Dr. Bryan Grieg Fry: Sting Rays and their Toxins
Australian Venom Research Unit, University of Melbourne
September 16, 2006
PHFaust: On behalf of Jeff Barringer and all of us at kingsnake.com, I would like to thank Dr. Bryan Grieg Fry for being our September Guest Chatter! Dr. Fry is Deputy Director of the Australian Venom Research Unit, Department of Pharmacology at the School of Medicine located at the University of Melbourne. Bryan has been an incredible asset to our venomous community and well since he lives "down under" and dealswith all kinds of things, we thought he could answer some questions regarding Sting Rays. Im sure Bryan will be willing to answer general venomous as well.
BGF: define venomous ;-)
PHFaust: venom is injected. :)
snake_gal: how many different kinds of sting ray are there?
BGF: Quite a few. It is a very species rich group. There are dozens just in Australia alone. They range from small species with disks the size of a coffee cup plate all the way up to ones with disks 3 meters or more across. Barbs are equally variable, the largest species can have barbs up to 30 centimeters long (and 3 or more barbs). GA
Quelubrid_nr: About what percentage of people stung die from stingray injections?
BGF: Very very few. Death from the venom alone is extraordinarily rare. It is an incredibly painful venom though. To the point that you wish you'd die just to get it over with. The most pain I have ever been in in my life came from a fish sting (a 3 inch soldier fish, a member of the scorpion fish family). With about 30 seconds I was in so much pain I seriously thought I was going to vomit. I've never felt anything like it. It was like a blow torch to my arm. However, with the proper first aid (immersing the arm in hot water) the toxin broke down and the pain stopped in abou ten minutes. With this kind of first aid the key is that the water temperature needs to be checked by someone who has not been stung. The pain of scalding yourself is less than the pain from the venom. People have actually boiled their flesh before.
BGF: Most deaths from stingray occur from blood loss due to the horrific, jagged wounds the barbs cause. The deep serrations mean that the flesh is tugged and torn with the barb is violently ripped out.
JayP: i have a western diamond back and was told its probably a cross was wondering if you could give any info on it
BGF: Can't open the link for some reason. Without seeing it or doing genetic analysis, no I can't. Was it a wild caught snake? WIld crosses are rare. If its a captive bred, it could of course be a hybrid. Sometimes people call things crosses based upon subjective colour patterns. For example, I've caught C. atrox in New Mexico that were as red as any C. ruber I've seen. Stunning animals.
JayP: no it cb it has a weird pattern try holding alt then clicking the link sometimes it works
BGF: Just entered the address manually. Interesting. Might have some viridis in it. Hard to tell. Cool snake regardless.
JayP: thanks dr fry
jwrange: is there any way steve irwin could have lived?if he didnt take the barb out would he live any longer[img id=em-3]
BGF: Thats really hard to speculate on without seeing the footage. If the barb was just hanging loosely by a bit of torn flesh, such as in the pectoral muscle, then it probably didn't make any different. If it was plugging a hole and he bled out through that, then yes he may have. However, if the the heart tissue had been cut and he died from cardiac arrest, then it would have made no difference. Considering how quickly he went down I suspect he was already mortally wounded and would have died regardless.
dewittg: Any indication that Steve Irwin's death was due to the venom rather than blood loss?
BGF: It was certainly not due to the venom. It was due to mechanical trauma to the heart muscle.
BGF: The venom played no role in it.
BGF: Other than make his last conscious moments ones of abject agony.
BGF: I can only hope that he was in shock or lost consciousness quickly.
Adam105_nr: First I would like to say it is an honor to speak to you, Dr. Fry. Now my question: What do you believe caused the stingray to actually flare its barb and sting Mr. Irwin? Also, did you view the video of the accident? Thanks!
BGF: it was not a stingray attack. It was a stingray defense. Stingrays are gentle magnificent animals that only sting when they feel threatened. He was directly above it and the cameraman in front of it so the animal felt cornered. This removed the flight angle. Leaving only fight.
BGF: As for the video, for professional reasons I'd like to see it. However, I think it should never see the light of day as the psychological damage that would occur to all the kids that idolised him. And of course the impact on his family.
BGF: This is something Alexia and I have spoken of repeatedly through the years. If a bite ever occurs while we are filming, the film crew is under strict instructions to turn the bloody cameras off. It is no longer something for public consumption but rather a private affair between me and my wife.
gingerfish: What type of venom does the stingray have?
