Snakes and Snakebite, an interview with Andrew Durso


The need to understand the global snakebite crisis is increasing and researchers are trying to understand the patterns that emerge from snakebite incidences around the world. Andrew Durso is one such researcher trying to investigate the distribution of snakebite and understand how artificial intelligence can help us in identifying snakes more effectively.

What is your current job?

I recently began a post-doctoral position at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. I’m working at the Institute of Global Health at the human-wildlife-ecosystem interface because understanding venomous snakebite is one of the major goals of this research program.

I am working on a project to gather images of snakes from all over the world. Our goals are to train an artificial intelligence neural network to identify those snakes, compare its performance with that of experts & amateurs, and combine these three elements to create an app that can identify snakes. This will be my focus for the next year and half.

What has your research journey been like and what led you to work in snakebite research?

I am glad you asked that because my research focus before this was very different! I’ve always been interested in snakes since I was a kid. Before I went to college, I volunteered at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences since the age of 10. They had a huge herpetofauna collection there and I had the opportunity to interact with many snake biologists. That set the path for me to pursue scientific research.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Georgia’s Odum School of Ecology, I worked in the lab of John Maerz and did an NSF REU summer research project with Whit Gibbons at the Savannah River Ecology Lab in South Carolina in the USA. My focus was primarily on occupancy modelling and looking at how often you have to go out in the field to detect rare and cryptic species of snakes. It was a quantitative study because that was the long-term focus at the research station. I got to play with 50 years’ worth of data for the site I was based at and it contributed to some of my own work. I am still collaborating with researchers who I met at SREL, such as J.D. Willson. Population and community ecology is pretty much at the center of my whole journey and interest in snakes. Even now, it is still related to the work I do but the focus of my current project is more on human health.

me with racer_LNL

For my masters, I worked on western hognose snakes at Steve Mullin’s lab at Eastern Illinois University in Illinois, with a lot of support from Fred Janzen’s lab at Iowa State University. It was a two-part project. The first part focused on behaviour whereby we videotaped the defensive behaviour of hognose snakes when we caught them in the wild. It was the first time anyone tried to look at defensive behaviour in hognose snakes in the wild.  The second part of the project was to construct a food web using stable isotopes. That was also the beginning work for my PhD in Susannah French’s lab at Utah State University, where I worked with stable isotopes to understand how to build better food webs for reptiles, understand what they are eating, what eats them, how much they compete with one another, and how that changes when there are changes in the environment such drought, urbanisation or other kinds of stress. I worked a little bit on snakes and mostly on lizards, because it’s easier to catch a whole lot of lizards. I also collaborated with the labs of Al Savitzky and Edmund D. “Doc” Brodie Jr. to apply these techniques to the evolution of toxin resistance in snakes during this time. I’m still working on these projects with a number of collaborators from grad school, including Lori Neuman-Lee, Geoff Smith, Gareth Hopkins, Amber Stokes & Shab Mohammadi. During this time, I also started writing a blog about snake ecology, conservation, and research, called Life is Short but Snakes are Long.

I then did a year and half of work as a scientific editor at the Max Plank Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany, before moving to Switzerland to begin this new project in human health.

Why did you change from working on snake population and community ecology to snakebite?

Well, in a way I still am working on snake population and community ecology, just at a much larger scale. Together with my colleagues Rafael Ruiz de Castañeda and Isabelle Bolon and a large team of collaborators, we recently received a large grant to work on snakebite research because in June 2017, after years of sustained efforts by groups such as the Global Snakebite Initiative, Doctors Without Borders, and the Kofi Annan Foundation, the World Health Organisation included snakebite in the list of Neglected Tropical Diseases, with a strong mandate to tackle the venomous snakebite crisis, not just by developing and distributing safe, accessible and effective polyvalent antivenoms, but also by leveraging innovative digital technologies to collect better epidemiological data and support patients & clinicians in making better treatment decisions. Because most doctors lack training & resources in snake identification, we are measuring the speed and accuracy of experts, artificial intelligence, and citizen scientists at identifying snakes, with the intent to create tools that doctors can use to connect to communities that can help them identify snakes in snakebite cases.

I have been interested in collecting citizen science data on snakes for a really long time. During my graduate research, I found that it was a challenge to get good data on observations of snakes in the wild in terms of population ecology. Often if people, even trained herpetologists, go out into the field looking for snakes and don’t find them, it doesn’t mean they are not there. The question I would ask myself is, what kind of data would you need to get a robust idea about the population size of a specific snake.

