Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Gaboon Viper on the Loose in Georgia? **UPDATED**

David,

The Baldwin Co Sheriff's office here in GA released a photo and statement on FB today that a gaboon viper was spotted in town. I tried to tag you, but I seem to not be having the best electronics day. I'm attaching the photo for you as well. I thought your readers might be interested as well. According to the PSA, DNR identified the snake via photo.

I'm curious as to what your thoughts on all the usual- how, why, what do I need to know, etc.

Thanks!

Amy R.

Georgia

      By now you may have heard that various news outlets are reporting that a Gaboon Viper was spotted crossing the road a couple days ago in Milledgeville, Georgia. Gaboon Vipers are a large venomous snake and Georgia is far, far away from sub-Saharan Africa where the species is normally found.


Photo: Tim Vickers, Wikimedia Images
    The snake in this picture is indeed a Gaboon Viper. Its unique patterning and coloration look quite odd on the road, but it has exceptional camouflage in its native habitat (check out the photo on the right to see what I mean). The snake in the picture from Georgia does not look like any of the commercially-available Gaboon Viper models or toys that I can find. Further, I have not seen that picture before and can't find it elsewhere online. So, I have no evidence that this is a hoax. 

    There have been Gaboon Viper scares on the East Coast before. Just last year a shed skin was found in South Carolina but an intensive search never revealed an actual Gaboon Viper. The jury is out as to whether this was a hoax. But five years ago a (dead) Gaboon Viper was found on a trail in Maine and you can't argue with an actual snake.

    How do Gaboon Vipers get to the United States? Well, there are some in zoos, of course, but when exotic snakes show up on the loose and nobody has any good answers why, it is almost surely an escaped or released pet (this truth is likely to upset some people). It is illegal to own non-native venomous snakes in many states without a permit, including Georgia, but these laws are occasionally broken.

    I have reached out to various people involved with the investigation of this report and will provide any updates here. I hope this post will serve as a comprehensive and non-sensational source of information on the Milledgeville, Georgia Gaboon Viper.

Update: 0950 CT

I reached out to Jason Clark of Southeastern Reptile Rescue and he responded:

     We've received a lot of questions about the Gaboon Viper reported to have been seen in Milledgeville, GA. Today, Wednesday July 22nd, we were contacted by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources in reference to this snake. We were the first to identify it as a Gaboon Viper. Since we are licensed for Gaboons and have experience with them and the fact that we've worked in cooperation with the state for many years, we were asked to assist. Before everyone jumps to conclusions, as is often the case with everything else reported in the media these days, let's wait until the facts all come out. Not every detail has been made public. Sure, this is an extremely dangerous animal. If it is true, I understand why people would be afraid. Fortunately, these highly venomous snakes with their extremely fast and accurate strike are not aggressive, high strung creatures. As with any other venomous snake in Georgia, watching where you put your hands and feet and never trying to kill or catch the snake are the simple rules that will keep everyone safe. We have been asked by the state to be on standby as we have done many times before and will gladly help in any way that will help remedy this situation....if there is one.

Update: 0956 CT

I'm receiving a lot of questions about this Gaboon Viper on Twitter.

    This is extremely unlikely (I want to tell you it's impossible but scientists have a hard time using that word). Gaboon Vipers are in the Bitis genus and no snakes native to North America are in that genus. So, even in the unlikely scenario that a Gaboon Viper finds a native snake and finds it attractive (or vice versa), they are not closely related so it would be really difficult biologically for all their bits to match up and result in babies.

Update: 1058 CT


    I contacted the folks at Zoo Atlanta to find out more about this and Dr. Joseph R. Mendelson, Director of Research, responded:

    "Zoo Atlanta, and many other AZA zoos (but not all), have stocks of antivenom for Gaboon Vipers..."

    Curator of Herpetology and veterinarian Brad Lock added:

    "We use and stock a polyvalent out of South Africa for Gaboon Vipers."

   So, that's good news. But, in any case, please don't get bitten by a Gaboon Viper.

Update 1210 CT

    This question came in from the Living Alongside Wildlife Facebook portal (have you liked it yet?):



    There is virtually no possible way that the snake observed in Milledgeville, Georgia two days ago is the same Gaboon Viper from South Carolina that people were worried about last year (if it ever truly existed in the first place). The Gaboon Viper would have had to accomplish two extraordinary things 1) travel a long distance in secret and 2) survive the winter of 2014/2015.