BGF: The venom of stingray is a combination of small, organic molecules such as serotonin. Compounds that increase pain sensation. Also in there are large protein toxins similar to what is found in stonefish and other venomous fish. This protein toxin is one of the original fish toxins and was found in the venom of the common ancestor of all these fish . The earliest fish had toxin injecting barbs, similar to what is on Port Jackson sharks.
jwrange: bgf what are the chance of the barb hitting him in the heart [img id=em-5]
BGF: The odds of him being hit in the heart were very low but it has happened at least three other times in Australia. Keep in mind that a large stingray jabbing one, two or three 30 cm barbs into the chest is going to do a lot of damage.
PHLdyPayne: 30cm = Approximately 12" for you Yanks ;)
pen15_nr: i heard u say my pet beardie has poison! now i got bit and i dont feel good. im all dizzy and can taste aluminum. am i gonna die?!
BGF: I can only assume you're trying to be cute. Beardies have absolutely tiny amounts of toxins in there. Impossible for them to produce the symptoms you are professing to have.
PHFaust: BTW You have to injest poison for it to effect you. Venom is injected
PHFaust: in respect to reptiles
BGF: Yep. Venom is delivered through a mechanical means (barb, stinger, fang etc) while a poison is absorbed or injested.
jojo_nr: Hi I have a 5" sulcata tortoise when i got home i found her umside down & noticed that there is white cottage cheese like throw up in her water. what is this?
JayP: i have hear alot of different things about the most toxic rattler in the usa its either souther pacific to mojave being the top and idea of which it is
ladychicago_nr: hello guys
BGF: Jojo, sounds like a trip to the vet is in order.
BGF: JayP. The mojave has traditionally been considered the most toxic. However, some populations of southern pacific are also very very toxic. Its not a case of the southern becoming more toxic but rather through habitat encrouchment people are getting bitten by new populations.
gingerfish: I am interested in doing venom reasearch and herpetology as a career but every university i call around here has no clue how i would go abouts doing something like that so i was wondering if you could point me in the way?
BGF: First decide what aspect you want to study and then get a bachelors degree in something related to that (e.g. biochem or pharmacology) and then look around for Ph.D. programs. Undergrad studies will not include venom. That is for your grad school research.
mkbay_nr: Does anyone know the species of stingray that killed him? Its seems clear that when he pulled the barb out, he died of heart failure/ trauma... Thanks Bryan. GA
BGF: It was a northern bullray. We've done some work with that same species in the same waters. They are big animals indeed. As I mentioend above, I suspect he was already mortally wounded. The barb would have already been partially withdrawn by the stingray and snapped off during that point. If it was still down very deep near the heart, it would have been almost impossible for him to pull out. However, without seeing the footage, this is only speculation.
snakeboy434_nr: In retrospect to the LD50 charts, what do you personally feel is the hottest snake, in regards to potency, defensiveness, means of injection, etc. Also, could you please elaborate on why you feel the LD50 charts are accurate or inaccurate since mice are much diffrent hte humans?
BGF: It is the inland taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidotus). Not, as is popularised, any of the sea snakes. The LD50 charts do a fairly reasonable approximation of toxicity. Not perfect but a good benchmark. As for most dangerous snake to be bitten by, thats always the one that just bit you.
ladychicago_nr: my mother just aquired a chameleon and noticed it has a problem with its vent and seems that part of its internal reproductive organs are hanging out
ladychicago_nr: its like a little ball by its rear
ladychicago_nr: what could this be
BGF: might just be a slight eversion of the cloaca. Probably nothing to worry about. If its stressed out it could be doing this.
Daryl_nr: Hi Bryan. I used to do some local work for AP but never got the chance to meet Steve. Funny, when a guy literally puts money in your pocket, you think someday you'll get the chance to thank him. Anyway, I'm just joining the chat, so sorry if you've been asked, but did you know Steve well?
BGF: No I didn't know him well. However, off camera he was the same as on camera (a bit quieter and calmer though). What you saw was what you got. A nice bloke.
BGF: There are many ways to educate and Irwin happened to simply be his own unique flavour. The scientific content of his programs was effectively on the level of fast food. However, the importance cannot be overstated regarding the deep penetration he had into the public consciousness regarding the beauty and importance of wildlife, particulary the demystification of the creepy crawly side of things.Anyone who helps herps look good is alright in my books.
Daryl_nr: No question, if you can entertain 'em, they'll learn a lot more. Kids especially can smell it from a distance if you try to be overtly educational. Thanks.
JayP: what is your favorite venomous species to work with and why.
BGF: Hmmmm..... snake would be king cobra due to the intelligence. Venomous lizard would be the komodo dragon for the same reason.