Many people that work on other wildlife groups such as birds and mammals have used citizen science to collect some very cool data and I want to use the same application for reptiles. That’s when I became part of the advisory board for HerpMapper, the largest citizen science organisation for herpetofauna in the world. One technique they use is identifying specific species from photos and anybody in the world can take a photo and submit it to them (I encourage you do so!). Around the same time, I met my colleagues at the Institute for Global Health through a large Facebook group about Snake Identification that I co-administrate. They were looking for people with expertise in snakes, because they had identified snakebite as a problem and needed people with such expertise to get involved. I contributed to the grant proposal they were writing, we got the money and now here I am working with snakebite.

How do you think this research will make a difference?

This is the first attempt to collect images of every snake species worldwide. From a snake biology perspective this will be very useful and hopefully we get some great high-quality images. It will also be really great to get information on the geographical distribution of snakes, especially compared with new data on the geographic distribution of snakebite, and to identify the geographic and taxonomic areas where we have the least knowledge. Our sister project at the University of Geneva, SnakeByte, is collecting high-resolution epidemiological data at the household level for snakebite incidences in Cameroon and Nepal. The human health goal at the end of all this research is to have an app that a doctor can use to identify a snake that has bitten someone and use the necessary antivenom to treat the snakebite. Of course, we will also learn a lot about snakes in the process.

What can people do in the mean time?

Take lots of high-quality pictures of snakes and submit them to HerpMapper, so that we can use them for our research! People can also participate in our challenges to identify images of snakes, the first one will likely launch this winter. If you want to reduce your chances of getting bitten by a snake, you should 1) learn about which dangerous snakes occur in your area, 2) always wear appropriate shoes, 3) walk with a flashlight when outside at night, 4) don’t try to kill or interact with snakes and 5) be aware of snakes in the area and how best to avoid them. Reducing human deaths from snakebite will include having better infrastructure in developing countries, better availability of antivenom, research into new antivenoms and reduced costs for the antivenom, so we are under no illusion that our snake ID tool will solve the problem by itself!

What is the one thing you would like people to know about snakes?

Fear of snakes is way out of proportion to how dangerous snakes really are! People think that snakes are much more dangerous than they actually are and this stems from misunderstanding them. Snakes do not attack people and most snakebites are accidents. This is particularly true in developed countries where the middle to upper class will rarely encounter snakes. Having the right knowledge and equipment makes a difference and snakes are not as scary as you think they are!

Why do you think the work Save The Snakes does is important?

I really like the work being done on the ground, especially in India (where our project is also collaborating with, and I think that Save the Snakes is an organisation that really has the potential of making a difference especially in terms of education and snake conservation. They go hand in hand. Save The Snakes is doing education in communities that are actually affected by snakes and that is where it matters most. It is also great that there are specific focus regions that are being showcased rather than too many projects all around the world. It would be great to test the field observations, for the new snakebite app, within the communities where Save The Snakes has worked.

How do you think more people can get involved in working with snakes?

I am an administrator for a couple of snake education groups on Facebook and something I have really noticed on there is the change in perceptions after a bit of education, particularly in groups where civil conduct is strictly enforced and people are not shamed for not knowing about snakes. Many people that post pictures of snakes admit to previously killing snakes and now have a much more positive attitude towards snakes. If you have an interest in snakes, join those kinds of groups and you will learn even just by observing.

You can also contribute to citizen science databases! Even one record is helpful! Download apps like HerpMapper or iNaturalist and upload images of reptiles and amphibians you find. Often when all this data is accumulated, we notice patterns in distributions of species that have never been noticed before, especially in areas where scientists are not necessarily working, so it is extremely useful.

What is your opinion on the GPS records on many of the images that might get submitted and its link to reptile poaching?

Many people are sceptical about uploading their images for exactly this reason. HerpMapper guarantees that your location data will never be made public. Users can view images together with data summaries, the date and time, and see a map with the general political region, but the detailed GPS coordinates is only provided to institutional data partners which are thoroughly vetted and use the information for research and conservation purposes. In addition, users have the opportunity to restrict even data partner access to their records, but still to be included in data summaries, which are often the most useful output anyway. You have your own personal profile where you can view all of your records, but no one else can see them.

Honestly, the rare species that are vulnerable to collection are also often the ones we need the least information about, because there is a good chance that a professional biologist is already studying these species. We need information on the more commonly encountered species to prevent them from becoming rare and HerpMapper does a great job of collecting exactly that kind of information.

What is your favourite thing about snakes?

I love how they can move with no legs. They can eat things much bigger than they are and what I really love is how little we know about them, leaving so much room to ask questions and find out about them. We don’t even know what they are doing most of the time. It’s really exciting.

Andrew Durso writes a blog about snake ecology, conservation, and research, called Life is Short but Snakes are Long. Find him on Twitter @am_durso.