A field expedition to a remote region of Myanmar in Southeast Asia ended in tragedy earlier this month, when a prominent snake expert succumbed to a poisonous snakebite. Joseph Slowinski, 38, is believed to be the first academic herpetologist killed by a snakebite in the field, though at least two others have died of bites from laboratory animals.
Slowinski was bitten when, in an effort to identify a snake that had already attacked another expedition member, he reached into a bag that contained a deadly multibanded krait (Bungarus multicinctus), according to Amy Cramer of the California Academy of Sciences (CAS) in San Francisco. Slowinski died 30 hours later on 12 September at the team's field site deep in northeast Myanmar. Rescue helicopters were stymied by monsoon rains and could not arrive in time.
Slowinski specialized in the evolutionary relationships of neurotoxic snakes, making more than 10 forays into Myanmar to study them. He joined the academy as a curator in 1997. Recently he received a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to extend the work into China. "He discovered many, many new species," says Robert Drewes, curator of the herpetology department at CAS. "He was a remarkably productive guy." Among his accomplishments were the discovery of a new species of cobra and the founding of Contemporary Herpetology, an online journal.
The herpetology community mourned Slowinski's death last week, as the field team returned from the Burmese jungle. "I think everybody's just shocked," says Cornell herpetologist Harry Greene. To honor Slowinski, colleagues at the Center for North American Herpetology in Lawrence, Kansas, have established an award in his name for excellence in the classification of venomous snakes.