BGF: Favorite venomous mammal would be a tie between the slow loris and my wife.
JayP: kings are my favortie i plan to own some in the futue
PHFaust: And Im telling your wife... :)
LironSamuels_nr: Have you studied venomous snakes from the Middle East?
BGF: Yep. I've milked all the variants of Echis, Eristicophis, Cersastes, Pseudocerastes, Daboia and Walterinsia.
mkbay_nr: what are you currently working on now? Any ideas on where to publish those Varanus bite reports I have? I corresponded with and talked on telephone with both Steve and Terri for past 14 years past.... very nice inquisitive guy and humble too - he sure loved wildlife...Thanks Bryan. GA
BGF: Right now I have a slew of papers to write up, including some mindblowing studies on the variation in the venom gland architecture in varanids and characterisation of toxin types. For the varanid bite reports you have accumulated, not sure. Try to find somewhere with wide distribution (e.g. online copies) as it is fasciinating data you have compiled. For those of you who don't know what he is referring to, Mark has dug out lots of data of symptoms from varanid bites. Interesting stuff.
snake_whisperer: Hi Bryan...Getting away from venom ..What is your favorite colubrid to work with┐ and where I can read up more on your work┐
BGF: Colubrids have venom ;-) Favorite colubrid would be Ptyas carinatus. 4 meter long king cobra mimics that can hit your face from the floor. Amazing snakes. For reading up on my work, go to the publication section of my webpage or the forum there too. www.venomdoc.com
gingerfish: my husband is always saying if he got bit by a diamondback in the woods and it was a 2 hour walk to his truck and anouther hour drive to the hospital that he would be dead before he got to the hospital, i dont believe this to be true but i figured it wouldnt hurt to ask?
BGF: He'd most likely survive but be in rough shape. Depends on the size of the snake though. Moving around certainly increases the spread of the venom. Best to bring help to him if possible. That is why whenever we go outside of mobile range (which is most of Australia) we always bring a satellite phone.
JayP: whats your opinion on venomiods
BGF: Regarding venomoids, for me it comes down to the welfare of the animal. if it is to be done it should only be done by a licensed vet. Not by basement hackers like a local freak we have here who doesn't use anesthetia or postop care. If he was doing this to something furry he'd be in jail. It makes me so mad that he hasn't been prosectured (most people would know the paranoid idiot I am referring to, also known as the taxonomical terrorist).
PHFaust: HA! And because I am the host, I get the final questions! :) First off, you explained the high level of pain from the toxins related to the rays. Is there other effects from a lesser sting than what steve suffered? And is there the need to issue antivenin if there is even something available? If not what would be normal treatment of the sting?
BGF: There is no antivenom. Normal treatment is hot water to break down the toxin. However, the wound needs to be debrided and cleaned thoroughly as the bits of barb left behind can cause gruesome secondary infections.
Leoman25: its not the venom that killed him is it?
Leoman25: i thoguht it was ust because the stingray peirced him rght in his heart and thats its a vital organ
BGF: No. Think of it this way. Imagine having one, two or three 20-30 cm long jagged knives plunged into your chest and then violently ripped back out. The tissue damage would be horrendous.
PHFaust: And the next question is, :) Does your wife have a great life insurance policy? And who would it be through, because my husband is looking at significantly increasing mine now with my next step of interning.
BGF: That is somethng we are checking into indeed.
ballpythons18: Do u know the high and low temps for a 3 week old bearded dragon?
BGF: Give it a good basking spot and a cool part of the cage and the animal will sort it out itself.
BGF: Don't forget lots of UV light or else it will have bone problems. And supplement the diet.
PHFaust: Jay did you still have a question? Then we will let Dr. Fry get back to relaxing on his lazy sunday
Leoman25: you need a uv light?
JayP: i did but i forget
BGF: I can hang out here for a bit. No worries. ;-)
BGF: Leoman, yes. UV light is absolutely essential for all iguanid and agamid lizards.
JayP: what age did you start working with hots and swhat was your first
BGF: JayP. First hot was a canebrake rattlesnake when I was a teenager. Bit me about five minutes later. Turned out it was one of the nicely neurotoxic populations. Mouth tasted like metal. Then the world became monochromatic. Nothing but black, white and shades of yellow. No red. No blue. No green. Absolutely freaky. Then I hit the ground.