     Based on Google Earth, Milledgeville Georgia is about 200 straight-line miles from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Assuming the Mount Pleasant snake left South Carolina on April 5, 2014 and arrived in Milledgeville, Georgia on July 20th, 2015, it would have had 471 days to make the voyage. If the snake traveled in a straight line it would have to crawl at least roughly 0.4 miles a day to make that happen. Gaboon Vipers just don't usually move that much. In fact, a radio-telemetry study of six Gaboon Vipers in southern Africa (Linn et al. 2006. African Zoology) showed that the snakes never even moved at all on 75-95% of the days they were monitored! These snakes are big fat ambush predators and they probably just sit around a lot waiting for prey to come by.

   That said, the Gaboon Vipers did sometimes go crawling around, but daily movements over about 0.3 miles were rare. So, it's a stretch to think a Gaboon Viper would travel further than that every day for 471 days in a row (and when would it have stopped to ambush prey?). If it made the trip in less time, its daily movements would have had to be even longer.

   Regardless of the travel, Gaboon Vipers are from sub-Saharan Africa and are not physiologically equipped to deal with our winters. We do not know for a fact that it could not survive, but I do not think it's possible. Maybe it could have survived if it hid in someone's heated basement, but then it would not have had time to travel to Georgia. Verdict: not the same snake.

Update July 24 1652 CT

    In addition to the first article that caught my attention (Venomous snake possibly sighted in Milledgeville), a few more articles have been published about this Gaboon Viper sighting, although none provide much in the way of new information.

Highly poisonous snake spotted in Milledgeville, Georgia. A rehash of previously published information with a Gaboon Viper description pasted from elsewhere. Notice how this headline does not indicate any doubt about whether there actually was a Gaboon Viper sighted and calls it poisonous (actually, it would be venomous).

Legally owning snakes in Georgia. An interview with folks at a pet store. Provides contradictory information about what it takes to legally own venomous snakes in Georgia.

Update July 25 1133 CT




    I agree that it is unlikely that the one exotic snake out there would just so happen to be spotted. In fact, in the great majority of cases, when an exotic animal is released or escapes into the wild, the animal ends up dying a lonely death in the woods without anyone ever knowing about it. 

    That said, I do not think this is evidence of a reproducing population of Gaboon Vipers. A lot of snakes would have had to have been released in the same area at the same time (remember, Gaboon Vipers don't move around much to find mates) and they would have had to survive the winter. I do not think this sub-Saharan animal would be able to make it in central Georgia (which actually can get quite cold). As you can see here, average low temperatures hover around freezing in January and February for Milledgeville, Georgia.

Update 1533 CT

    Doubtful News is now covering the case: Evidence of deadly viper loose in Georgia.

  Update July 27 0952 CT

    News of the Gaboon Viper has now gone national. USA Today pretty much repeats a lot of the information we already know and they also report that A) Gaboon Vipers are from South Africa (true, but they are actually from sub-Saharan Africa and that includes portions of South Africa) B) Gaboon Vipers bite and do not let go (I've never heard of that before) and C) people have 15 minutes to get medical attention after a bite (How would somebody know this? What is this "fact" based on what and under what conditions is it true? And, what happens after 15 minutes?). Gaboon Vipers do have a dangerous bite but facts like these are usually bogus. You should get medical attention as soon as possible after any bite from a venomous snake.

Update 1058 CT

    John Jensen, herpetologist and senior biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), has responded to my request for comment on the reported Gaboon Viper in Milledgeville, Georgia:

"Snake does not look to be in a position (tail curled back toward head) where it is crawling across a road, as reported.  Looks to have been set down, or is dead, in my opinion. I can’t positively rule out it is a live, escaped (or released) previously-captive Gaboon Viper, but I think it is highly suspect."

    A few of you have mentioned in the Comments that you are skeptical that this is a real, live snake and it looks like at least one Georgia DNR biologist agrees with you.

Update July 28 0856 CT

    Some more news about the snake has come out, this article from the Thomasville Times-Enterprise indicates a growing skepticism about the Gaboon Viper.

   This news story reveals that that the Georgia DNR is conducting two-three patrols a day looking for the snake (I'm not sure what exactly a patrol entails).

    Someone has reported to me that some people are circulating this story saying it takes place in Baldwin County, Alabama. It does not, the Gaboon Viper was allegedly spotted in Milledgeville, Baldwin County, Georgia.

Update July 29 1145 CT

   NBC affiliate WYFF now has a news story with a lot of the same information we already know. They report that the search is still ongoing.

Update August 3 1856 CT

    More news, from WSB-TV2 in Atlanta, no new information.

Update August 4 1332 CT

   The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is getting in on the action. So is Mundo Hispanico.

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