africa each year.

Nguyen first takes a large carboy of miscellaneous mambas and begin to sort them by size—small, medium, and large.

By the end of the day the floor of the room is covered in drifts of snakeskin and scales, which have to be swept up with a dustpan.

Snyder is working on file snakes. “Claire thinks file snakes are incredibly cute, and she can’t understand why everyone doesn’t work on them,” Jackson reports. You can judge their cuteness for yourself; here is a file snake, Gonionotophis brussauxi, collected by Jackson last month during field work in the Congo. I think they are rather fetching.

File snakes are so named because they are triangular in cross-section, and resemble an old-fashioned three-sided file. File snakes come from Africa, and they’re cannibalistic, eating other snakes and even others of their own species. On her second day working on the MNHN-Paris holdings of file snakes, Snyder had found a misidentified specimen and correctly identified it. Jackson alerted the collections manager, and Snyder was asked to write out a new label. The relabeled jar now announces a “new determination, Claire Snyder.” Not bad for an undergraduate. 

When they run out of specimens, Nguyen and Snyder have to wheel a cart through the research building, past the small menagerie and snack bar in the museum complex, to a door “like the door of a dungeon” that leads to the collections storage. “Miles of corridors and stairs and things before you get to the actual shelves.” These are the compact, rotating kind. Eventually Nguyen and Snyder arrive at the section storing the carboys full of the species Khoa needs: Jameson’s mamba (Dendroaspis jamesoni).

While Jackson converses in French with the collections technician to arrange the transfer of the specimens to the cart, Snyder, who does not speak French, is managing through sign language to extract a recipe for crepes from the other technician. We rather admire Snyder’s initiative.

Older jars are sealed with silica gel (like the caulk around your tub) and beeswax. When a jar needs to be opened, a technician has to be summoned to come and carefully open it with a razor blade—with skill, this will leave both the jar lid and the technician’s hand intact.

It turns out many of the mambas were in bits—the way venomous snakes often find their way into collections. Non-herpetologists tend to want to make very sure the snake is dead before collecting it. “I told Khoa the Museum would be very grateful if you would reassemble all those and reattach them with string,” Jackson says, “but when he was done it turned out they were almost all heads.” A carboy of snakes is a lot like une boîte de chocolats--one can never be quite sure what one is going to get. But imagine the thrill of reaching into a jar sealed decades or even a century earlier, and extracting a specimen,  wondering about the story its collector must have to tell, the kind of story that doesn't fit on a label on a jar.

Jackson is in Paris writing up the next installment of her own story, her recent research expedition to the Congo—part of which will find its way into her next book, tentatively titled A Thousand, Thousand Slimy Things. In the meantime, you can listen to her being interviewed about her research and field work on NPR here. Mean and Lowly Things is newly out in paperback from Harvard University Press and The Snakes of Western and Central Africa will be published by Johns Hopkins Press in 2011.

All photos by Claire Snyder and Kate Jackson.