JayP: my friend started at 14 with a puff adder i have onnly had hots for 6-77 months
herpkid_nr: do you think that i should but a wild snake that i caught with snakes i brought from the store
BGF: herpkid. All wild snakes have to be deparasitised. Otherwise you are risking your entire collection.
newAgeHERPER_nr: I have kept literally hundreds of lizards with no UVB source, how come they arent dead , and are in fact reproducing,if it is "essential"?
BGF: newage, UV is particularly important for bone growth. Metabolic bone disorder is a huge problem for green iguanas for example.
Rivets55: i didn't relize that halucinations wre possible - is that parasthesia
BGF: Rivet. no idea of the cause. It was one of the most unsettling things I've gone through. Like having a bad mushroom experience.
Daryl_nr: Ever wondered where some of the latin came from? I mean Cerastes and Psuedocerastes make a certain amount of sense, but what's so obsolete about lindheimeri (my own most prolific local species) and why would anyone call one of the few colubrids that doesn't constrict - Coluber constrictor??
BGF: Daryl, yes some of the names don't make a lot of sense. Some are just gruesome (like Pseudoxyrhophiidae for the madagascar 'colubrid' snake family).
Daryl_nr: These are just the kind of things I think of. Just don't let your Gabonicas bitis.
PHishie: I believe I saw your documentary on sea snakes, but is there any other marine species you've worked with? (I am going to school to be a marine biologist and I don't know what I want to work with)
BGF: I've worked on a wide variety of marine species, from deep water fish in Norway (Chimera monstrosa, the havmus) to cone snails to stingrays to octopus etc.
BGF: Any excuse to go scuba diving ;-)
PHishie: ever work with jellies?
BGF: Yep. Doing some work on various sea jellies.
curtoucan_nr: Hello Bryan, I own two Burmese Pythons that are around 1.5 years old (1.0 normal bred & 0.1 albino green) and they are just a tad hissy inside the cage but once out are the nicest snakes ever. What in your opinion is your favorite large snake and why?
jwrange: thank you for helping me see ya r.i.p steve irwin
BGF: Favorite lg snake would be retics. Evil temperment but just so beautiful.
gingerfish: How did you get interested in doing venom research? and are there any books that you would suggest reading that i could go ahead and get to help me get a start?
BGF: Lierally this is all I have ever wanted to do. Ever since I was a small child venomous snakes were the focus of my fascination. I used this passion to learn all I could and get the grades needed to get into a top flight Ph.D. program.
gingerfish: btw my son keeps buggin me to say 'hi to the snake man'
BGF: As for books, there are a vaiety of them. Alan Harvey edited a good one. Ditto with Andre Menez. Dietrich Mebs as well. Should be able to get them via amazon. My book won't be out for a couple years. Still swamped finishing up various research projects.
BGF: ginger, tell him hi back ;-)
Testaceus: Gooday Dr. Fry,
This is William Huntsman in Colorado(USA), I have asked you questions about Egyptian Sandsnakes via email. I have linked you on my site website on the herpetofauna of Egypt. I am curious, have there been fatalities from Psammophis mossambicus? Thanks again for your time and take a look at the site when you have time. Any additional contributions are great! Thanks man, William C. Huntsman www.greenpinemuseum.com
BGF: No fatalities that I know of, nor from other snakes in the Psammophiidae snake family (e..g Rhamphiophis, Malpolon). However these snakes have very large venom glands with well-developed lumens so are quite capable of a decent envenomation.
snakeboy434_nr: I know many american coulbrids have been found rear fanged and "venomous". I've heard from Drymarchon(Indigo snake)-Diadophis(rungneck), but what about some of the less mentioned species like Farancia(mudsnakes) and espically Cemophora( Scarlet snakes). Also, have you done any work with B.W. Smith or read his book?
One more question, out of all the speices of animals you gave ever wored with, what was your favorite?
BGF: All the variosu 'colubrids' have venom glands. However, the vast majority are incapable of causing notable symptoms to a human (but can stun a couple gram frog or other typical prey item).
BGF: Favorite snake to work with was the Stoke's sea snake (Astrotia stokesii). Took six years to catch the first one. Then we got at least one a trip severn trips in a row, two on two trips and three on one of them. Just a matter of finding the right spot.
JayP: ever work with false water cobra if so how toixic are they
BGF: Strange. My post went as a whisper. to someone. Wierd. Anyway, yes I have worked with them and they are almost impossible to pin, the scales are just so smooth. They are very toxic.
JayP: what kinda problems they casue
BGF: The venom is powerfully neurotoxic, causing paralysis leading to death.
Rivets55: Dr. Fry, what do you think of the current efforts to reclassify north american rat snakes. i.e., Pantherophis vs. Elaphe? Is this realy necessary, or is it a tempest in a teapot?
