'Biology of the Pitvipers 4' conference to host leaders in the research of these reptiles - Albuquerque Journal

‘Biology of the Pitvipers 4’ conference to host leaders in the research of these reptiles

Chiricahua Desert Museum and Geronimo Event Center will host the “Biology of the Pitvipers 4” conference July 13-16. (Courtesy of Jason Watkins)

Pitvipers, venomous snakes known locally as diamondback rattlesnakes among others species, are found across the United States, not to mention most parts of the world.

Their bite can be lethal, especially to children and smaller animals, said Gordon W. Schuett, who is on the adjunct faculty with Georgia State University and the science director at the Chiricahua Desert Museum in Rodeo, deep in the New Mexico bootheel, south of Lordsburg.

As such, he has organized the “Biology of the Pitvipers 4” conference coming up July 13-16 at the museum’s Geronimo Event Center.

A snake being recorded at the Chiricahua Desert Museum. The museum will host a conference on pitvipers July 13-16. (Courtesy of Jason Watkins)

“We average about 250-300 people from all over the world,” Schuett said of the attendees. “We have the top scientists, the No. 1 people in the world will be here.”

Now held every three years in Rodeo, the conference is important tool for disseminating information and research on vipers from across the world, he said.

“They are medically important because of snake bites and a lot of different reasons,” Schuett said. “So it’s a hugely popular conference.”

The desert and surrounding mountains near Rodeo have a wealth of viper species, he said, making the seemingly remote site perfect for such a conference.

“The venom is medically important because so much of their venom is used in medical research and actual applications after the issuance of a snake bite,” Schuett said. “It’s a big problem in southeast Asia. It is a now multi-billion dollar problem.”

And the applications for venom remains a burgeoning field. For instance, it can help produce antitoxins for diphtheria and tetanus when an animal, such as a horse or goat, is injected with a small amount of venom, causing the animal’s immune system to release antibodies used to counteract the damaging venom, which is later harvested.

“A tremendous amount of research is being applied to antivenom and understanding how to make more antivenom and even vaccinations,” Schuett said. “The venom is amazing with so many proteins and peptides and that it gathers lots of attention.”

The conference will include Anita Malhotra, a England-based expert on Asian pitvipers, who is dedicated to improving the snakebite situation in India, her home country. A molecular geneticist, evolutionary biologist and herpetologist, she has worked all over Asia discussing and researching the evolutionary relationship, species boundaries and distributions of pitvipers.

Juan J. Calvete, a Spanish researcher whose lab has concentrated on structural and functional proteomics of snake venoms, also is scheduled to speak on the proteomic tools – venomics and antivenomics – the lab has developed for exploring the evolution, composition, and biotechnological applications of venoms and toxins.

And Joseph R. Mendelson III, the research director of Zoo Atlanta in Georgia and one of the nation’s foremost experts in his field, will discuss his role as one of the first responders to the crisis of global amphibian decline. He is responsible for the naming of more than 40 new amphibian and reptile species, and is past president of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, the world’s largest academic herpetological society.

Other invited guests include William S. Brown, who has been conducting a study of the timber rattlesnake for 43 years.

“We divide the conference up so it’s not just about venom,” Schuett said. “It becomes very sophisticated. They’ll be pure research presented. A lot of college undergrads and graduate students will present posters, medical papers. MDs come to the conference. EMTs come to get up-to-date news on snake bites and venom and biology of animals. It’s a great source of information. A goodly number of lay people who are just interested.”

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