Ladies, gentlemen, and all snakeaholics, welcome to the Snakeman’s Lair! I conceived this space as a way to offer you a diverse array of insights and perspectives on conservation and wildlife biology by interviewing young conservationists/researchers from across the world- there are so many stories to tell out there, and so many people who deserve to be heard. In my plans, a new interview will be up on a weekly basis- I already have a few lined up and more to come in the long term. Without further ado, let’s introduce our very first guest: herpetologist Jory van Thiel!
When I first met Jory about two years ago, I immediately realized the guy knew his stuff. In fact, he was among the speakers at the first International King Cobra Symposium held in the Netherlands in 2017- at just 22 years of age. By then, he had already taken part in amazing research projects on venomous snakes in his native Netherlands and in Thailand, working with Dr. Colin Strine at the prestigious Sakaereat Environmental Research Station. Since then, Jory has added yet more remarkable achievements to his account, such as giving talks about his research on snake venomics at the Venomous Snakes as Flagship Species symposium in 2019. Remember this name people- we will most definitely hear about him in the future. For now, I will leave the floor to him directly!
Welcome to the Lair Jory, it’s a pleasure to have you here! So, first of all, how did you become so passionate about herpetology?
Good question, not really sure. I’ve always liked animals in general for as long as I can remember but venomous creatures always had something special to me. Eventually got more and more interested in venomous species – mostly snakes. When I was young, both Steve Irwin and Austin Stevens were great inspirations for sure. Then I started reading, keeping snakes, doing reptile-related internships, and such and so. Long story short, I just fell in love with them at some point in my life.
What were your first steps in the field?
One of my first dreams was doing research on Vipera berus, the European adder. When I found out they occurred at Meinweg National Park, a national park relatively close to my home, I went there to arrange an internship. There were many other projects I would have liked to join, but this was special to me because V. berus is the only Dutch venomous snake. I reached out to Ton Lenders, a renowned Dutch adder expert, and had the privilege to join his herpetological studies.
What did your work at Sakaerat Environmental Research Station consist of?
I was a research assistant at the Sakearat Conservation and Snake Education Team where I joined the King Cobra Telemetry Project. So, I spent most of my time radio-tracking snakes. I was also involved in education and outreach programs and did quite some snake rescues whereby we got called by local villagers to remove snakes such as pythons, king cobras and cobras from their residences. A lot is still unknown about the natural history and spatial ecology of king cobras, so we implanted transmitters and followed them throughout the whole day to document their activity and behavior. We monitored them four times a day and recorded what they were doing at any given time. Whenever they moved, we followed them. When I stared, I had the honor to become the youngest king cobra tracker to date (19 years old at the time). Back to the cobras themselves, they move a lot – one individual traveled 1.5 km in just 10 minutes – so tracking them all day can be very intense.
What makes king cobras so special for you?
This might be a cliché, but they are completely different compared to any other species of snakes. They seem to be smarter compared to other snakes. You can see it from their behavior, the way they look at you, so different from any other species. They travel great distances, females build nests for their eggs, display monogamic behavior, eat all kinds of other snakes and even monitor lizards – they can adapt to so many different situations. Overall, I think the most special thing about them is the contrast in their gentle temperament. The king cobra is the longest venomous snake in the world, so people usually expect them to be terrifying and aggressive – but they are not at all. Of course, when messing with a king cobra they can be very fast, dangerous and potentially life threating but normally without messing with them their behavior is actually very gentle and friendly. This contrast is what I like the most about them – gentle giants.
How often did you come across conflict between snakes and local people in your area of research?
I remember one day we got called in the late evening for a snake rescue. When we arrived at a remote house in rural Thailand we found a male king cobra, which had been literally impaled through his whole body with some sort of harpoon – the snake was still alive though. We caught the snake, tried to take care of it as best as possible and relocated it close to the place where it was found. These animals are so tough – it’s incredible! On the other hand, many people around Sakaerat are terribly afraid of snakes – they regularly kill any they encounter on sight. Either just to persecute the snake or to eat them for food. Also, many snakes die because they got run over by cars. Roadkills are a major threat to wildlife in general. Human-snake conflicts will likely get worse as humans and snakes come in contact ever more often – snake habitat in general is decreasing and snakes are attracted towards inhabited areas because the abundance of food. Raising awareness and education on-site is key to mitigate human-snake conflict.
Your current project is all about snake venom – what can you tell us about it?
Obviously I can’t go deep as of yet, but I am running two projects at the moment, one about the cytotoxicity of snake venoms and the other concerning venom evolution in spitting cobras – both at Leiden University under the supervision of Prof. Michael K. Richardson. We are collaborating with multiple institutions abroad as well, so it’s nice to get some attention on our work!
Is there a particular animal or topic you dream of working with/on in the future?
Oh, I have so many ideas in mind! What I would mention is the project on viper venom I am starting next year and another one on scorpions – both in terms of venomics, of course. My dream species were the king cobra and the Komodo dragon – and I’ve already worked with or seen both in the wild. My long-term goal is to pursue interdisciplinary projects in the future, so to combine knowledge from multiple fields of area to answer and solve complex scientific questions with hopefully animal venoms involved.
Thank you so much for joining us Jory, all the best for your future and the projects you are working on! The Snakeman’s Lair will be back next week with another special guest- stay tuned!