BGF: Rivett, we are in the middle of a great taxonomical clean up. So many of the current arrangements are based upon ambiguous morphological charactgeristics. Worse, some groups became taxonomical dumping grounds for animals only superficially related. This is at all levels. Elaphe as a genus was where a bunch of animals where shoe-horned. Genetic analysis has revealed deep divisions and some lineages that were utterly unrelated. Same sort of thing on a family level. Colubridae was where anything that wasn't a viper or an elapid was dumped into. Turns out there are multiple independent families in there, some of which are much more closely related to cobras than corn snakes (e..g the Psammophiidae snakes such as Malpolon, Psammophis and Rhamphiophis species).
Rivets55: so waht do you call a cornsnake?
BGF: It is in the Pantherophis genus
BGF: in the Colubridae snake family.
gingerfish: at what age did you start to catch and keep venomous snakes and when did you start to 'milk' them?
BGF: Didn't start into proper venomous until my teens and started with the milking soon after.
Testaceus: Hello Dr. Fry,
I am extremely interested in snakes of the genus Masticophis. Is this also a venomous Colubrid? Also, do you have a personal collection, if so what do you keep? Thanks again man, William C. Huntsman
BGF: Yes, Masticophis have venom glands, just like Coluber. Does this mean they are dangerous to human? Certainly not. More so to a frog though. My research collection is my de facto personal collection since I only research the animals I find interesting ;-)
JayP: what kinda permits, schooling would someone need to get into milking snakes ?
BGF: Permits, depends on where you live. Milking snakes is not really a way to make a living. The places that do it either are very established with long standing large customers or have something else going on (e.g.. part of a larger reptile park or zoo enterprise). Most venoms aren't worth the risk. If you can get something rare or sought after, then you'd have a competitive advantage.
JayP: what are the top hots form milking ?
BGF: JayP, small yielding snakes or rarer species. Hard to give a list. Providing colubrid venoms would be worthwhile but very time consuming and they would end up costing a fortune.
PHSlick: I am considering going back to college next fall, but having the same problem as the person earlier, they do not have a herpetology major, would zoology or biology be better to major in? and why one over the other?
BGF: PH, depends on what you want to study. If you want to study venoms, you'd need to go biochem, molecular biology or pharmacology. If you want to study evolution, then either zoology or biology would be fine (zoology is just a specialised biology degree anyway).
gingerfish: can you make a decent or good living from doing venom research?
BGF: gingerfish, yes you can... .as good as a living as you can in any academic endeavor that is. Would have made more money as a brain surgeon but wouldn't be as happy.
PHishie: how easy/difficult was it for you to get the job of your dreams? and what did you have to do to get there?
BGF: Lots of literal blood, sweat and tears.
PHishie: that gives me hope :/
BGF: With enough passion and dedication, anything is possible.
Daryl_nr: Sounds like an amazing adventure in general. Good on ya mate. This may be a little off the wall, but any thoughts on whether the stereo input the snake's tongue uses to directionally locate prey, fesh water, etc. suggests the hemispheric lateralization of the reptilian brain? Observing my own collection, I suspect most of them are right-brain dominant if so. Thanks for the taxa discussions BTW. My favorite story is about the time they had to change the spelling of the american alligator, A. mississippiensis, because someone noticed around 1972 that it had been based on a misspelling of 'Mississippi'.
BGF: No idea on the snake tongue. Interesting Q though. What should the alligator name be? Looking at your spelling of Mississippi it fits.
BGF: Or has it already been fixed? Thats pretty funny regardless.
PHFaust: We have officially finished up the queue and kept Dr. Fry for an extra hour.
PHFaust: On behalf of Jeff Barringer and all of us here at ks.com, Thank You for taking your time to chat with us. Transcripts will be posted with in a few days. Once again, Thank you Dr. Fry. For more information about Dr. Fry, visit, www.venomdoc.com.
PHFaust: And since the natives are getting a tad restless, the chat room is now open for chatting.
BoaJeff: thanks BGF be well
PHishie: Thanks Dr. Fry. :)
gingerfish: thank you Dr Fry great talking with you
BGF: No worries. Always a pleasure.
celticvamp: see you back in your forums Dr Fry
PHFaust: Thank BGF, we have to get you have to talk about those vemonous beardies and iguanas
gingerfish: come back and talk soon
PHLdyPayne: Great to have you here BGF, very interesting answers you gave :) Not to mention you have a fascinating webpage, lots of cool info there